Rep.-elect Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) will present an interesting dilemma for the mining industry when he heads to Capitol Hill next month: Is he friend or foe?
On one hand, Horsford, who was the Silver State's first African-American Senate majority leader, has championed the industry and said in an interview that mining projects should be expedited and "federal red tape" should be slashed to let the companies move forward.
Before entering state politics, the native of Las Vegas lobbied for the Nature Conservancy but also for mineral and energy companies like the Kerr-McGee Corp. and subsidiaries of NV Energy Inc., according to state disclosure records.
Tim Dyhr, spokesman for Nevada Copper Corp., owner of the potential Pumpkin Hollow mine south of Carson City, said Horsford is a friend of companies like his.
For one, Horsford has gone on the record supporting legislation, H.R. 4039, by Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) to enact a land swap connected to Pumpkin Hollow's development.
"I 100 percent would endorse the statement that he'd be an advocate for us," Dyhr said.
At the same time, progressive and environmental groups see Horsford as a proponent of making Nevada a clean energy hub. He is also known for efforts at reining in the mining industry, one of his state's most powerful.
Horsford, who will become the first person of color in Nevada's congressional delegation, has advocated for reforming industry tax deductions and creating a board to more closely monitor companies. He also launched an initiative to strip miners of constitutional tax protections.
Laura Martin, a spokeswoman for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said the 39-year-old politician is "one of the most vocal critics of the mining industry in the history of our Legislature in terms of holding them accountable."
Jon Ralston, a Nevada political analyst, said the apparent disconnect between Horsford's environmental and pro-business records stems from his change of tone during the recent congressional campaign.
Horsford won the seat after beating Republican businessman Danny Tarkanian, son of well-known former University of Nevada, Las Vegas, basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Horsford took 50 percent of the vote compared with Tarkanian's 42 percent.
Horsford will soon represent Nevada's newly drawn 4th District, which includes rural and heavily Republican areas now represented by Amodei, a former president of the Nevada Mining Association. The 4th also encompasses northern parts of highly populated and Democratic areas like Clark County.
Ralston said Horsford, who was endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters, may end up following in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's footsteps. Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has also been a force on mining's side. "I would think that Horsford might be an advocate for mining," Ralston said, "which is going to be an interesting irony."
But if Horsford does prove an industry advocate, Martin warned that her group would be quick to react. "Don't think we won't be the first people calling him or any other legislator out for it," she said.
Mining reform, energy
Horsford's money trail offers a glimpse at his diversity of support. Top donors included unions and liberal groups, including $1,000 from the Sierra Club, $1,000 from MoveOn.org, $10,000 from the Congressional Black Caucus and another $10,000 from the American Federation of Teachers.
However, while the National Mining Association sat out the race, Horsford got $5,000 from an entity connected to Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold Corp. and $1,000 from Newmont Mining Corp. Both companies have a major presence in his state, the nation's top gold producer.
Tim Crowley, president of the Nevada Mining Association, said he got to know Horsford during his tenure representing a part of Clark County near Las Vegas.
"Now, as a member of Congress with a much larger district that includes small, rural communities supported by mining activity," Crowley said, "he will undoubtedly bring that same tireless work ethic to represent all of his new constituents."
Dyhr said, "There was some tension between the industry and him because of the tax measures that he ran in the Democratic caucus, but I wouldn't put him in the critic category at all."
He added, "I'd say he's going to challenge the industry to meet certain obligations and perhaps in terms of performance and reputation."
But with Horsford expressing pride in helping close what he called mining industry "tax deduction loopholes," industry advocates are wondering how he will stand on mining reform questions, including ongoing debates over federal permit delays and whether to institute a royalty on mineral extraction.
"I would have to review the impact of any specific policy on mining operations to determine if a royalty was appropriate," Horsford said in response to questions about the issue.
"I support reform of the mining permitting process," he said. "Projects should be expedited and federal red tape should be cut to allow work to begin on a reasonable timetable, but in an environmentally responsible manner."
The National Mining Association's communications senior vice president, Carol Raulston, said, "Historically, we have had good relations with the entire Nevada delegation, so expect that to continue. But we take nothing for granted."
When it comes to energy, Horsford is critical of Republicans for opposing tax incentives for wind and solar power while protecting fossil fuel subsidies.
"We don't have oil in Nevada, but we do have an abundance of thermal and solar and wind," he said, noting that his district has the majority of the state's clean energy resources. In the Legislature, he wrote and helped pass the Clean Energy Jobs Initiative.
Horsford has singled out "Big Oil and other corporations like coal," advocating for a "fair and reasonable policy" that treats energy sources equally.
Not surprisingly, Horsford also said he will fight to ensure the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository stays closed and that his position won't be difficult to maintain despite a GOP-held House that supports the project.
"We have pretty much as a state delegation, from the governor to the Legislature to our federal delegation, in a bipartisan manner have opposed the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain," he said, "and that's my position."
Horsford comes to Capitol Hill with baggage, having been at the center of a number of controversies, including a scheme to raise money by promising access to lawmakers.
In 2010, Horsford was short on fundraising and decided to "pimp the Democratic leaders in the legislature for cash," according to columnist Jane Ann Morrison's Aug. 21, 2010, account in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
At issue was a letter that Horsford sent out in the summer of 2010 printed on letterhead as the president of the "Victory 2010" political action committee.
The letter sought financial support for the PAC's Democratic candidates and announced that donors at various levels would be thanked with various benefit tiers -- including private dinners, receptions, luncheons or other time to meet with various Democratic legislative leaders and Senate committee chiefs.
The larger the contribution, the smaller and more "private" the event or meeting was with select lawmakers, according to a report from Caren Jenkins, executive director of the Nevada Commission on Ethics.
The letter created such a splash in the Nevada media that Horsford apologized and Victory 2010 PAC rescinded and scrapped the solicitation program to avoid the appearance of impropriety, according to the report. The PAC also canceled all pledges made to the program and returned all donations that had already been received in response to the letter.
Jenkins, however, found that "no credible evidence was provided to support the allegation that Senator Horsford sought or accepted any donation or gift for his own benefit through the letter or the PAC." She also said that speculation on what could have happened had Horsford not pulled the letter was inappropriate.
Even so, Morrison said the congressman-elect's letter was a "new low" for the state. "While it's not the same as taking lap dances and money under the table for votes, and officials are saying it's not illegal, it still looks slimy and is slimy, perpetuating the perception that all politicians are for sale," she wrote.
Horsford's history of defaulting on loans and bills has also provided fodder for Nevada Republicans over the years. The majority of problems, the Las Vegas Review-Journal found, stemmed from financial struggles during his 20s and a 1990s car accident while Horsford was a student at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told the newspaper during the congressional campaign that "the more Nevada voters learn about Horsford, the more it becomes clear that he has a troubling history of ignoring the rules the rest of Nevadans follow."
In the end, voters still went with the Democrat. "This is just the beginning. Hard work is ahead," Horsford said after claiming victory. "Now is the time to make our voices heard in Washington."