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Power Politics: Incumbent Triumphs Despite Opposition from Utility

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Thursday, June 16, 2022   

Nevada saw a landslide victory in its Democratic primary this week for a state lawmaker who says she was targeted by Southwest Gas and other groups for promoting climate-change legislation.

Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen, D-Henderson, won the primary with about 70% of the vote. Southwest Gas contributed $10,000 to her primary opponent, Joe Dalia, after Cohen sponsored a bill last year requiring that energy planning be aligned with the state's climate goals. The group Nevadans for Economic Opportunity (NEO) paid for mailers attacking Cohen.

"They have a lot of money that they can deploy in small races where very few voters are paying attention to the fact that they're deploying this money, so that's concerning for reformers," said Kenneth Miller, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who is an expert on money in politics. "The good news is that there's not a lot of evidence that that money, when it's spent, influences voters very much."

The Retail Association of Nevada, which funds NEO, also has contributed to the Dalia campaign. Dalia had no comment. NEO and Southwest Gas also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While this kind of political activity isn't illegal, said Matt Kasper, deputy director of the Energy and Policy Institute, which published an investigation into this race, it undermines the democratic process.

"It's unfair when you have a 'dark money' entity do these types of actions in political races," he said. "It confuses voters, it gives them misinformation; voters aren't able to see who is always behind these types of campaigns."

Cohen said she's now bracing for further opposition as she competes in the general election.

"These are groups that endorsed Donald Trump, and then they're coming after me in a Democratic primary," she said. "I worry that this is sending a chilling message to legislators, because if the coalition against me is successful, it's basically telling legislators, 'Get in line or we'll take you out.'"

Cohen's Assembly Bill 380 ultimately failed. It would have given the Public Utilities Commission more oversight over Southwest Gas and would have required the gas company to justify any expansion of natural gas, given the state's goal of "net-zero" emissions by 2050.

Disclosure: Energy & Policy Institute contributes to our fund for reporting on Energy Policy, Environment, Environmental Justice, Toxics. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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