Both candidates battling it out to be Clark County Commissioner for District A, including the incumbent, are similar in at least one way: Neither has been elected to the office before.
On the Democratic side, there is incumbent Michael Naft, 33, who was appointed by Gov. Steve Sisolak two years ago to fill Sisolak’s remaining term on the powerful county board. And on the Republican side, there is Michael Thomas, 59, a retired law enforcement officer who tried but failed to unseat Sisolak on the commission in 2016.
Naft beat fellow Democrat Ken O’Sullivan in the June primary election, garnering more than 74 percent of the vote. Thomas did not face a Republican challenger.
Now as they run in the November general election, seeking over the next four years to represent a district largely unincorporated with territory stretching to southern rural towns, Naft prepares to be judged on his record while Thomas hopes to join a commission which, he says, is doing only an “OK job” confronting the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal funding pays dividends
Naft sees it differently, although he acknowledges “every minute we’re striving to do better on the health response” and simultaneously trying to look out for small business owners who find their livelihoods in peril.
“We’re basically bridging the distance between this economic catastrophe we’re facing right now,” he said in a recent interview.
The county’s responsibility is wide and varied: Providing social services, responding to public health needs, governing the largest public hospital in the state and enforcing statewide regulations to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Naft said it has been “really important” to wisely use tens of millions of dollars in federal relief funding on testing, economic recovery programs, rental assistance for businesses and people, and reapportion $57 million to cities including Henderson, which is partly in his district. Federal relief dollars also helped to replace the only grocery store in Laughlin that closed in March.
‘Skeptical, but I’m compliant’
In a recent interview, Thomas laid out one disagreement with the county’s approach to the crisis: He does not believe employees should be conducting compliance checks on businesses to ensure they are following statewide public health regulations.
“I’m skeptical, but I’m compliant, and I think that’s where I’m coming from on that,” he said about the intense response to the coronavirus that has led to face mask and social distancing mandates. “But, again, I don’t think it’s the role of local bureaucrats to go see who’s complying and who’s not. If there’s a complaint, that’s fine. Then you go there and you see what’s going on and you take corrective action.”
He criticized Naft for unveiling oversized face masks on sculptures on Eastern Avenue near Interstate 215, as a reminder to wear one, saying the gesture only further polarized the response to the pandemic.
And he said Naft had become too enamored with major projects, including Allegiant Stadium and the high-speed train to California. While Thomas questioned their public benefit, Naft pushed back: The train project is one of very few initiatives that will not cost taxpayers a dime and will create 10,000 jobs in Nevada at a time when thousands of jobs spurred by stadium construction have ended, he said.
“We’re pretty clear-eyed about what’s coming up the road, and anything we can do now to offset the costs, and any projects we can be looking for,” Naft said, speaking of the effect the pandemic is having on the economy.
Naft enters his first election with a significant fundraising lead, pledging to continue efforts to robustly address an “unacceptable” number of deaths in vehicle crashes throughout the valley. Thomas, who is trying to become the first Republican elected to the commission since 2004, has raised questions about whether Naft was ever eligible to hold the office to start.
Thomas filed a complaint with the Secretary of State’s office, claiming that Naft did not live in the district for at least 30 days, as required, when appointed to the seat on Jan. 8, 2019.
Naft’s marriage license from May 6, 2018, shows his address outside the district, according to a copy provided by Thomas, and property records reveal that his current address inside the district was not recorded until Dec. 21, 2018, or 18 days before his appointment. Naft said that there is a simple, albeit difficult, explanation.
The house Naft lived in with his wife was burglarized in May 2018, he said. The couple immediately moved in to his parents’ home in District A, and put their original house up for sale. They eventually purchased a house of their own in the district.
Police budget reviews?
If elected, Thomas is planning to push property tax reform, “cut through the red tape” to get businesses reopened, return more tax revenue collected from outlying areas such as Laughlin and Searchlight to those towns, and stand against any attempts to cut police spending.
Calls to defund police or enact law enforcement reforms have reverberated across the country in the wake of protests condemning police brutality and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody. Clark County presently funds 64 percent of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s total budget.
But Thomas, who started his career with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department before moving to Las Vegas in 1993 and later retiring from the Clark County School District Police Department, is clear: “I don’t think law enforcement is a problem.”
Instead he agreed with spending more money to address mental health and homelessness, and acknowledged that every large organization had its bad actors. He said safeguards against abuse were already in place and cautioned against making judgments on split-second decisions, particularly for anyone who has not performed the job before.
But Naft said a review of certain spending is in order. He believed “the voices that we’ve heard have a right to be heard” during widespread protests including in Las Vegas and that bolstering mental health in the community was important to ease the burden on police “under a tremendous amount of stress.”
“I think it’s important to look at what line items are under Metro right now that really should be handled by either a mental health professional or otherwise,” he said. “The detention center should not be the state’s largest mental health hospital.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported where Naft moved after his home was burglarized, and when he sold that home.