Pierce was one of a kind, not soon forgotten

Peggy Pierce always scared me a little bit.

She was diminutive in stature. But she always seemed coiled, ready to unleash a verbal arrow at any sign of a lack of purity, any false equivalency that THEY might be right and she might be wrong.

She was intense, smart, passionate. And, most of all, fearless.

She brought all of that to her long battle with cancer before finally succumbing early Thursday morning at the age of 59. Nevada thus lost what it has rarely found: A deeply principled liberal who knew too many of her plaints would fall on deaf ears but who would never give up trying to be heard. As too many of her colleagues sacrificed principle for pusillanimity, she was never afraid to, yes, pierce a business lobbyist’s argument or rail about the unfairness of the tax structure. She was not just the proverbial voice for the voiceless; she was their champion, their avatar.

Amid the outpouring of grief and tributes on Twitter after the news broke, Assembly Majority Leader William Horne put it best when he labeled her “the conscience of our caucus.” Indeed, in the often-conscienceless world of Carson City, Pierce symbolized what is so often missing from politics: A true believer who was true to herself at all times. And indomitable to boot: “Peggy Pierce was tougher than you, and took no s--t,” attorney Bradley Schrager succinctly tweeted, perfectly encapsulating her.

When a politician dies, I often am struck by how insincere the stream of condolences can be, the pro forma nature of it, the say-what-is-expected effusions. But not with Pierce.

She touched people, even those who disagreed with her, because she was so real, and because she was so undeterred in the face of such great pain, because, I think, her backbone and strength were the envy of all who knew her.

“Every day she was my inspiration because times were tougher for her,” Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick said. “She would tell me, 'Listen here, girlfriend. We’ll get through this.'”

Pierce was no ordinary politician. She had no college degree but was manifestly smart. She came to Las Vegas to be a lounge singer, but stage fright prevented her from pursing that as career.

Pierce was working at the Desert Inn and soon become active in the Culinary union, and some of that organization’s rough and tumble tactics would serve her well later.

“Even though she was a nice person and got along well with Republicans,” her boyfriend, Jon Sasser confided, “she was well grounded in union tactics and didn’t have any trouble with hurt feelings, or not being perceived as a nice person.”

But, as Kirkpatrick said, many lobbyists who felt her wrath in the hallway or at a committee hearing respected her intellect and drive, even if they sometimes were put off by her vehemence. Las Vegas Metro Chamber lobbyist once said Pierce called him out in the produce section of a grocery store. Anyone who knew her can readily imagine that scene.

"I liked her personally and we sat together on the plane many times; a very congenial lady," veteran business lobbyist Jim Wadhams recalled. "She was on the opposite side of some of my clients on certain issues but she was never rude, abrupt or dismissive with me.  She realized that I had clients to represent.  When she told you where she was on an issue, you could pretty much count that vote."

Pierce knew the end of her career was coming in 2013– not from the cancer but because she was term-limited – so she told Kirkpatrick in 2011 that before she left, she wanted to vote for two bills in her final session: Taxes and medical marijuana.

Pierce actually got to vote for medical pot twice. The first vote on the last day of Session ’13 was 26-16. But lawmakers had forgotten they needed two-thirds because it has a fee, so they had to vote again after securing two more ayes. Without Pierce, it would not have passed.

Her final vote came a few hours later for another measure she deeply cared about – the background check bill destined to be vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval. Democratic leaders thought they might need her vote for that bill – turns out they had one to spare – so the wheelchair-bound Pierce stayed for a few extra hours to be there.

“I'll never forget her being wheeled in on the last day for a couple of key votes,” recalled longtime Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Lorne Malkiewich, now a lobbyist. “The embodiment of courage.”


Oftentimes, be it in Carson City or on Capitol Hill, the loudest voices of conservatism or liberalism don’t get much done because the system pushes everything to the mushy middle. Pierce did not have her name on a lot of successful legislation, tilting at windmills as she so often did. But she had a profound impact on the process and her colleagues.

“She did so much in that building behind the scenes that people don’t even know,” Kirkpatrick said. “She knew every bill inside and out. She would argue with people about giving in to their fears. In our caucus meeting, she was always headstrong. She could bring perspective to people. She worked so hard.”

Pierce also did not fear confrontation. It wasn’t her default position, and she would often sit through committee hearings, absorbing what she thought was disingenuous testimony without saying a word. Until she could take it no more.

Two memorable examples:

In 2007, during an Assembly Taxation Committee hearing, she was listening to the banking industry talk about how it had been unfairly treated during the 2003 tax increase and needed relief. Her sympathy knew bounds:

I was here on this committee in 2003. I remember hours of testimony about how all of you were going to go away if we passed these taxes. I got hundreds of emails from every imaginable business saying you were all going to leave, but you know what? I am still shopping here. I can still find stores and banks. None of the threats made to this committee in 2003 have come to fruition.

Did we fix our education system? No, we made some baby steps. There are still children in this State with no health insurance. On every list we want to be at the top of, we are on the bottom, and on every list where we want to be on the bottom, we are at the top. When I look at this State and ask myself what needs to be fixed, bankers never come to mind.

Another priceless Pierce moment came just this year, her cancer unable to sap her vigor and outrage as business lobbyists serially testified about the apocalypse the teachers union’s margin tax would bring.

You did not like the gross receipts tax in 2003. You have not liked anything in all the terms I have been here. You guys have not liked anything in the quarter of a century that I have lived in this state. You do not like any taxes that you or anybody you know has to pay. So what is the solution? We were going to get to this day. Sooner or later the people of the state were going to run out of patience. If you did not think we were going to get here then maybe you should be talking to somebody besides just you and your little circle of friends. I am telling you come election night 2014 you are all going to be sitting there looking like Karl Rove looked last election night, saying "gee I did not know that was going to happen," and January 1, 2015, this becomes law and you will have nobody to blame but yourselves, because all you ever say is no.

I considered Thursday if Pierce’s quixotic fights ever left her ready to throw in the towel, ready to surrender to the inevitable Carson City crushing.

“She got very frustrated,” Sasser said. “She was just saying she didn’t know if she wanted to do it anymore, that we were just kicking the can down the road, that we really need much more than that. But she would always screw up her courage.”

I wonder in the wake of Pierce’s death who is left in Carson City on the left with that kind of fortitude mixed with conviction and passion. Who will pick up the mantle and proudly and loudly wear the liberal label as Pierce did?

State Sen. Tick Segerblom? State Sen. Pat Spearman? Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton? Assemblywoman Lucy Flores? Someone in leadership – Kirkpatrick or state Sen. Debbie Smith?

Pierce was small, but those shoes are huge. I’m not sure we will see her like again.

The last email I have from Peggy Pierce was not, surprisingly, about how wrong I was about something or how I should amplify a point I had given short shrift. It was about music.

I had made a reference to Levon Helm, the great drummer/singer for The Band, in my morning newsletter.

“You are a fan of The Band ?!?!,” she wrote to me, the punctuation reflecting her usual animation. “Now that surprises me.”

She followed up by informing me, “It is one of the few things that I regret, that I did not beg, steal, or borrow to get the money to go to ‘The Last Waltz,’” a reference to the seminal Martin Scorsese film of the group’s 1976 farewell concert.

My guess is Pierce, full of life and passion, was the kind of person who didn’t leave many regrets behind. So this last waltz is for you, assemblywoman: