Quoth the powerbroker:
"....uhhhhh yeahhh, .. Okay, great... Uh..
Huh.. What can I ... go ahead on.."
copyright (c) 1996, Electric Nevada
|It was the very end of August and the week before the school bond vote in Washoe County. If you were at Electric Nevada, you were putting together a story on the topic.|
whole task, you think, looks more or less routine. You've
talked to the local registrar's office about the
contribution and expenditure reports filed by the groups
for and against the $196 million bond issue, and now
you're following up by phoning the groups themselves.
Dave Bianchi, treasurer for the pro-bond group, CCSOS (Citizens Committee to Save Our Schools), had signed that group's form, and so, to get a quote or two, you think you'll call him.
But when you call the telephone number listed on the form, you don't get Dave Bianchi.
Instead, it is a woman's voice answering the phone. "McMullen Strategic Group," she says.
McMullen Strategic Group?
The media and political consulting firm of bigtime power-broker, lawyer and casino-industry lobbyist Samuel P. McMullen?
McMullen, a longtime operative for Democratic Party causes, is coordinating the pro-school-bond operation?
There'd been nothing about that in the coverage by local establishment media of the school bond campaign. That the group opposing the bond, the Incline-Village-based CARES (Citizens Associated for Responsible Education in our Schools) had hired a consultant, has been mentioned. But nothing about who was strategizing on the other side.
You identify yourself, giving your spiel about how Electric Nevada is an Internet newspaper covering news of Nevada and eastern California, and that you are doing a story on the upcoming Washoe County bond vote, and therefore would like to talk to Mr. McMullen.
He picks up the receiver.
"Is this Steve Mulvenon?" he says. Mulvenon is publicity chief for the Washoe County School District. It later emerges that McMullen has been working with Mulvenon, point man for the district drive to sell the bond issue, since as far back as February.
"No. Steve Miller," you say. Maybe you give the spiel again. Later, you're not sure.
"Hold on," says McMullen, going off-line again.
A couple of minutes later he is back. "Okay," he says.
You begin with what you think is a simple question -- how long has he been working on this campaign for the school-bond.
But McMullen, it turns out, is coming from a very different mindset.
"Who are you?" he demands, bluntly.
You thought all that had been explained. Hadn't the receptionist relayed the information? Hadn't you?
So, once again, you identify yourself, and give the spiel about what Electric Nevada is. And you wait.
And so you explain some more -- about how you got the phone number from the Washoe County Registrar form, called, and discovered that the McMullen Strategic Group has a central role in the pro-bond campaign. That last is a subtle test, to see if he will deny it.
He doesn't. There is just more silence, and you get a strong feeling McMullen is simply confounded to find that his role in the campaign has been unveiled.
At last he begins to speak, and since you're taking verbatim notes, you get it all down.
"....uhhhhh yeahhh," he says. "Okay, great... Uh, huh... What can I ... go ahead, keep going."
Interesting, you think.
"So, first of all I wanted to ask," you say, "how long have you been on this?"
But McMullen is still suspicious.
"What's your interest in this?" he asks.
"I'm doing a story on it," you say, "and it seems like there's..."
"On internet news?" he interjects.
"Yes. It seems like there's some major players operating here."
"Eeyeah..." he says.
You wonder if he's stalling for time. You've never interviewed anybody quite like this. Maybe this is how high-priced powerbrokers operate in situations like this.
"And so I was wondering when you'd been retained," you press on. And you ask if, perhaps, the pro-bond group retained his firm after some bad press over incorrect filings with the county? At that point you don't yet know that McMullen himself had made the filings.
"Internet news?" asks McMullen.
"Yeah. It's an Internet newspaper."
"Where.. what's it called?"
"Electric Nevada. It's been up about six months."
"Electric Nevada... Well... So what's your angle?"
Wow, you think, this guy is wary.
Eventually McMullen condescends to more or less answer some questions. He is not being paid, he tells you, but simply contributing his time and energy to help in what he sees as a good cause. But most of the questions you ask get strangely opaque, apparently evasive, responses.
When you first ask who beside Bianchi are officers of the pro-bond advocacy group, McMullen goes to talking about how two groups were merged together, but that there are no officers.
And so you then turn to the membership of the merged group.
Your question is direct and explicit: "Do you have a membership list?"
But the answer is peculiarly fog-like, almost as though the man has some kind of mental disability:
"No. No. Just basically a nametag we thought that we were going to use for that committee that had already been .. that was being constituted.."
You press on: "So the question is, who is the 'we?' I mean, It's you..."
"Dave Bianchi, myself, uhhhhm... functionally, that's the only person I really ended up talking to.." says McMullen.
That's preposterous, you think. He's already contradicted that (later he'll contradict it again). Either McMullen is not being candid or he has a very impaired memory. But you've got a story to do for your next edition so you move on.
Later, you mention the interview with Sam McMullen to a friend -- a source who's watched him operate at the State Legislature as lobbyist for the casino industry.
"The glass alone, in his Caughlin Ranch house, costs more than most houses," remarks the source. "He's got a huge mansion up there."
It's a testimonial, no doubt, to opportunity in modern-day America that even someone afflicted with a mental disability (when he talks to reporters) can achieve great financial success. Here's an alphabetical listing of the organizations McMullen represented at the 1995 session of the Nevada state legislature:
Barrick Gold Strike, Kraft, Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, Nature Conservancy, Northern Gaming Industry Association, Nevada Broadcasters Association, Nevada Humane Society, Nevada Self-Insurers Association, State Board of Nursing, Philip Morris U.S.A., Regional Medical Services Authority, Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority, Sierra Pacific Power Company [for water issues], Sprint, and the Washoe Regional Water Planning Coalition.
For decades McMullen has prospered from
identifying the political and legal wants of powerful
economic interests and then helping them get what they
want. Some twenty years ago he was an attorney for the
Nevada Gaming Control Board. Then, like many GCB alumni,
he took the expertise he'd developed on the public
payroll as a regulator over to the other side, as a hired
representative of the casino industry.
involved. The NSEA -- and its Washoe
County face, the Washoe County Teachers Association
(WCTA) -- is part of the NEA (National Education
Association), which is the largest, most powerful labor
union in the country.
Samuel P. McMullen is deeply involved in
another contest for control of Nevada public education.
That's the candidacy of his wife for a seat on the
University of Nevada Board of Regents.
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