Piss and vinegar

Las Vegas CityLife

January, 1999

Ask Steve Miller why he's running for Las Vegas mayor and his answer makes it clear the 1999 race is going to be a grudge match.

"I wish her well as a human being," Miller says, the kind of preface that lets you know there's a whopper coming. "But as a politician I am out to destroy her because that's what she did to me, and I'm going to show her how it feels."

OK, then.

Former City Councilman Miller's distaste for Jones ("My personal opinion is that she's corrupt. My personal opinion is that she's a pathological liar") springs from their last clash over the Big Chair at City Hall in 1991. A throwaway line in a last-minute Jones mailer (based on a 1988 Las Vegas Sun story) claimed that cocaine had been found in a car Miller was driving.

But the flier was wrong on two counts: The white, powdery substance was never identified as cocaine, and Miller wasn't driving the used Porsche, which he'd purchased for his daughter, when the it was found. (See "Dead Horse Rising," CityLife, June 11, 1998.)

Miller sued, but the legal action languished in the courts, was dismissed and appealed, until, seven years later, in what can only be seen as political serendipity, the state Supreme Court reinstated the lawsuit on the eve of the mayor's race.

Miller, who says Jones' flier ended his political career, cost him his reputation and even briefly caused a flap with the Federal Aviation Administration over his pilot's license, now sees the 1999 mayor's race as his chance to get justice.

"I've got nothing to lose but the blues," he says.

But political observers say Miller doesn't stand much of a chance with the popular Jones, whose name recognition and campaign organization, fresh from her unsuccessful race for governor against Kenny Guinn, are prepared.

In fact, the last time Jones was in this position, after her bruising loss to incumbent Gov. Bob Miller in the 1994 Democratic primary, Jones bounced back to defeat six other candidates by garnering 71.8 percent of the vote in the primary, avoiding having to go to a runoff.

In their 1991 face off, Jones (in her first campaign) beat Miller, scoring 52 percent to his 27 percent in the primary.

Of course, Miller has shown some political acumen, too. He came in second in a 1995 last-minute bid for his old council seat, and in his first race in 1987 he beat longtime Ward 1 Councilman Al Levy and four other candidates in the primary with 51.9 percent.

Since then, however, Miller has become more of a gadfly than a political force, says Las Vegas political consultant Gary Gray, who has managed City Council candidates in the past. "It's not the kind of message or the kind of messenger that voters want to send to City Hall.

"Jan Jones has done a great deal for the city, and she's been a great ambassador for the city," Gray says. "She just needs to remind voters what she's done."

R&R Advertising President Billy Vassiliadis says Jones has solid support behind her, including organized labor and women voters, and high name recognition, thanks to the governor's race.

"I think anybody who goes in against her will be an underdog," he says. "I think Jan is going to be hard to beat."

While Miller estimates the price tag for the race at $200,000, Vassiliadis says any challenger will need at least $1 million to be competitive. Plus, he says, Miller's former stature on the council has waned since he's been out of office, including time he spent as a talk radio host. "I just don't think he's got a lot of credibility," Vassiliadis says.

Which leaves other rumored challengers for the mayor, like former Clark County Commissioner Jay Bingham, City Councilman Arnie Adamsen and anti-government crusader and ex-governor's candidate Aaron Russo, all of whom are rumored to want the job. (Another would-be mayor, Councilman Michael McDonald, who maneuvered into the mayor pro tem slot in the event Jones had won the governor's race, has announced a heavily favored bid for re-election to Ward 1.)

Still, life with Miller in the race will not be pleasant for Jones. Not only has Miller dogged her before and during the governor's race with complaints to the state Ethics Commission (one of which ethics commissioners ruled in September was "vexatious" and resulted in a $2,500 Miller fine, which he is appealing) but he promises to pound on the resurrected libel case at every turn. The court's majority opinion, in fact, includes a line that couldn't have been done better if Miller had written it himself: "The statement at issue seems likely to have created in the mind of the reader a factual scenario at odds with the truth." Translated, it suggests Jones lied in the flier, something Miller has been trying to prove for years.

Miller, citing his record on the City Council and involvement in community service groups like Goodwill Industries and Opportunity Village, says his spur-of-the-moment decision isn't only about getting back at Jones. "I call this an offering. My life doesn't need this at all," he says. "I'm offering something. If the people want it, they can have it."

Jones, who was returning to Las Vegas from a holiday vacation, could not be reached for comment.