By Vernon Robison
Moapa Valley Progress
Over the past year, the political redistricting process in Nevada has brought a slight shift to Clark County Commission District B. While the district is still a majority Democratic district, the inclusion of all of the rural northeast in the district has narrowed that political gap. This has brought hope to a viable Republican candidate. Ruth Johnson has placed her name on the 2012 ballot to face off against Commissioner Tom Collins in November.
Unlike past Collins opponents, Johnson brings extensive experience in holding elected office and a strong base of support with her into the race. She served on the Clark County School District (CCSD) Board of Trustees for three terms from 1996 to 2008.
Johnson did file to run for the office for a fourth term in the 2008 elections. But after her filing, her candidacy, along with that of several other candidates, was called into question under the state’s term limit laws. The matter was taken to the State Supreme Court. The court finally decided that Johnson, and the others, were ineligible to run. So she had to withdraw from the race.
But by then it was too late to take her name off the ballot for the primary election. Without raising any money or posting any signs; and even with large notices at all the polling places announcing to voters that she was no longer eligible to run for the office; Johnson still won the primary election.
In a recent interview with the Progress, Ruth Johnson began by talking about her background and experience. She grew up in a small town in Arkansas.
“We had one four-way stop in our town,” Johnson said. “But I think that is only because it was the county seat.”
Johnson met her husband, Paul Johnson, while she was at college. Shortly after they were married, he took a job in the District Attorney’s office in Las Vegas. The newly married couple moved to southern Nevada and has lived in Las Vegas for the past 25 years, 20 of those years residing in Commission District B.
The Johnsons raised their four daughters in Las Vegas and sent them all to CCSD schools. The youngest daughter will be graduating from Legacy High School next month, Johnson said.
Johnson became involved in the school PTA when her children first started school. She was immediately drawn into the discussion of new school construction at that time.
“Back then our school was running year round and double session to accomodate all of the growth and the kids,” Johnson said. “And our trustee didn’t even know where the school was.”
When that trustee decided not to run again, Johnson went to work with her PTA president on interviewing the candidates who were running for the seat. Butthey didn’t find anyone who had a broad vision for the future of the CCSD, Johnson said.
“I had no intention then of running, myself,” Johnson said. “But the further we got, the more I realized that we didn’t have anyone who wanted to make the system better and to be more responsive to the community. So I talked to my husband and he agreed it would be a good thing to do. I had no idea what I was getting into.”
Johnson ran and won. She served twelve years as a trustee and three terms as President of the Board. With a $1.2 billion dollar budget and oversight of the largest employer in the state, Johnson was instrumental in building a program that produced an average of one new school per month during a decade that saw explosive growth in the region and the district.
In 2008, after she was term limited out, Johnson went to work volunteering in the community. She was elected to her Homeowner’s Association, she serves on the board of LDS Family Services, and she currently volunteers as the director of the career center at Legacy High School, a position she took when the school lost grant funding for a paid position at its career center.
“So, running for the county commission is really within my passion to work with communities and people,” Johnson said. “I have the opportunity to do that because my family is situated in such a way as to be able to have that privilege. I appreciate being in that position.”
Still, the decision to run was not immediate or easy. Johnson said she began receiving calls back in January from people urging her to run for county commission. She said that each call began by asking her to run, and ended by advising her that she had to switch political parties.
Johnson has always been affiliated with the Republican party. But because District B is weighted toward Democratic voters, supporters felt that she would stand a better chance if she made the switch. This idea was uncomfortable for Johnson.
“I was not convinced that I could change parties and even survive a primary,” Johnson said. “The campaign would be all about why I had changed parties and not about what I could bring to the County Commission.”
All of this nearly made Johnson decide not to run in the election at all.
Then she had an experience that convinced her to move forward with her candidacy. She saw a video of an interview that Commissioner Tom Collins had done at a new shooting park built in North Las Vegas. The reporter asked Collins what his response was to the people, living near the shooting park, who had raised concerns about it being close to neighborhoods in the area. Using rough language, Collins asserted that these folks had the option of packing up and moving out of the area.
“That response was so shockingly disappointing,” Johnson said. “I really took those comments as directed at me. I was his constituent and that is what he thought of me. He thought if I didn’t agree with what he wanted to do, then his opinion was that I should pack my bags and leave; move out of the state. That attitude came through so clearly; the attitude of ‘I don’t care about the things that are important to some people when it’s not important to me’. And that is when I thought, ‘You know, I need to run’.”
Johnson said that, if elected, her first priority would be to re-forge the “contituent connection’, especially in outlying areas like Moapa Valley.
“Local control is such a big issue for me,” she said. “Especially where you are an outlying community. I strongly believe that the best decisions are made closest to the issue. The more you have people separated from where the decisions are made, the less likely those decisions will reflect a solution to the problem.”
Johnson said that having a legitimate Town Advisory Board (TAB) is crucial to the idea of local control. She said that she had experienced great success with the Advisory Board model while serving on the school board. During that time she helped communities establish local Community Education Advisory Boards (CEAB) in the rural outlying areas of the district.
“It was basically creating a group of people who had the authority to carry the opinions of the community in such a way that they were communicated clearly to the school board,” Johnson said of the new CEABs. “It was an opportunity for everybody to be on the same page about what the values were held in the community and what was important. Those things are equally important when talking about the county and its town boards.”
But Johnson recognized all along that advisory boards are only valuable if they are listened to and heeded.
“If we put together the town board under whatever guidelines that the community agrees upon; deciding this is how they get elected or whatever; we end up with a group of people that represent this community,” Johnson said. “But it doesn’t do you any good to have that if you ignore or demean the voice that comes from them. Those things are important because they represent local control.”
“I think it is important for people to have representation where they know they have access and have an open door policy to their elected official,” Johnson added. “And it is not based on whether or not you are in someone’s good graces.”
In the realm of economic issues, Johnson admits that she does not have one big silver bullet to fix the region’s ailing economy. But she believes the cure more likely comes out of many small measures that would naturally spring from what she calls good government.
“I don’t think that governments should be responsible for creating jobs,” Johnson said. “I think that governments are responsible for creating a community that can support healthy businesses.”
Johnson said that her priority would be on eliminating regulatory barriers that stand between the people and what they need to do to make a living.
As an example, Johnson recalled a recent conversation she had with a real estate agent. The agent was trying to sell a home for a client. County regulations required the homeowner to install a second barrier to their backyard pool before the home could be sold. That meant that a locked fence around the yard wasn’t good enough. A second fence had to also be constructed around the pool only.
“With all the struggles in the real estate market, this would make it absolutely impossible to sell that home at a competitive price because the owners would have to add that cost into it,” Johnson said. “So they are just out of luck. They can’t sell their home.”
Johnson cited another instance involving a friend who had been unexpectedly placed in the situation of raising a young grandchild. To do this, she had hoped to move her business operations into her home so she’d be able to look after the child during the work day. But she had run up against so many restrictions in obtaining a county business licensing that she finally found it was impossible.
“Some of these regulations might have been justified in a time when things were booming in the region,” Johnson said. “But maybe right now, we should say that we are going to have a break from all of that; that we are not going to do it for a few years; because it would help small businesses to get a better start, let them get up and running so they can go back out and hire people again.”
Johnson said that she treasures the experiences she has had working with the Moapa Valley community while serving on the school board. Those experiences with small town folk kept her focused and capable of taking on big politics in the urban areas, she said.
“People here are so welcoming,” Johnson said. “Things were always put in terms of: ‘We want you to come, we want to work with you and we want you to leave here knowing that we care about what happens to us and where we are going from today.’ ”
During the growth boom years, Johnson said that she noted, with admiration, the way that the Moapa Valley community had faced the uncertainty of its future.
“Here was a small community that is so close knit, looking at a future that they didn’t know what it would look like,” Johnson said. “They didn’t know what their town was going to become; didn’t know what facilities would be built; what businesses would come. But they knew that whatever came was going to change them forever. I thought that it was handled so well. There was always an ability to keep an open mind and to say what’s in the best interest for the right reasons. This community does that so well. It was always such a godsend to have been assigned to represent places like this where things are still real.”