MY SUNDAY COLUMN: Anderson was one of a kind: Tough but loving, a stickler for tradition

Toward the end of a special session in 2002, as the trial lawyers and their legislative advocates prepared to succumb to political realities and accept a tort reform compromise they abhorred, the chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee could not hold back his tears.

Bernie Anderson looked at Speaker Barbara Buckley and told her something like, “Madame speaker. I’m with you. I’ll be with you. But I just have to say this. For the sake of politics, we’re going to hurt real people here.”

That was Anderson, who died last week at the age of 71, a hopelessly emotional, painfully honest lawmaker who respected the capital institution he inhabited from 1991-2009 but never became corrupted by it. He would take fellow legilsators and misbehaving lobbyists to his infamous woodshed, but his tirades always were leavened by his motivations, which were true to his beliefs and passions.

“He was a schoolteacher from Sparks when he went there and he was a schoolteacher from Sparks when he left,” said veteran lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis, with the unspoken addendum that too many had lost their moorings and been changed, not for the better, by their legislative service.

“He was a good, honest man who remained true to his roots,” said Vassiliadis partner and Reno-based lobbyist Pete Ernaut. “He never forgot a single kid he taught nor the hard working people of Sparks he represented. Bernie exemplified everything we all should want in our elected officials.”

I have said before that often the faux, cloying sincerity visited upon public figures upon their passing, while perhaps understandable, nevertheless can grate. But there was no pretense, no artifice as the encomia poured in for Anderson, who surely had lectured Ernaut and others a time or two about their behavior.

He was not just lovably irascible; he was much loved. And he was a throwback, too, to a time when rules were made to be followed and not flouted, when traditions mattered.

“I used to call him the Bob Byrd of the Nevada Assembly,” said another longtime lobbyist who knew him well, Greg Ferraro. “He believed strongly in the “process” and was a stickler for decorum.  He expected everyone around him to have the same level of respect for the rules and for legislative traditions that he did.  He was always disappointed with the cavalier attitude expressed by many of his colleagues.  He demanded respect as a chairman and he wanted others to respect the process the way he did.  It caused many unnecessary speeches in committee, but no one questioned his purpose or his desire.”

Ferraro called Anderson a “common man with an uncommon commitment to do good things,” not a “legislative dandy or an eloquent lawyer-legislator.”

Indeed, the longtime chairman of the judiciary panel was not a lawyer at all. He assumed the chairmanship because of seniority in 1995, the year of a rare 21-21 split, with his Republican counterpart, David Humke, now a Washoe County commissioner, his co-chairman. The vice chairs were a couple of freshmen: a future speaker named Barbara Buckley and a future governor named Brian Sandoval.

But his lack of a juris doctor did not stop the irrepressible Anderson, who often was accused of being a handmaiden of the trial lawyers (as all Democratic chairs of that committee are), from lecturing those who went to law school about the Constitution or what a statute meant. Having to defer to the chairman surely took a lot of forbearance from the legions of lawyer/lobbyists invited to the woodshed, but I bet most of them smiled about it later – and surely are doing so wistfully today.

“We are taught in law school about the ‘reasonable man’ test,” said longtime trial lawyer Bill Bradley, a pallbearer at Anderson’s well-attended funeral Saturday. “Bernie WAS the reasonable man.”

Anderson had a great sense of humor and a wry smile that I remember well. And he knew how to legislate, including helping to enact a drug court in Nevada.

Here’s a classic bit of Anderson legerdemain:

Before the 120-day deadline became law in 1998, the date of sine die was a mystery. Anderson had committed to killing a couple of bills he did not like, but he did not want the slaying to be noticed.

As a chairman and insider, he knew when the session would end. So he posted the bills for a hearing. The day after he knew the session would be over.

“Bernie was the same to everybody, so we all saw the joker and the rules taskmaster,” recalled longtime Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Lorne Malkiewich. “He took his office and his committee seriously, and that is a trait we can use in the Legislature. But ‘respect for the institution’ is something you'll hear from many. He bridged the pre- and post- 120-day session and always gave me a hard time about the deadlines for policy committees. The white board that he used to track bills in Judiciary belonged to the Legislature but was on permanent loan to him.”

As technology became more a part of the process, one part of it drove the chairman bonkers: cell phones.

Trial lawyer advocate Matt Sharp mentioned it in his eulogy but Vassiliadis fleshed out the best story. Shortly after he had been woodshedded by Anderson over his cell phone ringing during a Judiciary hearing, the lobbyist, who had flown back to Vegas, had to reach the chairman.

Anderson was presiding over a hearing in the Legislative Building and began looking sternly around the room when he heard the phone go off. It took him a few moments to realize the sound was emanating from his own pocket.

My own experience was Anderson was mostly limited to exchanges in the hallway or on the floor. I experienced that famous twinkle in his eye when he asked me, every time, words to this effect: “What trouble are you causing?” And, yes, I saw what Sharp called the “Bernie shuffle,” his inimitable way of shifting back and forth when he was talking to you.

Vassiliadis saw an analogy between Anderson the schoolteacher and the legislative didact, a man who believed in toughlove and who “bemoaned the loss of decorum in that Legislature, whether it was lawmakers staring into their computer screens or using cell phones, walking in and out of committee meetings. He was very old-fashioned in that way. Bernie treated his committee like a classroom, and legislators and lobbyists like his kids. He wasn’t afraid to teach them but wasn’t afraid to give them detention.”

After Anderson passed away, Buckley, his former vice chairman and later boss in the building, Buckley wrote a note to his daughter, Cairn Lindloff, trying to capture in a few words a man who she had come to know as a friend and ally.

Here’s some of what it said:

Smart, gruff, loyal…..

Lover of tradition…government…our legislative process

Quick to anger, quick to forgive, quick to tear up at someone being hurt…he would be the first one to give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.

Lover of Jameson’s….taught many a legislator the art of enjoying whisky….

Hard decisions were pretty easy for him……he knew right from wrong…and that was really it.  He hated abuse of power.

A man of family.  Amazing wife and daughters….loved those grandchildren……..

A man of faith.  We loved him filling in for the chaplain…….His faith was an important part of him.

A man of conviction…..He knew right from wrong.

A man who knew how to support friends…….he would take a bullet for you (and he did for me)

A man with a sense of humor, the twinkle in his eye when he thought of a way to cause mischief

A man of ties….what a tie collection

A man who loved kids…and devoted his life to teaching kids about our government..he would never forget to ask about your kids when you spoke to him.

A man devoted to education…he spent so much of his time believing in education and fighting to improve it…and would just shake his head at reformists who never spent a day in a school

A man devoted to Sparks….loved his hometown…and vigorously defended it at the legislature.

A man devoted to improvements in the lives of others.  Together with John Carpenter, the three of us passed landmark child welfare reform legislation to keep children from languishing in foster care.  I remember him looking at me when we finished and saying “we did good.”  He was so proud.  He loved his legislation creating the drug court and when he heard of a graduate, he teared up.

We’re the ones crying now, assemblyman.

(Photo from