From public defender to Assembly speaker, Steve Yeager’s rise to Legislature’s helm

26 March 2023

When the 2023 legislative session gaveled in on Feb. 6, there was little doubt who would be the next speaker of the Assembly.

That day, lawmakers unanimously elected Steve Yeager, an attorney living in Las Vegas, as speaker, elevating the 44-year-old Democrat to one of the most powerful roles in state government. 

A little more than 10 years ago, Yeager had little idea how the Legislature worked — or that it might even be a possibility he could run for office.

“If you would have told me this when I moved to Las Vegas, ‘Hey, in about 14 years, you’re going to be the speaker of the Assembly,’ I probably would have said, ‘What’s the speaker and what’s the Assembly?’” Yeager said in a January interview in the speaker’s office at the Legislature, reflecting on the winding path that brought him to the top leadership role in the Assembly. 

Just a day before the interview, Yeager stood in the Assembly chambers as “speaker designate,” presiding over Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo’s State of the State address.

It had been almost 10 years to the day since Yeager arrived in Carson City for the first time. As a new lobbyist for the Clark County Public Defender’s Office — where Yeager had already spent several years representing criminal defendants unable to afford an attorney — he arrived in the capital to watch then-Gov. Brian Sandoval’s 2013 State of the State address.

“I was standing up in the upper gallery with a lot more dark hair, and fewer gray hairs, wondering what have I gotten myself into,” he recalled.

But 2023’s address marked a major shift for the Minnesota-born lawmaker. That night, he stood alongside Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), delivering a sharp response to Lombardo that criticized some of the new governor’s proposals as vague. He also drew a line in the sand over partisan battles yet to play out this session, such as Lombardo’s push to repeal universal vote by mail.

“Scaling back on the way that we vote — it’s a nonstarter,” Yeager said.

Yeager’s resume since 2013 includes serving as a Clark County public defender and lobbying for the public defender’s office, to election to the Legislature in 2016 and chairing the judiciary committee to now serving as speaker in a Democrat-controlled Legislature. It’s a path that echoes that of Jason Frierson, the previous speaker and a mentor who (despite a very different upbringing) was instrumental in guiding Yeager along that journey.

Frierson, who served as speaker for three regular sessions from 2017 to 2021 and now serves as the U.S. attorney for Nevada, said in an interview this month that he felt a “natural need to recruit him to run for office” after the two met at the public defender’s office. He described Yeager now as a “statesman” who, even years before his foray into politics, had the “ethical foundation” and passion for advocacy that Frierson felt made him a good fit for public office.

“I absolutely saw that potential in him. What I didn’t know is if he would be interested,” Frierson said.

Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager and Speaker Jason Frierson, front, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, during the fifth day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

Sen. Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas), a criminal defense attorney and former Clark County public defender who worked alongside Yeager on the Assembly Judiciary Committee from 2019 to 2021, described him as a “natural fit” for the speaker role, highlighting his leadership skills and relationships he’s built.

“I think you could ask him about every single one of those members in the Assembly, and probably the members in the Senate, and he knows everything about them and their families,” she said. “I bet he could give you that same kind of factual information and personal information from members of the Republican Party, and I think that [speaks to] the relationship building that he’s able to cultivate.”

Yeager’s path to serving in the top leadership role hinged on a series of leaps, from leaving his childhood state of Michigan, to moving from a private law firm in Arizona to the public defender’s office in Clark County.

“I am a risk taker in that sense … I’ve always liked that opportunity of what’s around the corner and what could be there,” he said while sitting on his office couch, surrounded by varied pieces of Nevada artwork and University of Michigan memorabilia. “But I think you have to pair that with hard work.”

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager in the speaker’s office on Jan. 24, 2023. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

Midwest to Southwest

Born in Minnesota, Yeager bounced around the Midwest in his early years before his family settled in Lambertville, Michigan, a small farming town near the border with Ohio in a community he described as predominantly white, Republican and Christian. 

Yeager’s parents worked at department stores and divorced when he was in junior high. He recalled the importance of his family going out to eat once a month, even if only to “the Applebee’s or the Olive Garden.”

Life was also rowdy for Yeager as the middle of three brothers. He said they were into WWF, a wrestling entertainment group now known as WWE, and they would “replicate the moves at home,” leading to “a lot of injuries” among the boys.

Growing up in a lower middle-class family that did not put much emphasis on politics, Yeager said he had to work from an early age, including an off-the-books manual labor job at a greenhouse, and later jobs at Subway and a restaurant his dad opened. His mom would later play a role in big decisions, with Yeager describing her as a good “barometer” when he sought advice. Even in the Legislature, he’s publicly shown love for his mom and described himself as a “mama’s boy.”

Though he also participated in cross-country, it was through those jobs and his parents’ emphasis that he do well in school — a “nonnegotiable,” he said — that Yeager learned to work hard, a necessity if he was going to afford college.

Steve Yeager (center-bottom) pictured alongside his older brother, mom and dad. (Courtesy/Steve Yeager)

Steve Yeager (left) pictured alongside his older brother, Charles, and younger brother, Brian. (Courtesy/Steve Yeager)

Steve Yeager (center) pictured alongside his older brother, mom and grandma. (Courtesy/Steve Yeager)

Steve Yeager (left) pictured alongside his older brother, Charles. (Courtesy/Steve Yeager)

Yeager enrolled at the University of Michigan, just 45 minutes away from home, which he called an “eye-opening” experience. There, he found his political leanings as a Democrat as he became involved in politics through volunteering for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign.

It was also there that he traveled abroad to Spain and learned about Cornell University, a school in upstate New York where he applied for law school.

“What I found attractive about it was it’s three years, right, which for a graduate program is on the shorter side. So I said I’m just going to give that a try,” he said. “I don’t have any lawyers in my family, but I just applied to a bunch of schools, including Cornell, because I had gotten to know people there. And I told myself, ‘I’m just going to go to the best school that I get into,’ and that happened to be Cornell.”

After a trip to visit his brother in Arizona while in college, Yeager said he made it his mission to find his way to warmer climates. That led him on a search for jobs in the Southwest, eventually landing his first summer law job in Albuquerque, New Mexico. From there, he made his first trip to Las Vegas more than two decades ago.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday. We were driving down Tropicana, and as soon as The Strip comes into view, when you get to that corner where the MGM and New York, New York is, I’m like, ‘What is this place?’” he said. “And I really knew at that moment, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna live here at some point.’ This place is wild. It’s amazing. Just took me a while to get there.”

During a stay at The Stratosphere on a Fourth of July weekend, Yeager said he “couldn’t lose” as he gambled on roulette and blackjack.

“It was like the classic first trip to Las Vegas where you get hooked and come back,” he said.

The next summer, Yeager landed a job in Phoenix, where he stayed after law school “working insane hours” at a large private law firm to pay off the student loans he took out to attend Cornell. But Yeager said he was not passionate about the work of defending big corporations, and he felt an “urge to do something a little bit more meaningful.”

“It was about 2008, so I’d been at that firm for about four years. I had an inkling in my mind that I might end up in Nevada, in Las Vegas, so I decided to just fly out here and take the bar exam,” he said. “I took three days off to come out to Las Vegas and take the bar exam, and it was like the best three days that I’d had in years because even though I was taking the bar exam, it was only four hours a day, and contrasting to 12- or 14-hour days.”

When Yeager looked to move on from his firm in 2009 — in the midst of the Great Recession — he was unable to find a job in Phoenix, but applied for a job opening he found at the Clark County Public Defender’s Office, despite his lack of criminal law experience.

But he got cold feet before moving into the new area of practice, and nearly didn’t make that leap. 

Instead, Yeager considered an entirely different career trajectory, but one that also would have brought him to Las Vegas — professional poker player. He said while living in Phoenix, he would routinely travel to Las Vegas on weekends to play in tournaments and cash games. After wrestling with the decision, he decided he could work at the public defender’s office and still occasionally play poker.

“So I did take that job, but I almost never play poker anymore just because I don’t have the time, and I think the players have gotten substantially better than they were,” he said.

Forging bonds

Yeager found a passion for his role at the public defender’s office, putting in long hours and finding that he loved trial work.

Having never worked in criminal law, Yeager was shocked by things he learned, pointing to the relationship between mental health and substance abuse issues often found among the clients he defended. 

“I had just never seen that side of the world. I was sort of blissfully unaware of what was going on,” he said. “And so you start to have enough of those experiences. You say, ‘Wow, there’s just things we can do as a system and as a state to make those things better, to hopefully eliminate some of those drivers of crime, and also just to be more fair across the board.”

It was at the Clark County Public Defender’s Office where Yeager met his future wife, Bita. She had been at the office for more than a decade, and would later introduce him to Frierson, who was lobbying in Carson City at the time Yeager joined in March 2009.

Bita told The Nevada Independent that the two had spent time as friends before dating and eventually getting married in May 2013 — and going on their honeymoon in Japan, where Bita has family — but he struck her as intelligent and very conscientious early in their relationship. She said she and Frierson encouraged Yeager to seek out the lobbyist role at the public defender’s office because his skill set — being “very likable and diplomatic” — made him a good fit.

Steve Yeager and Bita Yeager pictured in Japan on their honeymoon in June 2013. (Courtesy/Steve Yeager)

Bita said Yeager transitioned into the lobbyist role well, feeling like “he was in his element” in that position.

Yeager also emphasized that he would have never lobbied, nor run for office or speaker, without Bita’s encouragement. She pointed to their similar experiences — Bita has also run for office multiple times and now serves as a Clark County District Court judge — as something that has allowed them to better understand and support one another. 

“I know that sometimes when people run for office that the partner feels kind of left out or feels that they’re not getting much attention from that person,” she said. “Because we understand the demands of campaigning and running, we certainly didn’t put any of that kind of pressure on each other.”

Bita said the pair like to spend time together through travel, even when one may be attending a conference.

But for both Yeagers, the past decade has defied their expectations from when they first met. 

“We never would have predicted 10 years ago that this is where we would be,” she said. “At the time, I had no aspirations of being a judicial officer. It was just kind of a series of things that happened that kind of piqued my interest in doing that, and he encouraged me. Same with him.”

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager and his wife, Nevada Eighth Judicial District Court Judge Bita Yeager, during the first day of the 82nd legislative session in Carson City on Feb. 6, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

‘He put me in a position to succeed’

When Yeager first began his job as a public defender, Frierson was hundreds of miles away in Carson City, lobbying the Legislature. 

After returning to the office, Frierson said one of his first impressions of Yeager was that “his ethical foundation struck me as being unusually, I think, solid.” He described the two of them as “kindred spirits.”

“We thought similarly,” he said. “We believed in the justice system working fairly … It wasn’t about winning or losing.”

In 2010, not long after the two met, Frierson was making his first run for office. 

“I remember also thinking, ‘Wow, run for office, that’s kind of crazy.’ Where I came from, you have to sort of wait your turn and be in that political power structure,” Yeager said. “So it became pretty obvious to me very quickly that Nevada and Las Vegas, in particular, was a place where if you’re willing to work hard, you can do whatever you want.”

Frierson’s departure left an opening in the office’s lobbyist role and, by 2013, Frierson and Bita encouraged Yeager to take the job — despite his lack of familiarity with what the role entailed.

In 2013, nearly four years into his job as a public defender, Yeager felt burnt out and took the lobbying opportunity to break away for four months from his growing caseload.

His first trip to Carson City, the day of Sandoval’s 2013 State of the State speech, defied his expectations, he said. The building and the legislators were more open and accessible than he had imagined.

Yeager again dove into his new line of work, finding that he loved to advocate for systemic changes to the state’s criminal justice system. He described the 2013 session, when Frierson chaired the Assembly Judiciary Committee and now-Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, as a great place to “cut your teeth” and find ways to contribute in a split government with a Republican governor.

John Piro, a Clark County public defender who has lobbied for the office since the 2017 session, highlighted the difficulties of balancing both sides of the job, saying that the role requires juggling an “overflowing caseload” with having to “pay attention to everything that’s going on in the political world.”

Piro noted that the experience of lobbying for the public defender’s office gives a wide overview of the many issues affecting the state, something that has benefited previous office lobbyists, such as Frierson and Yeager, who later made the jump to elected office.

“I think you get a broad range of human experiences,” he said. “So whatever problem we are not dealing with on the front end — and by the front end, I mean in our mental health care services, in our child care systems, in our schools — we deal with in the criminal justice system.”

Yeager planned to return to the same lobbying role in 2015, but when the incumbent in his Assembly district planned to run for a different office, Frierson asked him to run. Frierson said that it “takes a certain type of principled person to be able” to separate your day job from responsibilities that come with being a legislator (a part-time job that means lawmakers continue to work their jobs outside of sessions), but he was confident in Yeager.

Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson, front, and Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, during the fifth day of the 32nd Special Session of the Legislature in Carson City. (David Calvert/Nevada Independent)

Yeager said running was a complicated decision, pointing to a host of factors that often deter candidates from running for Nevada’s part-time Legislature, including a leave of absence from his job that would mean a temporary loss of pay, health insurance and retirement savings. Yeager said he had to have a conversation with his wife about moving to her insurance and the back-and-forth travel that would come with living in Carson City during the 120-day session.

Though Yeager was on the fence, he said Bita pushed him to run, and he eventually threw his hat in the ring.

During the campaign, Yeager was confident he would win. He raised more than $113,000, compared with the just $400 his Republican opponent, David Gardner, reported raising. 

But it wasn’t enough. The 2014 election saw Republicans take control of the Assembly and Senate as part of a national red wave. Yeager lost by nearly 500 votes — despite his district being home to nearly 2,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Even Frierson lost his re-election bid by 40 votes.

Frustrated, Yeager was unsure about returning to lobbying, but chose to do so as multiple legislators asked him to come back. There, in 2015, working against a Republican trifecta in state government, Yeager said he “was able to mitigate just some really bad policies.”

After that session, he was again uncertain about another run for office, but with a push from Frierson — who Yeager described as feeling a “sense of responsibility to take the majority back” — he ran a similar campaign and won his election in a year that saw Democrats retake both houses of the Legislature.

Life as a legislator

Once in the Legislature, Yeager was named chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, an unusually prestigious assignment for a freshman lawmaker but one that Frierson, who had been elected speaker that year, awarded him.

Yeager said he made a lot of missteps when first starting as chair, and that nearly “everybody on the committee was senior” to him, but he leaned on legislative staff to learn the behind-the-scenes steps needed to run a successful committee.

It was on that committee in 2017 that Yeager met Justin Watkins, another freshman Democratic lawmaker who would also shape his career path. 

Though Watkins opted not to run for a second term, focusing instead on life outside the Legislature, he offered a job to Yeager as a personal injury lawyer with a smaller caseload at Battle Born Injury Lawyers, a firm that specializes in motor vehicle crashes and medical malpractice cases.

Yeager was nervous about leaving the public defender’s office, but decided to move back into private practice — a decision that provided him with more flexibility and alleviated him of the “tension” associated with working multiple public sector jobs (some lawmakers with public positions outside the Legislature have come under fire for working jobs that critics say conflict with also setting state policy).

Watkins said in an interview that the two built a relationship and respect for one another on the judiciary committee, and had conversations about the struggle of balancing working life and public service. He described offering Yeager a position as beneficial to both parties, giving Yeager greater work flexibility, and having someone politically involved at the firm.

“Where I saw [Yeager] shine was in chairing judiciary,” Watkins said. “His ability to find consensus and to build bridges across the aisle is top notch. But also I think his ability to hear people out, address their concerns in a way that does not feel confrontational to anybody involved in that conversation … I think is a quality that I really admire in him.”

Watkins also described Yeager as a person with the rare ability “to be able to understand the nuanced policy arguments” and who “has the experience and the mindset of understanding the political ramifications of all those discussions and can marry the two.”

As a committee chair, Yeager said he was proudest of setting a tone for how the committee should run, a system that “should be the way that this building runs.” Those are lessons he’s taken with him to the speaker role — setting clear ground rules, treating everyone fairly and with respect, “even if you disagree.”

“A lot of the committee members who’ve been on judiciary the last few sessions are now chairs of committees,” he said.

Nguyen, who chaired the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee during the 2021 session, attributed some of her leadership skills as a chair and lawmaker to the “mentorship that I got from him.”

One thing Yeager doesn’t miss? “Having to chair a committee at 8 a.m. every day, five days a week.”

Assembly members Rochelle Nguyen and Steve Yeager on the first day of the 33rd special session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Nov. 12, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

During the pandemic, amid the busy work pace and constant email and bill reading, Yeager renewed his interest in long-distance running after reading Can’t Hurt Me, a book from ultramarathon runner David Goggins.

“It’s sort of talking about people running like 100 miles. I’m like, ‘That’s not a thing,’ like, ‘That’s not real. People can’t run 100 miles,’” he said. “And then I planted that idea in my head.”

Yeager’s longest run came during a 240-mile endurance challenge in Moab, Utah, in October 2020, in which he managed to run about 75 miles before being cut from the race.

“It really becomes mental at some point. Your mind will try to convince you that you are dying … You’re not dying, but it’s like that protection mechanism in your head,” he said. “I really enjoyed it because you sort of get to negotiate that and figure out where your breaking point is.”

The long runs also give Yeager time and space away from the job to think, and he spent time reflecting on those runs through writing blog posts in 2020 and 2021. Though he has less time to run in his new role as speaker, he said prior to the session he hoped to get out even for short runs when he could.

“It’s the one time where I really just get to think about things and process things,” he said. “It does wonders for my day just getting me ready and just clearing my mind a little bit.”

Steve Yeager pictured on May 5, 2002, at the finish line of his first marathon in Pittsburgh. (Courtesy/Steve Yeager)

Even with the pressure of an active judiciary committee that has seen major criminal justice reforms pass through the past few sessions, Yeager brings levity to the role. In April 2020, months into the pandemic, he filmed himself (and Bita) eating and reviewing a KFC Donut Double Down fried chicken sandwich on Facebook Live.

During the 2019 session, Yeager’s legislative assistant suggested the idea of a donut wall — and Bita helped get the materials to construct it, including a board and pegs to hold up the donuts.

“I think by the end of session, we all realized, ‘Wow, this is a lot of work,’” he said (Yeager reported spending nearly $1,500 on donuts in his campaign finance report). “I think it really brought camaraderie, and people in the building really were excited about Fridays.”

Though the donut wall has been retired this session — a joke Twitter account for the wall posts occasional images of it faux traveling the world — Yeager still provides donuts in the building every Friday. The love for donuts extends into his personal life, too, Bita said.

“One of the first things that we do when we go on a trip is to see if there are any well-known or highly rated donut places wherever we travel,” she said, though adding that she usually only has a bite.

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager holds a donut ornament given to him by Assemblywoman Jill Dickman during the third day of the 82nd legislative session in Carson City on Feb. 8, 2023, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A sweeping criminal justice reform

No bill has better exemplified Yeager’s career in the Legislature than 2019’s AB236 — a landmark piece of criminal justice legislation, running more than 150 pages long, that sought to reduce the prison population and has come to define contemporary partisan debates over public safety in Nevada.

“Assembly Bill 236 is probably the single most important and transformative criminal justice bill in the history of this building,” Yeager said during the first hearing of the measure in March 2019. “Today begins the process of accomplishing the goal of developing public policy to make our state safer and smarter.”

The measure originated as a set of proposed policy changes developed by the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute ahead of the 2019 session, with the goal of reducing prison populations (and saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars). More than two months passed between the bill’s initial hearing and passage out of its first committee, as it underwent multiple revisions and heavy editing.

He emphasized the importance of listening to all sides as chair of the judiciary committee, pointing to his role as an “alliance maker” that came with growing up as the middle of three brothers and negotiating the peace between his older brother, who later became a Marine, and his younger brother, who now serves as a police officer.

Yeager also said that he’s had conversations with his younger brother about what it is like out in the field for police officers, which has helped give him “a more rounded perspective when developing policy.” 

Piro described Yeager as the “captain at the helm” when it came to advancing AB236, saying that he used data-backed research to craft the bill and then brought all parties together to come to a consensus on the measure.

“I tend to think about how much better this place would be if more bills were handled like that,” Piro said. “You have a lot of omnibus bills that nobody has sat down with all the stakeholders and said, ‘OK, how can we work this out?’ And that’s what we did all session [in 2019]. We must have had at least 10 meetings with stakeholders, figuring out the ins and outs of a complex bill to make it kind of the best bill possible.”

Nguyen similarly highlighted the immense amount of work that went into AB236, pointing to multiple meetings per week that went into refining the bill and saying that she “learned so much about good lawmaking watching him process 236.”

“I think traditionally we think of, ‘Oh, you’re going to bring in prosecutors, you’re going to bring in police officers, you’re going to bring in public defenders.’ But what [Yeager] did that was so unique is he said, ‘I’m going to bring in retailers, I am going to bring in unions, I am going to bring in a lot of different people into this space to see what we can do to make this the best bill that we have,’” Nguyen said.

On the final day of the session, the bill passed with bipartisan support in the Senate. It lowered offenses for a variety of nonviolent crimes and increased access to diversion programs — changes that Yeager said would help decrease the rates of recidivism and state prison population. He’s also dismissed claims from Republican politicians, including Lombardo, that the measure has led to increases in crime.

“I understand that on the campaign trail, we sometimes say things, but I have yet to see anybody bring any credible evidence to me that what we did in that bill increased crime in the state,” he said during an IndyTalks event in March.

Becoming speaker

Even as Frierson guided Yeager through much of his legislative career, he said Frierson did not communicate that he wanted Yeager to be speaker after his departure from the role.

“Obviously he positioned me well,” he said. “But his take on it was always, ‘Look, I think there are a few different folks who can be speaker and you guys are gonna have to work that out.’”

Frierson echoed that sentiment, saying he saw “potential in him as a leader, as a collaborator, as a manager,” but that he “didn’t necessarily crown him” as the next speaker.

Alongside Frierson, Yeager pointed to former lawmakers Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) and Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-Reno), and other freshmen from his class, Assemblywomen Sandra Jauregui (D-Las Vegas) and Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D-North Las Vegas), as others who helped him learn through the legislative process.

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager, Assemblywoman Danielle Monroe-Moreno and Assembly Floor Leader Sandra Jauregui meet with the other members of the Assembly Ways and Means Committee behind the bar ahead of a floor session at the Legislature on March 23, 2023, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Even as he shadowed Frierson at the Legislature, learning some of the job “by osmosis,” Yeager said he “was not aware of everything that goes into the speaker role.” Unlike a committee chair whose work focuses primarily on bills and committee hearings, the speaker role requires management skills — including working with the speaker’s caucus, the minority caucus, Senate counterparts, the governor’s office and legislative staff.

“There’s always something that comes up every day that you didn’t anticipate,” he said.

As he’s entered the speaker role, after being unanimously selected by his caucus, Yeager is commanding one of the larger caucuses in recent history — a supermajority of 28 members, a quarter of whom are freshmen. Entering the session, Yeager said he was proud of the diversity of the caucus, pointing to Nevada’s continual and unique status as the first state with a female-majority Legislature.

Frierson said Yeager’s strength as a speaker is highlighted by his ability to lead such a diverse caucus, highlighting members’ confidence in him despite him being one of only a few white men in the Assembly Democratic Caucus.

He also highlighted Yeager’s role in starting the Legislature’s “tech caucus” in 2018 as a way of bridging the gap between senior legislators and newer members. Frierson likened that to his own experience as speaker of connecting the gaps between older and newer generations in the Legislature.

Nguyen similarly spoke about Yeager’s ability to bridge gaps, including working across the political aisle and with diverse groups of industries to build legislation. She said that once Frierson stepped down, Yeager had broad support within the caucus to be speaker.

“I think he was the natural fit for that,” she said. “And I think that says a lot about his natural leadership ability and the relationships that he built within that caucus.”

As speaker, Yeager has looked to maintain a tradition of openness and accessibility from his committee and during sessions prior to 2021, which saw COVID-19 restrictions hamper public access to lawmakers.

“That’s what our constituents expect from us. I mean, they don’t want this Washington-style stuff. It’s newsworthy, you see it on TV all the time, but that’s not Nevada,” he said. “And we benefit from having, I think, the second-smallest Legislature in the country. We all know each other, so don’t be a jerk. Like, that’s really the mantra: Don’t be a jerk.”

Yeager said he expects to have a good working relationship with Lombardo, even though “there are clearly things that we disagree on.” But even in a split government expected to bring partisan disagreements, Yeager said it would ultimately be important to keep open lines of communication.

Gov. Joe Lombardo shakes hands with Assembly Speaker Designate Steve Yeager following the governor’s first State of the State address at the Legislature on Jan. 23, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Designate Steve Yeager during a joint press conference following Gov. Joe Lombardo’s first State of the State address at the Legislature on Jan. 23, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager, right, and Assembly Minority Floor Leader P.K. O’Neill speak during a Joint Meeting of the Senate Committee on Finance and Assembly Committee on Ways and Means inside the Legislature on March 20, 2023, in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

With having to manage those different relationships, Frierson said the role of speaker brings lots of stress and little sleep. 

“I think I gained about five years back of my life when I stepped down,” he said.

Though Yeager has been focused on the policy dynamics of the session, he also reflected on the structure of the Legislature itself, calling it the weakest of the state’s three branches of government and describing the biennial sessions as a “disservice to the state.”

“I just don’t know if we’re gonna get to a point where our voters want us to meet any more frequently, but it’s really hard to manage a budget every two years. It would be nice to be able to do that on an annual basis,” he said.

He also highlighted difficulties of serving on a part-time basis, noting that the travel between Carson City and Southern Nevada and low pay for the position may be barriers to a more representative Assembly.

When looking at key issues for the session, he pointed to affordable housing, with a more immediate focus on evictions, saying the Legislature will work on that issue and potentially allocate additional money for rental assistance.

His leadership counterpart in the Senate, Cannizzaro, echoed those priorities in a statement to The Nevada Independent, expressing confidence that the two would pass legislation “that brings down the cost of health care, addresses critical housing issues and increases educator and state employee pay.”

Yeager also signaled hesitancy to accept proposals from Lombardo and legislative Republicans to address the fentanyl crisis strictly through increases in criminal penalties. Yeager said any policies would have to be nuanced, as “there can be some blurred lines between users and sellers.”

“What I don’t want to see is a return to what we saw in the ’90s — tough on crime — where we just throw someone in prison, we turn the key and we just hope everything goes well,” he said. “It’s easy to be reactionary to a problem. I mean, today it’s fentanyl, right. A few years ago, it was meth. Twenty years ago, it was crack. But we’ve got to learn something from that. We have to do a better job.”

With years of experience in criminal justice policy and criminal law, Yeager called for a holistic approach to addressing the problem, one that would bring together prosecutors, public defenders, judges and the corrections department.

Though he no longer serves as public defender, Yeager’s work as a lawmaker continues to underpin his work on the criminal justice system. He is still working to advance the changes to the correctional system made by AB236, and is seeking a “reinvestment of savings into programs that address the drivers of crime.”

Now as speaker, Yeager is uncertain about his political future. He is able to serve for just two additional terms before he is termed out of the Assembly, and he emphasized the importance of putting other members in a position to move up the leadership ladder after his time is up.

“My typical process is at the end of session, I tell everyone, give me like 60 days before you ask me if I’m running again because I need to get my sanity back,” he said. “Then I’ll reevaluate whether I’m going to run for re-election here, or whether I’m going to do something else, whether I’m just going to go back to being a lawyer, whether I’m going to move to a cabin in the woods with no cellphone service — that could be an option as well.”

Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager after being elected speaker during the first day of the 82nd legislative session in Carson City on Feb. 6, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The post From public defender to Assembly speaker, Steve Yeager’s rise to Legislature’s helm appeared first on The Nevada Independent.

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