By Daniel Rothberg

The Nevada Independent

On a cool fall morning near a town called Beowawe, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto sat at the head of a wooden table flanked by a half-dozen ranchers. Through the window behind her, blue skies stretched over a large swath of arid ranch land dried out for the winter. It was Oct. 30 and the leaves were lying on a valley floor filled with scrubby grasses and set within a low-elevation mountain range colored classic Nevada brown. The land was quiet.

But all was not as peaceful as it seemed. The senator already knew this when she walked into the Horseshoe Ranch meeting room that Tuesday and took a seat at the table.

For much of the hour-long meeting with members of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, Cortez Masto and the ranchers spoke in rangeland jargon peppered with acronyms that would make the roughly 80 percent of urban Nevadans want to bury their heads in the dirt outside.

Cortez Masto grew up in Las Vegas and should be one of those Nevadans oblivious to the thorny debates around post-fire Emergency Stabilization & Rehabilitation, Herd Management Areas and the National Environmental Policy Act, which ranchers call NEPA. But the Las Vegas resident understands NEPA, the policy and the political barbs flying around it.

That was the observation that Sam Mori, a Tuscarora rancher and the head of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, made to end the meeting in Beowawe, which lies about 45 minutes west of Elko.

“I’ve been very impressed with your knowledge of what we’re talking about here,” Mori said of Cortez Masto’s grasp of rangeland issues.

“It’s my legal background,” the senator replied to some laughter in the room.

The senator was on her second day of constituent work during the Senate’s fall break. Over the next few days, a portion of which The Nevada Independent spent with her, Cortez Masto traveled down I-80 and U.S.-95, stopping in rural communities along the way.

The senator’s trip was largely not about politics. It was exactly one week before a key midterm election but Cortez Masto, who less than one month later would be named to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was not out to stump on the campaign trail.

It was about a cattle guard. It was about tribal funding. It was about the nitty-gritty of dealing with the federal bureaucracy that manages more than 85 percent of the state’s land mass.

And the senator’s “legal background” reply to the ranchers turned out to be more than a clever quip. During the weeklong trip across Nevada’s rural counties, the former attorney general and federal prosecutor earned a reputation at meetings and roundtables as someone who could contextualize nearly every constituent problem in the minutiae of the law.

What this allowed the senator to do was have substantive conversations with constituents — few who likely voted for her during her last election in 2016 — that were more detailed than the answers given by most politicians. Rep. Mark Amodei, who represents most of rural Nevada, and Cortez Masto have different styles, but they rest on similar content: a knowledge for the intricate workings and complicated relationship between federal, state and local governments..

For a senator who said throughout the trip that relationships are the cornerstone of governing, this ability to deploy bureaucratic details proved key to building trust in rural parts of the state where any Democrat is typically viewed as persona non grata.

In Winnemucca later that Tuesday, businesses and local policymakers gathered in the Humboldt County Courthouse, a 1920s-era building with a distinctly Old West feel, to express frustration with subpar broadband coverage in rural Nevada. A representative from Barrick Gold said modern mining required the use of iPads and any lag-time in broadband posed a safety risk. Law enforcement officials told Cortez Masto the lack of internet redundancy also posed risks with 9-1-1 outages and had made it more difficult to pull up a suspect’s history at a traffic stop.

About halfway through the meeting, a woman complained that the Federal Communications Commission’s classifications of what areas had adequate broadband were entirely off-base.

At this point, Cortez Masto, who sat on a committee overseeing the agency, interjected.

“Their mapping is wrong,” she said. “Their mapping is completely wrong. We have talked to them about the process for doing accurate mapping in coordination with the local communities.”

Cortez Masto said later that she learned her candid approach from her father, Manny Cortez, a former Clark County commissioner and head of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

“The only thing you can do is be honest with [constituents],” she said her father had told her. “Tell them why you are voting that way. They may not like it. But they’ll respect you for being honest with them. And that’s all I know how to do. Be honest and talk to them. “And [whether] they’re there at the end of the day? They may be or they may not be. But I have to do what I think is right.”

At the ballot box, many voters were not there when Cortez Masto, a Democrat, ran for her Senate seat in 2016. Cortez Masto won the statewide election but lost every county aside from Clark, where about 75 percent of the state’s population lives. In rural counties like Elko, Democrats like Cortez Masto often lose to Republicans by a margin of more than 50 points.

A big complaint in rural Nevada, even among some registered Democrats, is that the party’s candidates do not spend enough time visiting towns like Elko, Battle Mountain or Winnemucca.

Di An Putnam, the Republican mayor of Winnemucca when Cortez Masto visited, said she felt that way about most Democrats. But she said Cortez Masto’s approach was different.

“She doesn’t come out not knowing what we’re about,” Putnam said. “She’s done her homework on us before she gets here. It’s just a pleasure knowing that she actually goes out into the state and understands… We are so different in rural Nevada than you are in the metropolitan areas. A lot of the issues are the same but on different dimensions. We are looking for different things.”

Cortez Masto also came with tangible results, passing out a fact sheet before the meeting that chronicled the broadband legislation she had championed. Several bills, such as the SPEED Act, which would “eliminate duplicative regulations” for companies that wanted to build infrastructure for wireless facilities, she sponsored with Republicans like Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker.

Constituents consistently told the senator that they wanted more “flexibility.”

Ranchers told the senator that they wanted more flexibility in the rules that govern their ability to graze their cattle on public land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages about 67 percent of the state’s land for multiple activities including mining, ranching and recreation, awards grazing allotments to ranchers. These allotments come with restrictions about how, when and where ranchers are allowed to graze on federal land. Before the allotments are approved, they need to go through an environmental analysis, as required by that flashpoint acronym, NEPA.

The problem is that flexibility for one group on federal land often means taking away something from other interests.

Ranchers said they wanted more flexibility to open up extra feed or start grazing cattle earlier if they could prove that there were benefits to the landscape, such as a reduction in wildfire fuels

“I’m absolutely willing to tackle this,” Cortez Masto said in the meeting, saying she’d be open to working across the aisle with Amodei, who has made NEPA issues one of his top priorities.

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