Like Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada looms large in American politics. Its early primary wields outsized influence over Presidential nominations, and its swing-state purple gives it a disproportionate chance of deciding an election. But while Iowa and New Hampshire are, in FiveThirtyEight’s words, “two of the whitest states in the country,” Nevada is now majority-minority with large and growing Latino, Black, Asian, and multiracial populations outnumbering the 48% of the population that is non-Hispanic white. Demographically, Nevada is not far off where the Census Bureau projects the U.S. will be in 2060. In this case, a state with the chance to decide the country’s future also, arguably, reflects it.
Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is both a symbol and a champion of her state’s diversity. The first Latina Senator in U.S. history, she is eager to make the case for Nevada as a “microcosm” for the United States.
Cortez Masto grew up in Las Vegas when it could almost be described as a small town — a place with a single high school, surrounded by ranches and desert wilderness. Cortez Masto worked in Nevada politics and as a federal prosecutor before being elected state Attorney General twice. In 2016, she ran for the seat opened by the retirement of long-time Senator and Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas spent the latter half of the 20th century as the fastest-growing city in the country, its explosive growth contributing to the kinds of conflicts that define environmental politics in the American West. Nevada today, like many Western states, is trying to manage growing urban demands on dwindling water supplies, adapt to the impacts of climate change and transition to a green energy economy, and balance growing economies with fragile wilderness and other public lands.
“The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” a feature-length documentary that culminates this season of KCET’s “Earth Focus" series, explores how Nevada Sen. Harry Reid forged an approach to environmental politics based on conversation and compromise between groups with sometimes wildly divergent stakes in Nevada’s land. When, for example, Reid took on a decades-long legal conflict over the sparse water of Truckee River in western Nevada, he didn’t do so by proposing a master plan. He did it by bringing together groups who depended on the river’s water, including farmers, cities like Reno, and the Indigenous Pyramid Lake Paiute, who had previously been locked out of the process by politicians in Nevada and in Washington. Reid’s office guided negotiations between these groups and helped develop a plan for the water that satisfied, if imperfectly, the needs of farmers, Native peoples, cities, and fish alike.
Cortez Masto speaks highly of Reid’s environmental legacy. She seems to share his distinctive view of green politics: one that’s process- rather than outcome-oriented, based on elucidating the diverse ways people value the natural world and finding ways to honor them, rather than organizing around a shared vision.
In part this means being willing to work with one’s opponents when the opportunity arises. In fact, Cortez Masto has spoken of public lands management and environmental protection as potentially nonpartisan issues, pointing for evidence to the August passage of the 2020 Great American Outdoors Act — which provided significant new funding for acquiring and maintaining public lands and which passed both houses of Congress with large bipartisan majorities. She has also declared her support for legislation written and co-sponsored by Republican senators that would reform the way the federal government leases public land to private businesses for oil and gas extraction, and has introduced her own bill as part of that reform project. At the same time, she’s spoken out forcefully against the Trump administration’s attacks on public protection of land.
But the major test of Cortez Masto’s environmental approach will likely be climate. Here, again, she’s been supportive of Harry Reid’s approach, one defined by compromise, negotiation, and finding local opportunities for action that satisfy broad constituencies.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto discusses how Sen. Harry Reid established a path for green energy and what she is doing to advance that goal in an exclusive "Earth Focus" interview.
Historian and journalist Jon Christensen, an executive producer of “The New West and the Politics of the Environment,” and Graham Chisholm, a conservationist and consultant on the documentary, have gone as far as to describe Reid’s approach to energy and climate change as a “lowercase green new deal” to emphasize its pragmatism and its commitment to local compromise, as opposed to the bold, national vision of the Green New Deal championed by progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.
Cortez Masto’s work on climate and energy suggests she might pursue a middle path. On the one hand, she backs the kind of more-local, less-partisan climate policies that might be described as lowercase. She has proposed legislation that would encourage the adoption of clean and low-carbon energy technologies, electric cars, tech-based “smart communities,” retraining in green infrastructure jobs, and other aspects of a modernized green economy, all accomplished through funding, incentives, committees, and guides directed at state and local governments and private businesses, rather than through mandates or federal construction projects. She’s also focused on balancing these environmental goals with economic ones, for example by advocating for programs to transition workers into clean energy jobs. This interest in negotiation has led to criticisms from some environmental groups of her efforts to open some federal land in Nevada to development while protecting other areas.
At the same time, she has allied herself with Democrats in Congress pushing for grander visions and a more insistent, confrontational politics — one willing to name enemies (the Koch brothers and other Republicans committed to denial and obstruction) and push for top-down federal governance. Cortez Masto sits on the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, with Markey, the Senate’s champion of the uppercase Green New Deal, and with Hawaii’s Brian Schatz, who has specifically questioned whether smaller-scale, incentive-based policies are adequate to addressing the climate crisis.
Indeed, the Senate Committee’s recent climate report certainly promises bold federal action. On the other hand, as Vox’s David Roberts has documented, its process for doing that was not unlike Reid’s: Cortez Masto and her colleagues invited a huge range of stakeholders to share their views, including groups, like labor unions, that have opposed climate legislation in the past. In this sense the Committee’s work is part of a broader project on the left to develop climate plans that are visionary and pragmatic, and based on a Democratic coalition broad enough to overcome a Republican party radicalized against every possible climate action.
If Democrats take control of the Senate this fall, they will have to decide whether to make the climate crisis a priority and, if they do, how to put the United States on a path toward a decarbonized future. That might mean a choice between local compromise and national vision. It will certainly mean listening.
Top photo: Among environmental policies championed by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is a bill to protect Nevada's Ruby Mountains, pictured here, from oil and gas development. | U.S. Department of Agriculture/Creative Commons License