16 April 2023
It all started with a white van.
The nearly two-decade political career of Heidi Seevers Gansert started not with a major political campaign or ballot question, but as a personal push by the mother of four to figure out if the white van loitering around neighborhood schools “was a threat potentially to my kids, and I couldn’t get any information.”
“We couldn’t figure out who it was and, at the time, there was no sex offender registry,” she recalled in an interview. “So one of my first bills was the sex offender registry.”
Eighteen years after heading to Carson City for her first legislative session, Heidi Seevers Gansert is still here.
She’s been a consistent presence on the state’s political scene — six years in the Assembly and six years in the Senate, sandwiched between two years as former-Gov. Brian Sandoval’s chief of staff and nearly eight years at UNR focused on economic development.
Chosen to lead the state Senate Republicans by her colleagues in January, Seevers Gansert is a native Nevadan four generations deep, an avid triathlete and a mother of four who staked her first campaign on neighborhood issues.
Even as Nevada and national Republicans have shifted right, Seevers Gansert remains a throwback to a different time — more outwardly tied to policy issues such as nursing shortages and school bullying than pushing red-meat messaging bills cropping up in GOP legislatures nationwide — abortion, trans issues and the expansion of gun rights. Her campaign website, for instance, touts her work creating a K-12 system called SafeVoice to warn others about potentially dangerous, violent or unlawful activity, as well as more transparency around reporting abuse in schools.
Senate Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno), speaks to Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), middle, and Sen. Jeff Stone (R-Henderson) ahead of a Senate floor session in Carson City on Monday, April 10, 2023. (David Calver/The Nevada Independent)
From left to right, Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas) and Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) huddle ahead of a Senate floor session in Carson City on Monday, April 10, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
The senator is still a Republican, and has backed key tentpoles of new Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo. This year, she is among the most visible conduits between the governor’s office and the Legislature, and became the early face of his push to expand school choice programs directing additional state resources toward private and charter schools.
She has also become a central figure in efforts to solve the state’s worsening nursing shortage, and a vocal proponent for strict controls on fentanyl possession, even beyond those proposed by her Democratic counterparts.
And perhaps more importantly, Seevers Gansert serves as the ranking Republican voice on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, a body now jointly tasked with Assembly Ways and Means with deciding just what to do with a billion-dollar surplus in state revenues.
More than halfway through the legislative session, the senator is playing a major role in the 2023 session, as both a negotiator (state Senate Democrats need at least one Republican vote to clear the constitutionally important two-thirds majority threshold) and pivot point between a new Republican governor and Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Just weeks before Friday’s first major bill deadline — the first obstacle on which many of the session’s doomed bills will stumble — Seevers Gansert still saw the session as an opportunity.
“We try to think about the big ideas on how we can move the needle on some things,” she said.
State Senator Heidi Seevers-Gansert drops campaign literature in Northwest Reno on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
An unlikely politician
Seevers Gansert’s political career started with three terms in the Assembly, where she was elected to her Reno-area seat in 2004 by a landslide margin, beating Democrat Dan Meyer by more than 33 percentage points.
Representing a squiggly District 25 — which, at the time, loosely followed the southern edge of the city’s McCarran loop, encompassing wealthier (and more Republican) parts of Reno’s outer edges, Gansert succeeded former Assemblywoman (and ex-wife of ex-Gov. Jim Gibbons) Dawn Gibbons. Gibbons had succeeded then-Assemblyman Brian Sandoval.
It was her first true foray into politics, a brief stint with longtime friend Sandoval notwithstanding (a level of involvement that went little further than “helping him with his books a little bit” in his bid for attorney general in 2002). And though she had been a lifelong Nevadan — save a stint at California’s Santa Clara University, where she received an engineering degree — her private sector work had never veered particularly close to the public sector, let alone elected office.
But even though she had never stepped foot inside the Legislature when she first filed to run, she said, with a laugh, “Well, I could probably figure this out.”
“I want to help, I think I can represent the community, I know the community,” Seevers Gansert said. “So I ran and I won.”
When her mother, Diane Seevers, first heard the news that her daughter would pivot toward politics — “I was surprised, but I wasn’t surprised.”
“When I asked her why she wanted to do this, she thought she could make a difference,” Seevers recalled in an interview. “She thought she was able to do something for the state, and she wants to try it and do her best. And that’s who Heidi is.”
Seevers family photo (Courtesy/Heidi Seevers Gansert)
Young Heidi at Little Flower Catholic School (Courtesy/Heidi Seevers Gansert)
Graduating from Santa Clara University (Courtesy/Heidi Seevers Gansert)
Childhood photo of Heidi Seevers Gansert’s four children (left to right), Glenn, Kirsten , Hank and MacKenzie. (Courtesy/Heidi Seevers Gansert)
Seevers said her daughter had always had a mind for the analytical, even as a child. She recounted that when young Heidi was 5 or 6 years old, her father, Leo, had built a swing set in the family backyard — and was left with “way too many screws leftover” when he was done.
“And I remember, I was there, she went out, she said, ‘Dad, I think you did this backwards,’” Seevers said. “And she was right.”
The freshman Seevers Gansert got her start on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, where she eventually became part of the “core group” of lawmakers crafting state budgets — even if still in the minority. Though Republicans have largely dominated Nevada gubernatorial elections in the 21st century (save Democrat Steve Sisolak’s win in 2018), Democrats have maintained just as strong a grip on the Legislature’s lower house, holding it for all but two years of the last quarter-century.
That first session came in a different era of Nevada politics, one in which the effects of term limits had yet to cast out many of the state’s most familiar names from the halls of the Legislature.
“It was a different time and a different Legislature,” said Sen. Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka), who entered the Assembly alongside Seevers Gansert back in 2005.
In that environment, Goicoechea said, a Legislature often split between party control of the Senate and the Assembly — and always with a Republican governor — left legislative leaders and a handful of their caucus members from both parties forming a core that met weekly to negotiate the fine points of the state budget.
It was a core that Seevers Gansert and Goicoechea eventually joined, in particular after — just halfway into her second term — Seevers Gansert was elevated to lead the Republican Assembly Caucus in 2008.
To that end, Goicoechea said that many lawmakers will often have pieces of the budget with which they become intimately familiar, but few are ever true masters of full budget volumes. Seevers Gansert, however, “fit that bill.”
“She opened one of those books and would turn to the right page,” he said. “It’s a gift … Heidi Gansert, in the Senate, probably has more expertise than anybody in the building.”
But Seevers Gansert entered leadership just as the state government began to reel under the far-reaching economic consequences of the housing crisis and the Great Recession. She also entered at an inflection point for partisan politics, as the ramifications of the 2008 presidential election rippled outward.
A decade before Nevada would become the first majority-female state legislature in the country, Seevers Gansert — at the time — saw a certain kinship with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who faced scrutiny not only of her political history, but of her ability to run for office as a woman and a mother.
“During my first campaign, one of my opponents questioned whether I could do everything,” she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2008. “It backfired. People knew how committed I am to my community. People knew me and where my heart is.”
But still in the depths of the recession, the 2009 legislative session was in many ways defined by cuts, cuts and more cuts.
“It was really tough, especially in the ’09 session,” Goicoechea said. “Furloughing people, we’re cutting every program — we’re just trying to stabilize it.”
By 2010, Seevers Gansert said she was ready for a change — announcing plans to not run for re-election and telling reporters she was “ready for a break.”
“And then my friend, Brian Sandoval, was running for governor,” she said.
Gov. Brian Sandoval delivers his State of the State address in Carson City on Jan. 17, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
From the governor’s office to UNR
2010 was a raucous election year that not only saw the Tea Party backlash against President Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act reshape American electoral politics for the next decade, but also saw Nevada politics upended as Sen. Harry Reid — against all odds — defended his seat against conservative firebrand Sharron Angle.
In the race for governor, there was no less chaos. Increasingly unpopular and wracked by scandal that included a messy and public divorce, Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons was primaried by Sandoval, who exited a lifetime appointment on the federal bench to challenge Gibbons for governor. After easily dispatching Gibbons in the primary, he bested Reid’s son, Democrat Rory Reid, by 12 percentage points in the general election.
Shortly after, Seevers Gansert was named co-director of the governor’s new transition team — alongside Dale Erquiaga, another longtime friend of Sandoval who, in the midst of the 2010 election, had been working for the Clark County School District. Despite their mutual friendship with Sandoval, the two had never crossed paths until that point. Now, Erquiaga had become the new governor’s top policy aide and Seevers Gansert his chief of staff.
“We were quite literally thrown together, not knowing each other well, to plan a transition, hire a cabinet, staff a governor’s office and try and balance the budget,” Erquiaga said. “It was in the depths of the Great Recession, the state budget was way upside down, hundreds of millions of dollars to be cut — so that is how I got to know her.”
In an interview, Sandoval said he’s known and respected Seevers Gansert “for a long time.”
“I was the student body president, she was the student body vice president,” he said. The two graduated from Reno’s Bishop Manogue high school in 1981, a private Catholic high school that all four of Seevers Gansert’s children also attended.
In entering the chief of staff role more than a decade ago, Sandoval called her “tremendous,” a hard worker with a comprehensive knowledge of Nevada — and, of course, its budget.
“Her willingness to step up way back in 2011 to serve as the chief of staff, probably during one of the most challenging economic times in our state history, and her ability to help guide us through that session — between the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) bill — she worked extremely hard on that and worked with the Legislature in terms of trying to balance the budget,” Sandoval said.
Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert during Gov. Brian Sandoval’s State of the State address in Carson City on Jan. 17, 2017. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Inside the Sandoval administration, Erquiaga and Seevers Gansert operated as the left and right hemispheres of the governor’s office brain, one side targeting policy and the other the budget fineries. But even personally, Erquiaga said, Seevers Gansert was often all business — something he sometimes teased her about.
“When we first got to work together, I would say, ‘How are you?” he said, drawing out each syllable — how-are-you. “Then she would call and say, ‘Hi, Dale, how are you?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I know you don’t care, but it’s really nice that you asked.”
Perhaps few other policy goals — at least in the 2011 session — mattered to Sandoval’s team quite as much as the economic development bill. Following the gubernatorial election, unemployment remained at a worst-in-the-nation, 14.5 percent, and Nevada would remain the country’s foreclosure capital into 2012.
But under the new regime outlined by Sandoval, the newly minted GOED centralized the state’s economic development, removing authority from the lieutenant governor and some regional agencies and housing it directly under the governor. Under this new centralized system, the state more aggressively pursued economic diversification, eschewing a reliance on the Las Vegas Strip for a nascent boom in tech and manufacturing that would materialize over the coming decade.
But at the 11th hour of the 2011 session, Erquiaga said, days before sine die, the bill was on the ropes.
“We were watching in the governor’s office on TV and it became clear that there was a problem,” Erquiaga said. “And Senator Gansert and I ran across the mall. And as we entered the building, she yelled, ‘You go to the Assembly, and I’ll go to the Senate’ and we each ran our separate ways and ran out to try to rally votes and get this thing done.”
The bill, AB449, later cleared opposition from Assembly Republicans and found unanimous support in the Senate — on the very last day of the legislative session.
“And it, for me, it’s sort of the capstone of that relationship, that started when we didn’t really know each other to we would sprint across the mall to get a job done,” Erquiaga said. “I think that says a lot about her and I was lucky to have her as a partner.”
For her part, Seevers Gansert pointed to her legislative tenure as key once she started in the governor’s office.
“I understood the budget, I understood the policy and I had good relationships across the aisle,” she said. “I always have very positive relationships across the aisle, which I think really always helps any legislator to be more effective.”
That stint as chief of staff was short-lived, however, and Seevers Gansert left the job less than two years later in 2012. In its place, a more lucrative and less confrontational replacement as special assistant for external affairs to then-UNR President Marc Johnson.
The move came just as the state’s colleges and universities were, themselves, emerging from the depths of recession-era cuts. Under Gibbons, the cuts proposed were practically apocalyptic in the eyes of higher education administrators, faculty and students. Under Sandoval, the cuts were still among the worst in years, $11 million budget reductions so deep that institutions axed departments wholesale under seldom-used curriculum review processes.
It also came, more broadly, at a politically tense period for the state’s universities as lawmakers, for the first time in decades, sought to overhaul the higher education funding formula. That formula had historically benefitted UNR — much to the chagrin of UNLV and its boosters, which had long lobbied for more parity from state funding.
Johnson, himself, was new to UNR’s top job, a longtime educator who had served as provost for four years before succeeding President Milton Glick after his death in 2011 — in the midst the most recent legislative cuts. Seevers Gansert’s role came not on the academic side, but on the business one, a liaison between a university now retooling its growth post-recession and a business community in Northern Nevada primed to pivot alongside a new push for economic diversification out of Carson City.
“[Johnson] really needed someone to be more engaged with the community,” Seevers Gansert said.
In an interview, Johnson told The Nevada Independent that her connections and experience in the Legislature and under Sandoval made her “a real asset” to UNR.
“The previous president had let the marketing team go,” Johnson said. “I’m an economist with a marketing background, and I thought this was a real shortfall in capabilities with the university and that with her connections, her personality and her drive, she would be the perfect person to come into the position.”
To that end, Johnson placed her on the board of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), and eventually on the board of the Downtown Reno Partnership. Seevers Gansert became central to the university’s years-long push to expand its southern border beyond Reno’s 9th Street and toward the city’s downtown — including handling the controversial removal of several historic buildings sitting on prime university real estate.
“They needed students who they would later employ, they needed interns, they needed research, all those types of things,” Seevers Gansert said. “And then the university was also expanding towards downtown and so we needed to work on what does that look like? How can we partner with the city?”
The position did not come without its own controversy. In pursuing the then-ex-politician for UNR, Johnson not only created a new position wholesale, but also subverted the traditional academic hiring process, a rigorous months-long process involving open searches and hiring committees, in order to install a politically connected hire.
“Yes, there were certainly eyebrows raised,” Johnson said. “You’re just going to create a position for a person and name that person into the position — a lot of the people who looked at the process were concerned about that.”
Still, Johnson argued that the traditional hiring processes existed primarily to ensure a diverse hiring pool — something he said was still accomplished, at least in part, by tapping Seevers Gansert.
“Had Heidi been a white male, I don’t even think I would have attempted it, but the fact that she did add gender diversity to my management team, that was an important argument,” he said. “Plus the fact that she’s just so talented and she has such a great reputation. That and, I guess, in part because I was president, I could pull something like that off.”
State Senators Ben Kieckhefer and Heidi Seevers Gansert during the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
A return to politics
Nearly four years after she left Sandoval’s office and nearly six after she left the Assembly, Seevers Gansert once again threw her hat into the electoral ring.
This time, the race was for Senate District 15, recently vacated by incumbent Republican Greg Brower, who resigned to take up a job for the FBI. Once again she was running in a west-Reno district that pooled outward to the Nevada-California border, and, once again, cruised past her opponents, winning the general election by roughly 11 percentage points over Democratic opponent Devon Reese.
Why did she return in the first place?
“There’s just points in time where you reflect on ‘Have you done everything you want to do?’” she said.
Her 2016 campaign came at a radically different time in politics than when she began, both nationally and statewide. The presidential election of Donald Trump further shifted the Republican Party’s tenor toward far-right populism, a move previewed in Nevada through the 2014 red wave that gave Sandoval his first and only trifecta — control of both houses of the Legislature.
But in 2015, many of those Republicans became increasingly agitated by a $1.5 billion tax package from the recently re-elected Sandoval. Aimed at pumping new state funds into a K-12 education system long criticized as underfunded, the new taxes were a lightning rod at the time and have remained so ever since.
In running for Senate, Seevers Gansert initially declined to take a position on those tax increases, saying instead that she did not support efforts to repeal the new money and that the investments made with the new dollars were “critical.”
At the time, Sandoval also did not endorse Seevers Gansert during her primary race, telling a reporter that “I’m not focused on that race right now” — even as he fundraised for other Northern Nevada Republicans.
In 2016, she was among a cadre of state Republicans who withdrew their support from Trump following the publication of the Access Hollywood tape (though a tweet in which withdrew that support has since been deleted). She later told The Nevada Independent in 2017 that she did not vote for Trump.
“I decided that I didn’t support either candidate,” she said at the time.
In all her years in Carson City, Seevers Gansert said she has represented “my community” — even as the Republican Party shifted post-2016 away from the neo-conservatism of George W. Bush and toward Trump-style populism. To wit, in naming her most recent legislative accomplishments in an interview, the senator pointed to the creation of the SafeVoice app in 2019 — an app that allows K-12 students to tap into an existing bullying hotline established in 2017 — and a 2021 bill that made it mandatory for physicians to discuss genetic risk factors for breast cancer for women after they’ve received mammograms.
“There definitely has been a shift and I have stayed out of party politics,” she said. “And if you were to look at the election results, my numbers are completely different than say, the presidential campaigns or the U.S. Senate campaigns.”
To that end, Seevers Gansert touted her strength among nonpartisan voters — the state’s fastest growing voting bloc — a strength she attributed to a willingness to cross the aisle and localize her politics, as she did with her first session and the creation of the sex offender registry.
That first term was not without hiccups. Shortly after taking office, Seevers Gansert was sued by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), a libertarian think tank, over keeping her UNR job while she was still a lawmaker.
Her continued employment — and later those of other public employee lawmakers, including several public defenders and county prosecutors, and later teachers and professors — became a central focus of critics who argued that Nevada’s citizen legislature created fundamental conflicts for public employees who got to decide their pay and benefits in the Legislature.
Court rulings on the separation-of-powers case have taken years to parse, and, in an early ruling in 2017, a district court dismissed the specific challenge against Seevers Gansert. Most recently, in January of this year, a Clark County court ruled in favor of four Democrats who had also been sued by NPRI.
Johnson defended Seevers Gansert’s conduct while she was still a UNR employee, telling The Nevada Independent that she never drew salary or benefits from the university during legislative sessions and that she was “very cognizant and very particular about that.”
Seevers Gansert ultimately resigned her UNR job in 2020. She is presently working as a member of the Board of Directors for Plumas Bank, a position she took in 2019.
By 2020, the senator was faced with her most serious election challenge yet, defeating Democrat Wedny Jauregui-Jackins by just 3.58 percent as Washoe County continued its slow-but-steady swing away from a reliable Republican base.
As Democrats sought to engineer supermajorities in the 2020 redistricting cycle, the state Senate — where just one more Democratic vote will create a two-thirds majority — emerged as a prime target. Her District 15 consequently shrank, wrapping itself more neatly around the urban western and northern edges of Reno. Under the old maps, Seevers Gansert’s seat leaned just 1 point toward Democrats based on voter registration. Under the new maps, her seat leans more than 6.7 points toward Democrats.
Seevers Gansert called the gerrymandering of her district and others “one-sided and unfair,” adding in a separate interview that “it’s going to be more difficult for a Republican to win that district.”
“You take a look at the statewide races, if you look at the Lombardo-Sisolak race or Laxalt-Cortez Masto race, those were almost 50-50,” she said, referring to the top-of-the-ticket races in 2022. “So in my mind, it’s clear that redistricting that was passed during the last special session was wholly unfair and does not represent the voters of Nevada, because the representation should be almost 50-50.”
And though she can run for one more term in the Senate before being formally termed out, she did not commit firmly to running for re-election in 2024.
Senate Minority Leader Heidi Seevers Gansert walks through the Legislature in Carson City on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Where are we now
In 2023, Seevers Gansert is minority leader once more. Elected to a caucus just one seat away from a super-minority, she has nonetheless emerged as a clear conduit between legislative Republicans and the office of Gov. Joe Lombardo — in no small part because her former Senate colleague and fellow Northern Nevadan, Ben Kieckhefer, is now Lombardo’s first chief of staff.
During the transition, Seevers Gansert she was in discussions with Lombardo’s transition team “pretty much daily.” As the session began, the frequency of those conversations cooled — though “I do touch base with them and my team touches base with them on different topics.”
She added that she’s in regular contact with her Democratic counterpart, Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) — partially because they both sit on the Senate Finance Committee, which meets daily.
“Heidi and I speak almost every day about legislative business, and even when we don’t agree, I appreciate her honest perspective on the issues that are before the Senate,” Cannizzaro said in a statement. “It’s unusual to have two women — and two moms — leading their respective parties in a legislative body, and I think having that in common is part of the reason why we have a productive working relationship.”
But as the session has progressed, the opportunities for bipartisanship have begun to shrink. Ahead of a committee deadline Friday, panels dominated by Democrats have approved dozens of controversial bills on party-line votes, with Republicans left only to signal their displeasure and reserve the right to oppose those bills once they hit floor votes.
And though the governor’s office has remained silent on all but a handful of bills (if not the governor’s political action committee, which has actively boosted Lombardo’s efforts on repealing a school restorative justice law and attacking Democratic proposals to regulate fentanyl as soft on crime) concerns from Republicans over potential budget spending sprees have begun to spur partisan splits on once-bipartisan issues such as pay raises for state employees.
Still, even as individual lawmakers have been marginalized and power centralized behind leadership — especially behind Democratic lawmakers, who dominate both chambers — Seevers Gansert touted the power of the interpersonal as a key policy tool.
“When you have individuals who have relationships and talk to each other about issues, we can come together to produce better policy,” she said.
To that end, she also touted a bill — SB375 — that bears the names of all four legislative leaders as co-sponsors, all backing a measure that would send more than $30 million over the next two years to Nevada college and university nursing programs in a bid to rapidly accelerate the number of graduates in the next three years.
“The way I’ve always approached this legislative body, and I think it’s a good way to approach it — I’m never worried about ownership,” she said, referring specifically to ongoing negotiations with Democrats over competing proposals to criminalize fentanyl. “It doesn’t have to be my bill.”