Meet John Lee, the man who says he can turn Nevada around as governor and lead the Silver State back to its pre-pandemic glory days.
Dressed smartly in a business suit heading into an interview, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee appears to check all the boxes for a modern politician. But once he begins conversing, the two-term mayor comes across more like a friendly neighbor.
That everyman charm will likely be an asset in Lee’s run as a Republican candidate for governor. In a time when politicians are often accused of being elitist, the North Las Vegas mayor would rather leave his jacket off, only reluctantly donning his coat for photos.
Lee, a sitting mayor and former state legislator, hopes to unseat Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak next year. The mayor is new to the Republican Party, having just switched over after spending his political life as a Democrat.
The former Democratic politician says, from his viewpoint, the Democratic Party has taken a dangerous turn toward socialism. Lee says current Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has also embraced a socialist style of governing.
“I think when you’re a socialist, you seem to think you have all the authority. You have all of the leadership and everyone should do exactly what you say,” he explains. “I don’t think, as governor, that’s true. I think, as a governor, you should include local government officials in the conversation.
The challenger from North Las Vegas says that fact was evident in the way Sisolak handled the pandemic last year.
“[Sisolak] just issued order after order after order, never taking into consideration what the cities and the counties knew (about) what was happening in their communities. (He was) just making edicts,” Lee maintains. “I don’t think that’s how it should be done. I think it made us all distrust him for the way he was trying to handle the situation.”
What Would John Lee Do?
North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee is openly critical of Gov. Sisolak’s handling of the pandemic, as are many Nevadans. But when the mysterious COVID-19 virus came out of China and showed up in Nevada in March 2020, few knew exactly what to expect. Lee concedes that point. He counters, however, that it was Sisolak’s ongoing handling of the pandemic that was a failure of leadership.
“I think the governor needs to communicate in a clear and decisive direction,” the mayor says. “We didn’t know what was going on, as local officials, until we saw it on TV just like everyone else. There was some input that we could have put into that.”
Lee is not the only local leader in Nevada to challenge Sisolak’s March 2020 decision to shut down the state because of the pandemic. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman famously called for opening up her city on national television with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Despite taking a lot of heat from national pundits for her stance, Goodman stayed true to her beliefs. Not surprisingly, the Las Vegas mayor received a lot of support from Nevadans who felt like their freedoms — and livelihoods –were being taken away.
Carolyn Goodman can also count fellow mayor John Lee among her supporters. Lee calls Goodman “a woman of courage.”
“As a leader of a community of 600,000 or 700,000 people, they want to hear what their leadership thinks, and they were able to listen to their leader,” he continues. “They could choose to wear a mask or whatever. But the essential businesses that they needed to have open were just mandatorily shut down.”
What would John Lee do differently than Steve Sisolak? For starters, he would never deem some businesses “essential” and others “non-essential.”
“All businesses are essential – to the business owner and to the people who work there,” he insists.
Lee says as governor he would not use a one-size-fits-all solution for the pandemic response. He would assess, county by county, hospital-room availability, along with each county’s individual COVID-positivity rate. Only then would he determine what the response should be. And, he would involve local leaders in the decision-making process.
The current North Las Vegas mayor is not a fan of shutdowns, nor of mask mandates. Instead, he favors giving Nevadans the freedom to choose whether or not they should “mask up.”
The inclusion of local governments in making decisions about potential pandemic restrictions is a must, Lee says. On that front, Nevada’s current governor failed, he claims.
“I never got one phone call, not a bit of courtesy from the governor at any time during this pandemic and since it started,” Lee complains. “(Sisolak) does not include others in his decision-making process.
“As far as I’m concerned, we don’t have a governor; we just have a stand-in because he’s not a leader. He’s not leading us.”
Past becomes present as Sisolak implemented a mask mandate for July 31st, in the wake of rising COVID cases in Southern Nevada, which were blamed mostly on the new Delta Variant.
Following the mask-up order, Lee released a statement, saying: “What started as a two-week mandate (in 2020) has turned into 16 months of overreach by Steve Sisolak. Nevadans know best how to protect themselves,” he continued. “…(W)hen government gets overly involved,
Nevadans lose their freedoms, lose their personal rights, and our economy suffers.”
The governor brought back the state’s mandate after the recommendations were announcement from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As of July 31st, the state requires face coverings be worn indoors in public in counties with “substantial or high transmission.” Twelve of Nevada’s 17 counties — including Clark, home to Las Vegas — fitted the criteria as of the end of July.
Lee points to his city’s efficient model of setting up vaccination sites as a clue to how he could improve on Sisolak’s COVID response in the Silver State. The North Las Vegas mayor also says Nevada’s current governor lacks independence. Instead, he followed the lead of the Golden State and its governor, fellow Democrat Gavin Newsom.
“Initially, (Sisolak) just looked towards California,” Lee opines. “I would have listened to the Nevada experts a little bit more, and I would have learned more about the virus — and who were the vulnerable. I would have learned about what protections we needed.”
Newsom has his own problems in California, including a recall election that was primarily fueled by California residents angry over COVID-related lockdowns and state-mandated business closures. Lee says Nevadans share the anger of Californians, and he puts the blame square on Gov. Sisolak: “He isolates himself from the responsibility of working with others and chooses to be a dictator, and that’s how a socialist would comport himself.”
First Round: John Lee Versus Sheriff Joe Lombardo
While John Lee is aiming for Gov. Sisolak’s job, he doesn’t have a clear path to the Republican nomination. Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo has also thrown his hat into the ring to be Nevada’s next governor.
As a fellow Republican, Lombardo looks like Lee’s main competition in the primary. Lee recently also called on Lombardo not to enforce the latest mask mandate.
The North Las Vegas mayor says he has vast business experience, along with being a former state lawmaker. He is running a city. Lee says all those things make him vastly more qualified than a sheriff to take over the state’s top job. “He’s been a good sheriff but that’s about the end of the experience level that he has on running a government,” Lee says of Lombardo.
“No, he is not qualified to be governor,” he adds about the sheriff. “That would mean that every sheriff in the county should be the mayor, and that’s not true, throughout the rest of the state. You need to have some business acumen; you need to understand how banking works (and) bonds work.”
From Overcoming Personal Challenges to Challenging the Governor
John Lee, who at 65 actively hikes and bikes like a much-younger person, has had his own share of health challenges. He survived stage 4 cancer, which he talks about in campaign ads as “bad luck cancer.” More recently this spring, Lee survived COVID. He remembers his virus symptoms as milder.
“I was sick for about three days, but I was just exhausted! It just wiped me out,” Lee recounts. “I hike a lot and I bike a lot, but I was exhausted. I’d get up and do some stuff and I had to go back to bed and I would go back to bed exhausted. I didn’t lose my appetite. Food tasted good to me. Maybe I was just healthy to begin with at this age, and it was better for me. But it was no different than what the flu would have been when I was a 20-year-old.”
Lee knows COVID can be deadly: “Now if it gets into your lungs, I agree it is so dangerous — if it gets into your organs,” he adds.
Despite catching the coronavirus, himself, Lee is still opposed to mask mandates. Instead, he calls them an “individual responsibility.” COVID vaccinations should also be an individual decision, and not mandated or coerced on people, Lee believes. This coincides with his views about personal freedoms.
Perhaps that non-controlling attitude is where Lee’s ability to make people feel at ease around him comes from. Many people who meet John Lee, regardless of their political viewpoints, often tend to like him. He will take money out of his own pocket, and offer it, if someone’s parking meter is running out. The North Las Vegas mayor comes across as genuinely caring about those around him.
That could be very appealing to those residents Lee talks about, especially the rural residents. They may feel disrespected, ignored and discarded over the last few years.
“A Feeling of Hopelessness in Nevada”
“I just got done touring 16 of the 17 counties, and there is such a feeling of hopelessness in Nevada right now with him as governor,” Lee observes. “(Sisolak) pretty much (implies), ‘Since you guys didn’t vote for me, I’m not doing anything for you.’ He gives (the rural residents) no access.”
The candidate for Nevada governor offers up what he says is one case of rural counties being ignored by the current occupant of the governor’s mansion:
“The governor is failing to provide essential services to rural counties. For example, if you live in Battle Mountain and your son or daughter turns 16 years old and you want to get a driver’s license for that person, you have to go over to Winnemucca. That is a whole other county. That’s because they don’t give that service in Lander County,” Lee points out. “Everyone in Nevada pays the same tax rate, pays the same bill, and you should be getting services from your state.”
Nevada residents may want to get what their tax dollars pay for, but they are also increasingly afraid of federal – and state — government overreach, Lee says. But he is running on a platform of personal freedom and responsibility.
For example, the Biden Administration’s rollout of the door-to-door COVID vaccine checkers is a terrible idea, according to Lee.
“Who knows if next time they don’t come to your door to say, ‘Why aren’t you working? Now we’re going to force you to work.’ Or, ‘Are you religious? What religion are you?’” Lee warns. “Once people have access, (it opens the door). That’s what the (protections of the) Bill of Rights are about.”
Lee Promises to Defend Gun Rights and Election Integrity
John Lee promises to support efforts to repeal Nevada’s new mail-in voting law, which was passed during the height of the pandemic. He acknowledges a lot of Nevadans – especially Republican voters and Trump supporters — still don’t believe the 2020 presidential election passes the smell test.
“We need to purge the rolls of people not living in Nevada anymore,” Lee insists. “If people live in a house, they just bought (somewhere else), and they’re getting the ballot to vote in Nevada (when) they don’t live here anymore —I think that’s ridiculous.
The Republican candidate says Nevadans must be assured in the integrity of their own vote, as well.
“But (as for) these Dominion (voting) machines — we need to prove the security of them. I don’t know if there was massive fraud, but if people believe there was, they won’t trust the system.”
Lee is opposed to ballot harvesting, as well: “People seem to think that ballot harvesting is a trick that the Democrats want to employ. But I can tell you right now the Republicans and Independents, everybody else will start doing this. It’s not just something you can blame on one party,” he continues. “This will become the new way of working for your party. Everyone will do this. It will be a mess.”
Another hot-button issue in America is guns rights. The North Las Vegas mayor says he has always been top-rated by the National Rifle Association, even as a Democrat. And Nevada, as an open-carry state, has a lot of residents who fear that the government may try a gun grab.
Lee wants to assure the people of the Silver State he will protect their constitutional rights under the Second Amendment. That includes a pledge to veto any such ban on the capacity of gun magazines.
“I’ll ask people, ‘Why do you need that certain kind of gun if you’re not a hunter?’ Their answer to me is strange. They love their country but they don’t trust their government,” Lee recounts those conversations. “They say to me, ‘Do the police have that gun?’ And I say, ‘Yes, probably.’ ‘Does the Army have that kind of gun?’ ‘Yes, probably.’ ‘That’s why I have the gun.’”
Close to wrapping up his interview, John Lee’s tone turns reflective: “A lot of this is a lot of distrust over the government at this time.”
Lee hopes Nevadans will see him as a person they can trust.
Valerie Miller is an award-winning journalist based in Las Vegas. She can be reached at (702) 683-3986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.