Brian Sandoval’s first lessons in leadership came in the most unlikely of places: sheep pens.
In his youth, the man who would eventually become Nevada’s 30th governor did family chores tending a flock of sheep in the northern Nevada town of Sparks. He’d later like to joke that cleaning up after the sheep is what prepared him for a career in politics (it turned out to be a joke rooted in truth).
It’s a political career that began in earnest in 1984, when Sandoval—then a 21-year-old student at the University of Nevada, Reno—sent an internship application to the office of Nevada U.S. Senator Paul Laxalt, a man whose father happened to be a sheepherder. A line in Sandoval’s essay about a childhood job tending sheep caught the Republican senator’s eye, and Sandoval got the internship.
Although it lasted just one semester, getting to work for the late Laxalt—during the re-election campaign of Ronald Reagan, Laxalt’s best friend—proved to be an experience full of lessons that would shape Sandoval’s rise through every facet of Nevada leadership, which would touch all three branches of government.
“When I applied, I never thought I’d be accepted. It was like going to Mars, that I would be able to intern for a U.S. Senator in Washington, D.C.,” Sandoval says. “Where leadership and politics really started to form for me is when I interned for him.”
It was the first step in a long political career that would take Sandoval from writing laws in the Assembly, to enforcing them—first as a member (and later chairman) of the Nevada Gaming Commission, then as Nevada attorney general—to interpreting them as a federal judge, and finally to the apex of state government as governor. Along the way he collected wisdom that he’ll soon be sharing with students at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law as the school’s first Distinguished Fellow in Law and Leadership.
But it all began in those sheep pens, a chore that helped a young Sandoval earn money and learn responsibility. Initially shy and afraid of public speaking, Sandoval gained an appreciation for leadership from reports he wrote about former U.S. presidents and Civil War generals.
All the while, one particular goal came into clear focus early in Sandoval’s life, something he credits his parents for instilling.
“I had always hoped, and I guess I have my parents to thank for this, that whatever I did, [I would] make a difference,” Sandoval says. “So when you put all of those things together, I think that was the beginning of my leadership career.”
The direction one’s life takes often has as much to do with happenstance as anything. And this was certainly the case for Sandoval, whose future was in part informed by an early exposure to law and lawyers, the result of his mother’s job as a legal secretary at the federal courthouse.
In the afternoons after getting out of Little Flower School — a Catholic elementary school in Reno — Sandoval would go to the federal building and sometimes sit in the back of the courtroom watching the law in full motion. Years later, he’d work as a cashier and busboy in the building’s cafeteria, a job that afforded him the chance to meet and interact with some of those lawyers and judges he observed as a youngster. “That makes an impression on a 13-year-old kid,” Sandoval says. “And I thought, ‘Wow, what a place where you could make a difference in people’s lives!’”
So, after graduating from UNR, Sandoval moved on to The Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, earning his J.D. in 1989. Rather than remain in Ohio, though, he returned to his native Reno to begin his legal career, first as an attorney at various firms in town before eventually starting his own practice.
However, five years into practicing law, Sandoval yearned to do more to advance his lifelong mission of making a difference. In 1994, he ran for office for the first time, seeking the Reno Assembly seat that had been vacated by Assemblyman Jim Gibbons, who was making a first (and ultimately unsuccessful) bid for governor.
Sandoval recalls learning an important lesson in his early days as a legislator: It was more about the people being served than the person in the office. “As I grew into positions of public service, I recognized it was about helping people and making a difference versus being called ‘Mr. Sandoval,’” he says. “It was a big maturation process for me as well. What I learned and was exposed to [as an Assemblyman] made me better as I went on.”
It was in the Legislature that Sandoval began developing his distinctive leadership style, one that valued deliberation over rash action, and thoughtful consideration over quick sound bites. He also learned—from the attorneys with whom he practiced and from such state lawmakers as legendary longtime Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio of Reno—the value of working across the aisle.
“I don’t think anybody would have described me as partisan at any point in my career,” Sandoval says. “For me, it was about gathering all the facts and information, listening, and then, based on what I heard and saw, reaching the best-informed decision that I could.”
Years later, his style would earn him praise from colleagues across the political spectrum.
“Part of what I think is special about him is his authenticity,” says state Senator Heidi Gansert, R-Reno.
Gansert certainly knows Sandoval well: The two were classmates at Reno’s Bishop Manogue High School, where Gansert served as Sandoval’s vice president when he was elected student-body president, his first political office. Decades later, Gansert would once again serve Sandoval — as chief of staff after he’d been elected governor.
Of course, it’s one thing for a longtime, ideologically similar friend to lavish praise on Sandoval. It’s another when it comes from a political foe. “He’s deliberate, thoughtful, and has an ability to listen to both sides and really discern what the most important issues are,” says state Senator Yvanna Cancela, D-Las Vegas. “He doesn’t need to make grand speeches or have bombs thrown into the political back and forth.”
In fact, Cancela — who is currently pursuing her law degree at Boyd — calls herself Sandoval’s No. 1 fan, which might seem odd considering the governor vetoed her 2017 bill that would’ve required drug makers to reveal more information about prices for diabetes medications. But rather than simply stamp that veto and walk away, Sandoval authored a typically deliberative veto message — one that gave Cancela a virtual road map to writing a bill he could sign. Which is what she did, and by session’s end, a new version of the legislation became law with Sandoval’s signature.
“He’s not interested in playing games when the lives of people are involved,” Cancela says.
Although some say Sandoval’s style stems from his legal training, he says it grows out of his personality and background. “I think it’s just in me,” he says. “That has always just been my instinct, and the credit for that really goes to my parents [teaching me] to not reach a conclusion without listening to people.”
Brian Sandoval's Pillars of Leadership
The following 10 principles were distilled from conversations with Governor Brian Sandoval and his associates, as well as through observations of his leadership style over his many years in public office.
Work hard and always come prepared. Good decisions are based on good information, and that takes research and a thorough understanding of the material.
Learn first, then decide. Get all the facts and hear from all sides, then make a decision based on the evidence.
Be pragmatic. The goal of public policy is to find solutions to the problems that vex people. Don’t let ideology or philosophy get in the way of a good answer to a problem.
Give credit where credit is due. Nobody succeeds on their own. Surround yourself with smart people, and give them credit for their part in the process.
Always do what’s in the best interests of all. Don’t allow special interests or personal preferences to stand in the way of doing what you know is right.
Clearly articulate why you’re saying no. Explaining to people how and why you’ve reached a decision—even one they disagree with or one that disappoints—helps them feel they’ve been heard and helps them understand your reasoning.
Be Attentive. Always listen, especially to those who don’t agree, to see if they have valid ideas, and don’t be afraid to implement those ideas. Also listen to individuals as they describe their specific lives and situations so you can better relate to what they’re going through.
Be sincere. Never lie, mislead, or shade the truth. Do that consistently, and others will know you’re being honest.
Try to keep your promises. In politics, this is easier said than done. But by trying your best to honor your word, you instill faith and confidence in your ability to lead.
Give it your all. No matter the endeavor, always give your very best effort every day, so when it’s completed, you will know it was a job well done.
Some saw potential in Sandoval from his earliest days.
“Brian Sandoval was always special,” says Pete Ernaut, chief government relations officer at R&R Partners who was a classmate of Sandoval’s at UNR. “You didn’t know what he was going to do, [but] you knew it was going to be important.”
Ernaut recalls Sandoval as a serious student who obviously had the temperament to study law. Although Ernaut later transferred from UNR to the University of Southern California, he and Sandoval shared a lifelong friendship that would extend to serving together in the Assembly.
While Ernaut did three terms in the Assembly, Sandoval departed after two in 1998 when then-Democratic Governor Bob Miller appointed him to the Nevada Gaming Commission, one of Nevada’s two casino-industry regulatory divisions. The following year, newly elected Republican Governor Kenny Guinn—a man who, like Laxalt and Raggio, would become a mentor—made the then 35-year-old Sandoval the youngest chairman in the history of the Gaming Commission.
One of the many issues Sandoval tackled on the commission was taking on federal efforts to abolish sports gambling (which, until earlier this year, was legal only in Nevada). He also dealt with the thorny issue of neighborhood casinos, which had flared into a political conflagration in Las Vegas.
After four years on the commission, opportunity knocked again for Sandoval in 2002. And again he answered, running for and winning Nevada’s attorney general post, the first time in state history that a Latino ascended to a statewide position. He served under Guinn during the unusually contentious 2003 Legislature, when partisan bickering over taxes kept lawmakers from approving a budget for schools. Sandoval famously delivered a lawsuit to the Nevada Supreme Court on behalf of the governor at midnight on the first day of the new fiscal year, seeking to compel the Legislature to fulfill its constitutional duties.
In addition to handling his own responsibilities as attorney general, Sandoval was in charge of leading a staff of deputies. One such deputy was a young attorney named Jason Frierson, who was just a few years removed from being a member of UNLV Law’s first graduating class.
Like Sandoval, Frierson was a UNR alum. Unlike Sandoval, Frierson was a Democrat. But that difference didn’t stop Sandoval from considering — and eventually hiring and mentoring — the man who today is Speaker of the Nevada Assembly.
“He and I have had a healthy respect for each other and our ability to be frank with each other,” says Frierson, who recalls being surprised that Sandoval personally interviewed him for the deputy attorney general job. “He’s always been very thoughtful about policies, even compromises. He’s always going to be an example of someone I will point to as a statesman, regardless of party.”
After Frierson was hired, the two would occasionally engage in discussions about family and the demands of political life on elected officials. Soon, though, they would go their separate ways, when the man who once cleaned out sheep pens took a career detour to the judiciary. Once again, it involved Sandoval intersecting with a Democrat—only this time, the most powerful Democrat in the country: Harry Reid, a lifelong Nevadan and the state’s longest-serving U.S. senator.
It was 2004, and Reid was gearing up for re-election when — perhaps sensing that the attorney general with the rising political star might enter the race and end up as his chief opponent — Reid proposed Sandoval’s name to then-President George W. Bush as a candidate for the federal bench. Bush agreed, Sandoval’s nomination was approved on an 89-0 vote (with 11 senators not voting), and on October 26, 2005, he assumed his position as a U.S. District Court judge for the District of Nevada.
By all accounts, Sandoval enjoyed his four years on the federal bench, especially the times he was able to fill in on panels for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He counted fellow Nevada District Court judges such as Howard McKibben, Edward Reed, Phillip Pro, and Larry Hicks as his mentors.
After becoming governor, it was Sandoval’s turn to serve as a judicial mentor of sorts: While appointing judges to courts in Nevada, he would recall his time on the bench to future state jurists. “I tell them don’t ever let this become routine, because you’re dealing with human beings, people who have friends and family,” Sandoval says. “Even though you’ve done a hundred sentencings or you’ve accepted a hundred pleas, remember that even though you’ve seen 100 people, they’ve only seen you once.”
Job security. It’s something we all long for, and the second Sandoval was confirmed as a federal judge, he had that security. For life. But even as he sat on the bench each day, Sandoval was fully aware that a political storm was brewing in Carson City.
It was 2009, and Jim Gibbons, whom Sandoval had succeeded in the Legislature 16 years prior, had been elected governor but was facing personal scandal and political headwinds.
Of course, nobody in the Democratic Party was shedding any tears for the embattled governor; rather, realizing Gibbons’ prospects for re-election were slim, they were prepared to reclaim the governor’s mansion for the first time in a decade.
What those Democrats probably weren’t expecting was that a federal judge would come out of nowhere and pick off Gibbons before they could. Not that Sandoval immediately jumped at the chance to challenge Gibbons. Indeed, running for governor — even against an unpopular incumbent — was a daunting prospect for Sandoval. In addition to his lifetime appointment to the bench, he had the potential of rising to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit — maybe even someday the U.S. Supreme Court.
Then there was this little historical hurdle to clear: No incumbent governor in Nevada had ever lost in a primary.
Sandoval discussed the matter with family and friends, including Ernaut. On September 15, 2009, Sandoval decided the risk was worth taking: He resigned his judgeship and announced he would take on Gibbons. The rest is history.
“It takes a special guy to put the state ahead of his own [career] security,” Ernaut says.
As governor, Sandoval confronted many issues that would test his leadership mettle. A deadly crash at the Reno Air Races and the murder of National Guard soldiers at a Carson City IHop restaurant occurred 10 days apart in September 2011. The October 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2017 has been particularly difficult to get past. “That took something out of me that I will never put back,” he says. “I hope that nobody ever has to experience that. … Those kinds of things never go away.”
Sandoval dealt with political crises, as well. After running on a pledge not to raise taxes, an adverse court ruling swept away more than $60 million from the state’s budget on the eve of the close of the 2011 legislative session. Sandoval had two choices: go back on his promise by extending a tax package that was set to expire or make additional and painful cuts to the budget, including schools. He chose to extend the taxes, which earned him the ire of many Republicans.
That doesn’t include his lieutenant governor, Mark Hutchison, a former state senator who ran for the No. 2 spot in 2014 because Sandoval asked him to do so. “Now the question isn’t, ‘What is the Republican thing to do,’ it’s ‘What’s best for Nevada,’” Hutchison says. “Brian Sandoval wakes up every day and thinks about what’s the best thing for Nevada.”
Gansert says her longtime friend had pledged to improve education in Nevada, along with fighting unemployment and adding new businesses. He kept those promises, she says, even reorganizing government to put the governor directly in charge of economic development. That latter maneuver meant one thing: Success or failure would be on his shoulders. “It was personal to him,” she says. “He took on more than he had to as governor.”
Ernaut notes that Sandoval didn’t set out to extend taxes, or impose the state’s first tax on business revenue, which he did in 2015. He said the governor was committed to improving schools and realized that couldn’t be done without more money. “He went about it in the fairest way possible,” Ernaut says. “Sandoval is a lifelong, proud Republican. But he’s a Nevadan first, and that’s all you need to know about him.”
Frierson says his dealings with Sandoval as governor were made easier because of the respect both had for the process. “There are a lot of us who share Gov. Sandoval’s values and respect for the institution,” he says. “We both agreed to put Nevada first in all of that.”
For Sandoval, all of his decisions — whether made as governor, federal judge, attorney general, or legislator — always came back to his fundamental principles: fairness, deliberation, and honesty.
“I’ve always been straight with people,” he says. “I’ve never misled anybody. And you should never underestimate how important it is to look somebody in the eye and tell them that this is what I’m doing and this is why, and you may not like it and I understand that you do not like it, but you need to understand why I’ve made the decision that I have.”
To that point, Republicans during the 2017 session wanted Sandoval to threaten to veto any budget unless Democrats included funding for a stalled school-choice program, one that the governor favored and signed into law in 2015. But Sandoval, a veteran of that contentious 2003 session under Guinn, saw the potential for another standoff that would shut down Nevada’s government and close schools. He refused the entreaties from some in his party.
“I absolutely believe that the road to good public policy and success is paved by working across the aisle, both parties working together. Hopefully, that’s been a hallmark of my career as governor,” Sandoval says. “I hope what is happening in Washington, D.C., does not make its way to Nevada.”
Hutchison, a fellow lawyer, says he’s come to admire Sandoval’s style, both personally and professionally. “Brian Sandoval is a judge,” Hutchison says. “He looks at the evidence, weighs it and evaluates it and comes out with a decision. … He doesn’t just dismiss people who disagree with him.”
Among the many Nevadans who believe the state is in better hands after eight years of Sandoval’s leadership is his former student-council vice president: “I think he’s leaving a strong legacy,” Gansert says.
For Sandoval, that legacy is somewhat bittersweet. With the 2018 death of Laxalt — which was preceded by the passings of Guinn in 2010 and Raggio in 2012 — three of the great leaders of Nevada politics are gone. With them went a different style of political leadership, one that distinguished campaigning from governing, politics from pragmatism, and partisanship from comity. And now the man who has embodied that style as much as anyone is stepping off that stage, too.
He does so, though, to begin yet another new chapter. As UNLV Law’s first Distinguished Fellow in Law and Leadership, Sandoval aspires to advance the program’s goals, which include preparing future lawyers to take leadership positions in government and public service; bringing together national and state leaders and scholars to discuss theory and application; and furthering the academic study of leadership, and the role and ethics of lawyers in leadership positions.
Although Laxalt, Raggio, and Guinn are no longer here to see where their protégé leads this important program, Sandoval insists he’ll continue to be guided by the leadership lessons he gleaned from that trio.
“You’ll like this, because I know you’re a big Star Wars geek,” Sandoval tells an interviewer. “Sometimes I worry that I’m the last of the Jedi. I do. That’s why it’s important to me to stand up this Law and Leadership program, because hopefully I can convey these lessons, as I’m one of the last people who really had the benefit of watching and learning from these giants. All three of them are on the Mount Rushmore of Nevada.”
If Sandoval really is the last of the Jedi, then perhaps his new position will enable him to fulfill the command Master Yoda gave to his final student, Luke Skywalker: “Pass on what you have learned.”