Why you should care
Because control of Congress will come down to candidates like this.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. If Muhammad Ali’s mantra for boxing has any resonance in politics, it’s here against the neon glitz of Las Vegas, where brawling and betting are virtues — and where the district’s graying 67-year-old Democractic congresswoman is a veritable master of both.
Much like the district she serves, first impressions of Dina Titus can deceive. The Thomasville, Georgia-born granddaughter of Greek immigrants still betrays a gentle southern lilt as she speaks softly to veterans at a recent festival, wearing a patriotic sweater. You could be forgiven for not recognizing the woman who, if you check her Twitter feed, is gleefully tossing President Donald Trump’s budget into the garbage “where it belongs,” she writes, on an infinite GIF loop. Celebrating a Grandparents’ Day festival while holding hands with Latina dancers, Titus talks about the importance of keeping families together and promises to provide legal aid to the immigrants gathered there. In the moment, it’s hard to picture the hardboiled, savvy campaigner who has twice defeated Democrats handpicked by Harry Reid, the dean of Nevada politics. “She is a progressive, and the base likes her a lot,” says veteran journalist Jon Ralston, editor of The Nevada Independent. But she also “knows how to be a street fighter,” he adds.
— Dina Titus (@repdinatitus) May 23, 2017
By all accounts, Titus has a masterful one-two punch: an unblinking focus on her district, plus a keen eye for politicking that discourages would-be challengers. A University of Nevada, Las Vegas, political science professor for nearly three decades — during which she also served as a state senator and senate minority leader — Titus has a network of academics, donors and former students trickling through all levels of local government. Despite an establishment résumé, her stances have been decidedly forward-thinking, pacing her party on everything from gay rights to marijuana and health care. “She was on ‘Medicare for all’ before Bernie [Sanders] could say it,” Ralston says. “She is smart, she is tough, she is outspoken,” adds Shelley Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman who represented Nevada’s 1st District.
Titus has already positioned herself at the center of some of the most heated political battles in Washington. She is “smarter and more effective than most progressives who like to throw bombs and not get much done in this state,” Ralston says. Recently, Trump revived efforts to turn Yucca Mountain, in southwestern Nevada, into a depository for nuclear waste. But Titus has opposed what locals call the “Screw Nevada Bill” at every turn. In the last omnibus spending measure, Titus introduced six amendments to protect marijuana companies, although none of them stuck. Yet she did manage to pass legislation — no small feat with Republicans controlling all levers of government — to shorten the Department of Veterans Affairs appeal process, part of a reform bill signed into law by Trump last month. “What you do is pick your battles,” she says, saying that many Republicans in her district are “able to see what I do for veterans, and separate my criticism of Trump from other things.”
Ardent progressives like Titus pose a new kind of challenge for Democrats nationwide, as they debate whether to lean moderate or to double down on liberalism.
In Sin City, marijuana advocates nicknamed Titus the “Queen of Cannabis,” in part because she voted to decriminalize marijuana way back in 2001. And since voters chose to legalize weed in November, she’s helped multiple dispensaries and growers open businesses, while sponsoring bills in Washington to bring banking services to marijuana companies and to allow the VA to recommend pot as an alternative to pain pills (both efforts, so far, have failed). Meanwhile, advocates for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program praise her office’s legal services department and strong stance against deportation. Her office hasn’t just helped with visas for the Hispanic community; her district, with Ethiopian cab drivers and Armenian churches, plus emerging Chinese and Korean populations, is the most diverse in the state. In one particular example, Titus remembers having to expedite visas for 74 Chinese acrobats just days before their performance. “I like to compare our district to The Hangover,” she laughs, referring to the 2009 hit comedy. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
Ardent progressives like Titus pose a new kind of challenge for Democrats nationwide, as they debate whether to lean moderate or to double down on liberalism in their quest to win elections. The GOP controls more than two-thirds of state legislatures and governorships, but Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (who did not respond to a request for comment) is considered one of the more vulnerable Republicans nationwide. Titus has publicly said she’ll make a decision on running soon. But Reid, newly elected Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and political action committee EMILY’s List threw their support behind Jacky Rosen, another congresswoman, before Titus could announce her candidacy. That’s in part because some Democrats have suggested Titus isn’t moderate enough to win a general election, ever since she lost the governor’s race against Republican Jim Gibbons in 2006.
Still, if Titus chooses to enter the Senate race, she very well could win — twice before she’s rolled the dice against, and beat, Reid-backed primary opponents. After a recent poll put her and Heller in a “statistical tie,” Titus pushed a release saying, “These figures dispel the Reid myth that I am not competitive in a statewide race.”
Will she jump in or decide instead she can accomplish more in the House of Representatives? Titus won’t say just yet, but this much is clear: She’s more than ready to brawl with the candidate handpicked by the state’s most powerful Democrat — and betting against her could be a losing hand.
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