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Political Tales of the Sagebrush State

Professor Michael Bowers on writing the essential textbook on Nevada's political scoundrels and budget battles.

Research  |  Aug 16, 2018  |  By Paul Szydelko
man in law library

Political science professor Michael Bowers' book on Nevada political history sheds light on the state's Libertarian leanings. (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)

Sometimes, you just have to do it yourself. Political science professor Michael W. Bowers saw an urgent need in his classroom for a concise, up-to-date book about how Nevada’s history has shaped its political institutions. So he wrote it.

book cover of Sagebrush StateThe Sagebrush State: Nevada’s History, Government, and Politics was published by the University of Nevada Press first in 1996. The just-released fifth edition includes Bower’s insights about changes in the courts, the state’s emergence from the Great Recession, and how Clark County has steadily gained control of the Nevada Legislature.

What motivated you to take on this project?

At the time [1996] there were no books of that type. Eleanore Bushnell and Don W. Driggs of the University of Nevada, Reno, had published a book about the Nevada Constitution, and it had been through many editions. But after they both retired, it did not continue [after 1984].

All that was available were large history tomes that didn’t fit for what was needed in the classroom. We needed something that was relatively short, relatively inexpensive, and could be assigned as a supplementary text. I saw that niche.

What was conducting research like back then?

It was a lot harder than it is now with the internet. I spent a lot of time in the UNLV Library and in the Clark County law library downtown.  It was actually quite painstaking … lot of notes and lots of photocopies at 10 cents a copy.

What’s new in the fifth edition?

One is the addition of an intermediate court of appeals [to alleviate the Nevada Supreme Court’s workload]. I added material on that — the creation of it, what it does, what its caseload is and how it’s different from intermediate courts in most other states. It’s a “push-down” court where the Supreme Court still gets all of the appeals but then pushes some down to the intermediate court of appeals.

Another update is the state budget. At the time the fourth edition came out in 2013, we were in the Great Recession and things were looking very bleak. Things have turned around. So I included material on the budget, the new Commerce Tax, and increases in spending on education.

Clark County’s almost-total control of the Legislature [is also covered]. Clark County has had a large number of representatives because of its population, but the leadership was almost always from the North or from the rural areas. That has really changed [because of term limits].

Did you come across anything that surprised you?

I’ve been teaching since 1984, so I’m pretty well versed. If there was anything that surprised me, it was the level of scoundrel and corruption and bribery. I had known that was part of Nevada’s history, but it was perhaps even more ubiquitous than I had imagined.

What historical figure would you’d like to get to know more?

[Mining lawyer] William Stewart was such an all-powerful figure during the territorial and early statehood period. He controlled what happened, and if he didn’t like what was happening, he would get rid of you like he did with the territorial Supreme Court justices. They weren’t doing his bidding, and so they were gone. He was a U.S. senator after Nevada became a state and was very powerful in that position as well.

Anybody more recent?

Gov. Brian Sandoval is a very interesting character. Here’s a fellow who stepped down from a lifetime appointment as a federal judge to become governor. There was no guarantee that he was going to win and even if he did, at most he would serve as governor would be eight years. There are some Republicans in the state who are moderates, some who are very conservative. You compare him to someone like Jim Gibbons, who had been absolutely incompetent as governor. Sandoval has exhibited incredible competence, moderation reaching across the aisle, working on things in a bipartisan fashion, solving problems [during] the Great Recession. There are not a lot of people who can and are willing to do that.

Why study history?

You can’t really understand where we are as a state if you don’t understand the state’s history. For example, the decision in 1931 to allow for legal gaming and the decision in 1931 to make divorce easier help explain some of the state’s libertarian leanings.

How has UNLV changed since you’ve been here?

When I came to UNLV in 1984, we had 11,000 students. We now have more than 30,000. We have also increased in diversity. That’s a reflection of the diversity of Clark County, but UNLV has also done a very good job of recruiting a lot of different people from different places. It’s much larger, more diverse, and more research-oriented than it was.

If you weren’t a professor, what would you have been?

I was going to be a lawyer, right up to my junior year in college. But I realized more what lawyers really do on a day-to-day basis. It’s a lot of sitting in an office and working on contracts, deeds, wills, and other paperwork. I was still very interested in the notion of law, particularly constitutional law, so I talked to one of my political science professors. He asked, “Have you ever thought about being a professor because you could teach constitutional law.” That’s when the lightning bolt hit: You know what, that’s a great idea.

Do you have any pastime that would surprise your students?

Nothing that would surprise anybody, I suspect. I don’t have some strange hobby of collecting doorknobs. I travel as much as possible. I’ve traveled to other states and countries, and I’ve gotten to see how their courts work.

I just got back from New York, where we saw seven plays in five days, plus we got to see the David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which was absolutely incredible. I always liked him fine, but I wouldn’t call myself a fanatic or anything. I saw him in concert at the old Joint [in 2004], and it was probably one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen.