The Law School Magazine  ·  Spring 2012 : Features

Servant The Leader: Brian Sandoval ’89 shares lessons learned during meteoric rise

By - Spring 2012
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After the votes were counted and the victory secured, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval ’89 faced a num­ber of daunting challenges: Nevada had the highest unemployment rate in the United States and led the nation in fore­closures. The state’s high school dropout rate was alarming; so was its budget deficit.

Sandoval revamped the state’s economic devel­opment system, ushered in a number of education reforms, and recently named James Guthrie – a senior fellow in education policy at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas – the state superinten­dent of schools. He said the changes are part of an effort to restructure outdated government service models and resuscitate the troubled state.

“I felt like the status quo had gotten us there,” said Sandoval, who was elected in November 2010.

Sandoval returned to Moritz on March 15 to share his thoughts on leadership as the keynote speaker for the Program on Law and Leadership’s Fifth Annual Speaker Series. The former Nevada attorney general, state legislator, and federal judge spoke in detail about “transformational” and “ser­vant” leadership.

“You can never go wrong when you make prin­cipled decisions,” he said. “Don’t take shortcuts.”

Sandoval grew up in Sparks, Nev., where he raised sheep and sold wool for spending money as a child. His mother, a legal secretary, often took him to work. Sandoval said his first job outside of selling wool was working in the cafeteria of a federal courthouse.

He graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 1986 and chose The Ohio State University for law school over the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. Sando­val’s brother, Ron, was in veterinary school at Ohio State when Sandoval made the decision to come to Columbus.

“I had never set foot in Ohio,” he said. The brothers started somewhat of a family tradition: Their mother, Teri Sandoval, would later earn her Ph.D. in education from Ohio State.

Breaking barriers, making history

Sandoval returned to Nevada after graduation and entered public life shortly thereafter. He was elected to serve in the Nevada Legislature in 1994 and became the youngest state gaming commis­sion chairman a few years later, at age 35.

Sandoval became the first Hispanic elected to statewide office in Nevada when he was elected attorney general in 2002. It was the first of many such designations: Sandoval is Nevada’s first Hispanic governor and became its first Hispanic federal judge when he was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2005.

“I wish I wasn’t the first. It shouldn’t have taken this long,” he said.

Sandoval credits the help of mentors, including former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn and longtime Nevada state legislator William Raggio, for inspir­ing him to think longterm and “make the right decision, not the popular decision” when faced with tough challenges. Sandoval encountered plenty during his first stint in statewide office.

His first week as attorney general had him fac­ing journalists during a press conference on one of the most pressing issues of his tenure: Yucca Mountain. As attorney general, Sandoval led the state’s efforts to prevent the federal government from storing nuclear waste at the site.

During his first year in the Attorney General’s Office, a budget stalemate at the statehouse resulted in a crisis that threatened to leave public schools unfunded as lawmakers failed to reach the two-thirds supermajority the state required for any tax increase.

At the request of then-Gov. Guinn, his office sought a writ of mandamus to force the Legislature to pass a budget. The case ended up before the Supreme Court of Nevada, which granted the writ and ordered the Legislature to pass a budget by simple majority. The outcome drew protest from some GOP leaders.

Sandoval, a Republican, said he remembered the advice of his mentors – thinking of long-term effects and making principled, sometimes un­popular decisions – whenever he took heat from members of his own party.

“It was important to me that (the attorney gen­eral’s office) be a law office, not a political office,” he said.

Sandoval made waves in 2010 when he defeated incumbent Gov. Jim Gibbons in the GOP primary and then bested Democrat Rory Reid, son of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, in the general election. Sandoval carried every county in the state.

He has since embarked on an ambitious cam­paign to add 50,000 new jobs in the state by 2014. The new plan establishes regional development agencies and creates a cabinet-level economic development position with the authority to issue grants and loans to foster business creation, ex­pansion, or relocation to the state.

“We had an economic development system that was the same as it was in the 1970s” before the plan, Sandoval said.

Ready for national stage?

Sandoval describes himself as a believer in “ser­vant” and “transformational” leadership styles, which place a high value on empathy, vision, sacrifice, and the charisma to motivate followers to work for the greater good. He contrasts this with “transactional” leadership, or an “I exchange things of value with subordinates to advance” management style.

He pointed to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. as well-known examples of great leadership. Ryan White, the American teenager who raised awareness of AIDS during the 1980s, and Terry Fox, the Canadian whose cross-country run raised money for cancer research, are also good examples, Sandoval said.

Sandoval said his time on the bench prepared him to be a more open and accessible leader, someone willing to break partisan gridlock with well-reasoned compromise.

“As a judge, when you’re in court you listen to both sides, you take in the evidence, and you make a decision,” he said.

National party leaders have taken notice. Sando­val’s name has been bantered about as a possible vice presidential candidate in the 2012 presiden­tial campaigns. He said while the talk is “very humbling,” he plans to remain in Nevada and run for re-election in 2014.

Sandoval said he is troubled by signs that the public has lowered its expectations for what life in the United States can – and should – be like. He recalled a presentation by a Gallup executive at the recent National Governors Association confer­ence in Washington, D.C. For years, the American dream was defined in broad, lofty terms of peace and prosperity, he said. Now, polls show the dream is defined in much simpler, more personal terms: Most people just want a good job.

“Think, for a moment, of the implications of that shift in the national psyche,” Sandoval told students, faculty, and friends from the Class of 1989 who attended his March 15 speech in the William B. Saxbe Law Auditorium.

He urged those in attendance to help usher in a different national narrative.

“You’re the ones who get to write it,” Sandoval said.

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