Senate Dems pass over assemblywoman, endorse NSHE regent to join their ranks

By: - April 18, 2024 5:15 am

NSHE Regent Michelee Cruz-Crawford, left, and state Assemblywoman Clara Thomas.

The Nevada Senate Democratic Caucus endorsed Michelee “Shelly” Cruz-Crawford, a first-term Nevada System of Higher Education Regent, over Assemblywoman Clara Thomas, in the Democratic primary for Senate District 1. 

In an interview with Nevada Current, Thomas attributed the party caucus’s decision to back a regent instead of a fellow state legislator to Thomas’s opposition to Democratic-sponsored restorative justice reforms from a previous legislative session that had ​​made it more difficult for schools to suspend or expel children.

They decided to speak of the elephant in the room and basically tell me I went against the caucus,” Thomas said, referencing her endorsement meeting. “I felt that was not necessary. They brought up the fact that on these two bills I went against a caucus member and I just don’t understand.” 

The initial restorative justice reform, she said, was passed in 2019 to address the disproportionate discipline practices for students of color, particularly Black students. 

Since the restorative justice measures created by the bill were adopted right before the pandemic, Thomas said it didn’t receive proper funding nor sufficient time to be implemented. 

Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo campaigned on rolling back criminal justice reforms passed in 2019 as well as repealing the restorative justice law. 

Lombardo’s broader efforts to reverse earlier enacted criminal justice reforms was largely ignored by Democrats, and only received a hearing in the final days of session during intense budget negotiations where the legislation was considerably scaled back. The restorative justice repeal supported by Lombardo, on the other hand, had garnered early support from Democrats. 

Thomas said her vote against the 2023 bills, which gives more leeway for school administrators to be able to suspend or expel, reflected what her constituents wanted. She added she was elected as a “legislator to be the voters’ voice” and not simply support the caucus. 

“If we sit there and are sheep and press the green button to say yes to whatever, what are we doing up there?” she said. “Why are the citizens sending us up there? They could just send robots.”

She was one of four Democrats to vote against both pieces of legislation in the Assembly. Democratic state Sen. James Ohrenschall, whose seat isn’t up for re-election this year, was the lone Democrat in the senate to vote against the bills.

Cruz-Crawford, who is a principal at Ronnow Elementary School, agreed with using restorative justice in schools adding any programs adopted have to be properly funded and staffed.

“If we’re not supporting it financially, or with the manpower or training or curriculum we need, it’s just another unfunded mandate,” she said. 

In addition to providing resources to address the root causes of student behavior, Cruz-Crawford said lawmakers need to monitor any measure that could lead more Black and brown students being disproportionately suspended.

“In order for something like that to work we need a principal in the legislature,” she said. 

Thomas, who was first elected to the assembly in 2020, and Cruz-Crawford, who won a seat on Nevada Board of Regents in 2022, are vying to replace the termed-out state Sen. Pat Spearman.

Spearman also endorsed Cruz-Crawford in September. 

The winner will face off against Republican Patricia Brinkley, though the district has an overwhelming Democratic majority.  

Democratic lawmakers already have a majority in the senate but are one vote shy of a veto-proof majority. 

Cruz-Crawford said if they get a veto-proof majority they can ensure school vouchers, a priority for Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, never get funded and take steps to further protect reproductive health. 

Thomas and Cruz-Crawford both criticized Lombardo for vetoing several tenant protection bills, including legislation that would have temporarily capped rents for seniors for one year. 

“Right now we have seniors being evicted and we could have prevented that from happening,” Thomas said. “We have to bring back all of those housing bills the governor vetoed.” 

For the last few years, Cruz-Crawford said she has had to navigate the housing crisis by directing families to rental and utility assistance. 

On top of addressing housing, Cruz-Crawford said lawmakers “need to look at raising the minimum wage.”

When they had a trifecta, Democrats passed legislation in 2019 to raise the minimum wage gradually to $12, far lower than push from organizers for $15 but deemed palatable by Democratic leadership.  

Cruz-Crawford didn’t have a specific figure in mind. 

“I would leave that to the subject matter experts and economists to look at how many hours someone would have to work to afford a one bedroom apartment,” she said.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that it would cost $23 an hour to afford a one bedroom apartment and not be considered rent burdened.   

During her time at the legislature, Thomas helped pass Assembly Bill 140, which made Juneteenth a state holiday, and Assembly Bill 119, which expands the Maternal Mortality Review Committee to explicitly review disparities among persons of color, 

While she hasn’t served as a state lawmaker, Cruz-Crawford said as a regent she helped draft Senate Bill 352, which passed in the 2021 session. The legislation creates a path for education support staff to go through an accelerated student teacher program.

Cruz-Crawford said the bill is designed to increase the number of teachers of color to be more reflective of the community. 

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) is an award-winning journalist with Nevada Current. In addition to covering state and local policy and politics, Michael reports extensively on homelessness and housing policy. He graduated from UNLV with B.A. in Journalism and Media Studies and later earned an M.S. in Communications at Syracuse University.

Nevada Current is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.