Inside The Beltway
Nothing New—or Not II? Sex Scandals and Nevada Politics
by Michael Green
The House Ethics Committee has named a subcommittee to investigate the allegations made by several women against Representative Ruben Kihuen, the first-term Nevada Democrat who has denied their charges and announced he won’t run for reelection. When the ethics committee gets involved, it’s never fun for anyone, including the members of that committee.
Indeed, one Nevadan played a role in dealing with someone else’s sex scandal. Remember Bob Packwood, the senator from Oregon who was accused of harassing several women? The ethics committee’s ranking Democrat at the time was none other than Nevada’s own Richard Bryan. He doesn’t recall the experience as one of his more pleasant times in the Senate, but in the end, he was one of t ahe key figures in forcing out Packwood.
But there have been other sex scandals and other Nevadans. Recently, we examined Nevada’s nineteenth-century sex scandals. It seems logical to move into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to see what has changed and what has not. It would appear that the songwriter Guy Clark was right: the human condition continues as such.
One sex scandal may have affected the political career of someone who had nothing to do with the scandal. That someone, Pat McCarran, was a young attorney starting out in the central Nevada mining boom of the 1900s, making his way in Tonopah and Goldfield. McCarran already had served a term in the assembly from Washoe County, and he had big hopes for his political future.
Another man in the area, also born in 1876 and therefore early in his career, already had accomplished far more. George Wingfield had teamed with George Nixon, elected to the U.S. Senate from Nevada in 1905, to take over most of the Tonopah-Goldfield area. They owned numerous important mines, land, and a bank. Their Goldfield Consolidated Mining Company became the first Nevada firm on the New York Stock Exchange.
But Wingfield had a past. He had been a cowboy and a professional gambler, and he had sowed more than his share of wild oats. He was married, and his wife wanted a divorce. He preferred an annulment, which would reduce her access to his fortune. She needed a lawyer.
Enter McCarran. As Jerome Edwards, his biographer, put it, “If McCarran conducted this case in his usual forceful fashion, it may well have been the basis for future opposition on Wingfield’s part.” Let’s just say that if the trial had been held today, every television network would have wanted to cover it. It included May Wingfield’s claim of George’s extreme cruelty, including “forcing her to having marital relations with him when he had syphilis.”
Well. Wingfield won the case, but put yourself in his position. You’re trying to become known as a respectable man of wealth and standing, and a lawyer goes to town on your sexually transmitted disease. How will you feel about the lawyer?
McCarran often was his own worst enemy, and he did a great deal to derail his own ambitions by not playing well with others in the sandbox. Whether Wingfield really had to do anything to stop him may be debated. But it’s a fact: McCarran wanted to be elected to the U.S. Senate, and it didn’t happen until Wingfield had gone bankrupt in 1932. It would appear that Wingfield’s previously private sex scandal had at least a slight effect on Nevada political developments.
Whatever sexual peccadilloes affected Nevada’s congressional delegation in years to come, they managed to keep them under wraps. Some of the rumors were interesting, and some of their marriages suffered at times. But no full-blown sex scandal affected the congressional delegation again until early in the twenty-first century. And then there were two, one with a truly significant impact on Nevada’s affairs in Washington.
In 2006, six-term GOP congressman Jim Gibbons decided to give up his seat to come home and run for governor. What was expected to be a close Democratic primary proved less close than expected; longtime state senator Dina Titus won it. She had an uphill climb, being perceived as too liberal by some Democrats and too much of a southern Nevada for some northern Nevadans, including ones normally inclined to vote Democratic. But she felt she was gaining some traction against Gibbons over some issues political and personal, including his hiring of an undocumented immigrant as a nanny.
Then Gibbons went a restaurant in Las Vegas with political adviser Sig Rogich. They wound up at a table with a couple of women. Gibbons walked with one of them, Chrissy Mazzeo, to her car. Then the world went mad. Mazzeo claimed that Gibbons tried to assault her sexually. Gibbons claimed that she had been drunk and he was trying to help her to her car. The security cameras in the parking garage didn’t work. It was ugly.
Gibbons still won, 48-44 percent. Titus and those who worked on her campaign have said—and it makes sense—that the controversy over Gibbons and Mazzeo hurt Titus more than helped her. It diverted attention from the issues to the question of whether Gibbons had attacked a woman or been set up to look like he had. And it set a trend for a governorship that included a lot of tabloid-style news that Gibbons generated.
While Gibbons was winning the governorship, John Ensign was winning his second term in the Senate. The Republican seemed like a golden boy. He had won two terms in the House in the 1990s before barely losing a Senate race to Harry Reid in 1998. When Richard Bryan announced his retirement at the end of his second term in the Senate, Ensign ran for his old seat and won it. Despite their earlier political battle—maybe even in part because of it—Ensign and Reid got along well. Ensign was moving up in the Republican leadership. He even visited Iowa, which is a wonderful state, but senators from other states don’t generally go there unless they have something bigger in mind.
Then the story came out. Early in his second term, Ensign had an affair with a woman named Cynthia Hampton, who had worked for his campaign. Her husband, Doug, was his chief of staff. They were living with the Ensigns at the time.
The real problems began when the affair ended and the Hamptons lost their jobs with Ensign. The senator tried to help Doug Hampton get work, but that was during the so-called “cooling-off” period where federal employees are not supposed to lobby the government—an effort to avoid the “revolving door” between the public and private sector. Reportedly, Ensign pressured various companies to hire Hampton.
Also, at about the time the affair ended, the Hamptons received $96,000 from Ensign’s parents. Ensign’s lawyer said, “The payments were made as gifts, accepted as gifts, and complied with tax rules governing gifts.” Doug Hampton contended the money was actually severance pay. He later said that one of Ensign’s closest friends in the Senate, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, tried to negotiate an agreement for Ensign to give them even more financial help and move to Colorado.
By March 2011, Ensign had announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2012. But when the Senate Ethics Committee was about to issue its report, Ensign resigned as of May 3, 2011. The Ethics Committee then referred the case to the Justice Department, suggesting “substantial and credible” evidence of wrongdoing, but the Justice Department ultimately decided not to prosecute Ensign. The story was over for Ensign, as was his political career.
If you want to know how something like this can have an effect, look at the congressional delegation. Governor Brian Sandoval appointed Dean Heller to succeed Ensign. Had there been no scandal, it’s a safe bet that Ensign would have won reelection in 2012 and now would be ramping up for 2018. If so, Dean Heller would be unlikely to be running for the U.S. Senate this year.
Had Ensign been running in 2012, Shelley Berkley almost certainly wouldn’t have given up her House seat to challenge him, and she might still be in that office—just as Heller might still be in the House. Or either might have gone for the Senate in 2016 upon Harry Reid’s decision to retire. To continue with the idea, if Berkley had stayed in the House, Dina Titus wouldn’t be in that seat, and who knows who would be in office. And as a wise man once said, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas (and we hope you did).
It also means that Ruben Kihuen might not have become a congressman, and might not now be the subject of the House Ethics Committee’s interest. In the immortal words of John J. McCoy, the prosecutor on Law & Order (and known for having some issues in his own right), life is a funny old dog.