-By Valerie Miller
With a history binding them to the same hallowed Clark County halls, Nevada’s top female politicos share their passion for improving the Silver State…one example-setting measure at a time.
Many people look back on high school with mixed emotions. Nostalgia, humor, recollections, longing, and sometimes regrets may color memories of teenage days gone by. But for two Nevada women, their time at Clark High was the start of something big.
Now the Chief Judge of the Nevada Court of Appeals—the first woman to hold this seat in the Silver State—Abbi Silver sits beside me, thumbing through her Clark High School yearbooks. The daughter of prominent Las Vegas surgeon Frank Silver, she recalls the lifelong bonds formed in those school days in the early 1980s; in particular, then- teenage Silver struck up a friendship with another student with a prominent dad: Catherine Cortez, daughter of the former head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority—the late Manuel “Manny” Cortez.
Silver’s own father, Frank, had opened the
Boulder City Hospital, and the two high school girls met after Frank Silver transplanted his family to Las Vegas from what Silver remembers as a very happy life in the small Nevada town of Boulder City.
“I had a nice childhood, growing up there in Boulder City,” Silver recalls. “My dog followed me to school half the time. It is just a really nice place to grow up. I had a pretty idyllic childhood.”
But Frank Silver wanted to practice medicine in Las Vegas hospitals. Then a sophomore, Abbi transferred to Clark High School where she met Catherine, and the two teens did everything from work on the yearbook together to play on the powder-puff football team.
“[At Clark] I met a lot of my friends that remain my friends to this day, including Nevada’s own U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. I knew her as ‘Catherine Cortez,’” Silver reminisces, turning the pages of her senior yearbook for the class of 1982. “We [did] yearbook together. And, as you can see, she signed my yearbook right here on the first page.
“One of the things she told me was, ‘I hope … you have a great life,’” points Silver. “That is Catherine’s entry right there. It was really sweet.”
While the two young women parted ways after graduation, they stayed in touch over the years and found themselves on similar paths. Both graduated from separate law schools and became attorneys. One started out working for the Clark County prosecutors’ office (Silver) while one went on to become Nevada’s attorney general before being elected as Nevada’s first female senator last November, as well as the first Latina in the United States Senate (Cortez Masto). And after voters passed a measure in November 2014 creating the Nevada appellate court, Cortez Masto gave Silver a reference for the latter’s appointment to the new appeals court…the first woman to hold the seat.
You could say it’s been something of a tag-team, mutual admiration society between the two former high school classmates.
“I have known Abbi for so long, and I am proud of her,” Cortez Masto says in an interview where she was all too happy to discuss her old friend. “[I’m] proud of what she has done after high school…and now she is one of our appellate judges.”
In an age of raised eyebrows and cynicism over some of our elected officials, Cortez Masto says she still sees that friendly teenager she first met more than 35 years ago in the woman Silver is today. “Abbi has not changed, and that is a good thing in the sense that she is so full of life. Everybody she has ever met just loves her.”
Alternately, Silver volleys back.
“We have watched each other’s careers build,” says Silver. “It is really pretty neat that she is our U.S. senator now. I am really proud of her.”
There were other famous (and sometimes infamous) people who went to Clark High at the same time as Silver and Cortez Masto. “Lance Malone was our student body president and our senior ball king,” says Silver reaching for her 1980 yearbook—her first year at Clark. “And when I show you the senior ball picture, you are going to see Rory Reid was also on the homecoming court, which is kind of fun. So, I had some really interesting characters there.”
Indeed, Clark High School’s early 80s’ classes had their share of stars in Nevada history: Rory Reid, the son of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, would go on to head the County Commission and would also launch an unsuccessful bid for Nevada governor in 2010, losing to now-Gov. Brian Sandoval. (In an ironic twist, Cortez Masto would fill Harry Reid’s senate seat when he retired in January.)
The student body also included people who would go on to become well known for some of the wrong reasons. Former Senior Ball King Lance Malone, who attended Clark and graduated before Silver and Cortez Masto, became a country commissioner and lobbyist but later became ensnarled in the infamous “strippergate” scandal of a decade ago, and was convicted of being the “bagman” in the Cheetah’s strip-club scheme involving influence peddling and county commissioners. In 2005, Malone was sentenced to 36 months in prison. (He has since been released and lives in the valley).
Malone graduated in the Clark High class of 1980…a class that was also not immune to senseless tragedies.
As Silver admires Malone’s photo—her high school crush—she points to a beautiful girl who was part of that same royal court. “That young lady was murdered,” says Silver. “Her name was Jamey Walker. That was a cold case. She was murdered the year after high school in ’81. She was raped and murdered out by Lake Mead. And they just found her killer through DNA.”
The story, which had hung over the class for more than 30 years, involved a ransom demand for Jamey Walker’s safe return. As daughter of the late past president of the local NAACP, Eleanor Walker, she was considered “Westside royalty” and was kidnapped from her home. The press reported her later making pleas for help on the phone to her parents. But she was murdered before the ransom could be raised in what was Nevada’s first kidnapping-for-ransom of an African American.
Last year, convicted felon Willie Lee Shannon accepted a plea deal whereby he entered an “Alford plea” in Walker’s death, a type of plea that allows a defendant to admit the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them, but does not require them to admit guilt. Shannon—nicknamed “The Cannon”—was a Nevada state boxing champion and neighbor of the Walkers. A Clark High grad and UNLV student at the time of her death, Walker was Las Vegas’ first African-American prom and homecoming queen. Her king? Danny Tarkanian, who Walker’s mother had recalled in earlier press accounts. Tarkanian became a 2016 Republican Congressional candidate who narrowly lost his race in November to Jackie Rosen, Cortez Masto’s fellow Democrat. Danny Tarkanian is also the son the late, legendary UNLV Runnin’ Rebel Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Silver turns the yearbook page to recall happier memories involving classmates. “Also, in my senior year, right over here, we have two other judges that I am very good friends with: Judge Joanna Kishner and Judge Kathleen Delany. Kathleen was a year younger than me. And then Joanna and I were actually law-school roommates.”
With plenty more entries to write in the yearbook of their lives, Cortez Masto says she thinks the combined success of herself and her former classmate will inspire future generations of school girls to reach for their dreams.
“We meet so many incredible people in our community, including young girls,” says Cortez Masto. “There is this kind of twinkle in their eyes. It is exciting in the positions that Abbi and I hold, because we are blazing a trail for them. And the young girls that I meet—Latinas, and so many wonderful high school girls, elementary school girls—they know they can achieve.
Judge Abbi Silver: Winning Cases to Win Equality
March is known for celebrating women in business and in history. Fittingly, Judge Abbi Silver recently made state history by becoming the first female chief judge of the Nevada appellate court.
Silver has certainly paid her dues. After graduating Clark High School in 1982, she went to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and graduated from UNLV as a political science major in 1986. (Fun fact: The future judge tried her
hand in professional cheerleading for the Utah Jazz in the 1980s, when the NBA team played some home games in Las Vegas.
It was only when departing for law school that Silver briefly moved away from Southern Nevada. “We had no law school in Nevada. We were one of a couple of states that didn’t have one. So, I went as close as possible, to L.A., to Southwestern Law School,” Silver says. “I went for 3 years, came back, and started practicing [law] immediately. I took and passed both the California and Nevada bar [exams].”
Silver soon worked for the district attorney’s office, where she became chief of the special victims unit at the DA’s office. That SVU prosecuted cases involving domestic homicide; domestic violence and stalking; sexual assault; and, sexual abuse of children and adults. “It [also] involved abuse involving physical or mental injury of children. Shaken babies, [or] any kind of medical case would go to our unit,” she explains.
Silver’s career ascended with her election to Municipal Court in 2003. She was then elected to Las Vegas Justice Court in late 2006, and took office in January 2007. She soon filed to fill a District Court vacancy, and was later elected twice without opposition. In 2014, Silver was appointed to the newly created court of appeals.
Despite her advancement and achievements, Silver says that starting out as a female attorney in the late 1980s and early 1990s was no easy task.
“A judge, judges: they called me a ‘girl attorney’ and [said] I was too pretty,” Silver recalls. “Honestly, they meant it really nice. It is just [that] as a woman, trying to get respect…I definitely can tell you women worked really hard to get respect, especially at the beginning, in the DA’s office.”
Silver hasn’t forgotten the struggle for equality. “It was really tough because I came in with two guys, and they got all the really good cases, and I got put on some track that really didn’t have any trials,” she says. “So, I had to work twice as hard.”
While the work has been hard, it has also been fascinating. Some of Silver’s cases became the subjects of true-crime books or television series; among them, the 1998 case of the defendant John Patrick Addis. The book Ghosts, by local reporter Glen Meeks, covered the case.
“Addis was an Alaskan State Trooper who actually taught crime scene investigation,” recalls Silver. “He had been fired from the police department after he had abducted his kids from Alaska and kept them from their mother. Ultimately, he met a woman here in Las Vegas under a fake identity. Unfortunately, that woman vanished in Arizona and was presumed dead.”
Silver successfully managed to get a rare indictment without having the body of the victim. Sadly, while her success in that case was groundbreaking, Addis fled to Mexico and was never brought to justice, and claimed more victims before authorities caught him.
“He was so horrible that there are many, many TV shows on this particular case, like on America’s Most Wanted,” she explains. “Ultimately, when I became a judge years later, they found him in Mexico, dead, with a new wife who he had abducted. He had children with her and, ultimately, he killed himself and his whole family in Mexico.”
Judge Silver has been invited several times to appear on the Discovery Channel’s Investigative Discoveries television program. Once or twice it was for the story of Mary Kay Beckman, the Las Vegas woman who was nearly murdered by a man named Wade Ridley, who she met on Match.com. That case, due to the nightmarish scenario of meeting a monster on a dating site, continues to retain viewer interest.
“They call the episode the ‘Dates from Hell,’” Silver says. ”I still get calls from the Discovery Channel—as of last Thanksgiving. They wanted me to come in the beginning of December to Minneapolis. I just wasn’t able to get there.”
She couldn’t get there that time, but Silver says her dedication to being an advocate for those who can’t fight won’t stop. And thanks to her new position, Silver’s passion for justice can benefit Nevada for years to come.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto Is Ready To Fight Our President
Nevada’s first female senator is keeping herself very busy.
In late February, Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., squeezed in this phone interview before preparing to attend President Donald J. Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress. Not surprisingly, the Democrat and Nevada’s first Latina senator is not a fan, and has been vocal in her distain for President Trump’s policies and many of his cabinet picks…one of which hits especially close to home.
Cortez Masto was among the united group of Democrats that opposed the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to head the department of education. Cortez Masto points to her own public school roots at Clark High School, where she attended with Nevada Appellate Court Chief Judge Abbi Silver, as an example of a successfully improved public school. “It is now a magnet school for math and science that is publicly funded,” says Cortez Masto, “and that is a positive thing. That is why I did not support Betsy DeVos. She has spent most of her life diverting money away from public schools. We need to be ensuring that we are funding an education system that has equal access for everyone to get a really great education.…Unfortunately, we are now at the bottom of all the bad lists when it comes to education, and we need to improve it.”
Nevada’s new junior senator would also like to find a way to make college more affordable so that students “don’t have to mortgage their future just to get (a degree) and to fall into this enormous debt.” In particular, Cortez Masto would like to make it easier for students to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. Says the senator: “The government should not be making money off of students.”
Another key point for Cortez Masto is making technical school educations a viable, available option again.
One of the first big political battles of this new Trump Administration has been over immigration. In February, President Trump issued an executive order temporarily suspending immigrants and visitors from a handful of nations that the Obama Administration had identified earlier as hotbeds of terrorism. A federal judge in the state of Washington stopped that executive order, and the court ruling was upheld by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Trump has since revised and re-issued another such order.
Cortez Masto is diametrically opposed to the president’s immigration and travel policies. “My first bill that I introduced in the United States Senate was to rescind that [executive] order, because I think it is that wrong solution for what we are dealing with,” says Cortez Masto. “The solution to this broken immigration system that we have is to pass comprehensive immigration reform. It is not to build a wall. It is not to tear families apart. It is not mass deportations. What we should be doing is working in a bipartisan manner to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which I know can be done because the United States Senate has done so. We have passed a comprehensive immigration reform, in the past, in a bipartisan manner.”
The American people would benefit from such a move, says Cortez Masto. “The comprehensive immigration reform would reduce our deficit by a trillion dollars. We would add to our gross domestic product by $832 billion. It would grow our economy and create jobs.”
And, while the Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, Cortez Masto acknowledges she doesn’t want to see “Obamacare” scrapped.
“I don’t support repealing the Affordable Care Act, which has given healthcare to millions of Americans and 400,000 Nevadans through the Silver State Healthcare Exchange and expanding Medicaid,” she says. “It has addressed the most egregious practices of the insurance companies when it comes to pre-existing conditions, closing that doughnut hole for seniors, and ensuring that we are doing everything that we can to bring healthcare access to the most vulnerable in our society. That should continue.”
Cortez Masto hopes to “repair” the Affordable Care Act, rather than repeal the legislation. “For me, it has always been, ‘Let’s keep what works in the Affordable Care Act and fix what does not.’ That is the starting point for me.”
Democrats and progressives, especially, are likely the most eager to embrace some of Cortez Masto’s ideas on change. But her other causes, such as reducing student debt, could be supported by a broad base of Nevadans. Certainly, Cortez Masto seems eager to deliver on behalf of those who believed in her.
The chances of the success for Cortez Masto, and her longtime friend Silver, seem like a better bet than most in Vegas.
Valerie Miller is an award-winning journalist based in Las Vegas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org