From Journalist to Senator



(AP Photo/Cathleen Allison) / AP

Ten years ago, Ben Kieckhefer entered Nevada for the first time to cover the state legislature for the Associated Press. Today, he’s entering his second term as a state senator, and holds the second-most powerful Republican position in the Senate.

In any other state, such an ascension would not be possible. Not so in Nevada, Kieckhefer said.

“I went from coming here for a six-month job, living in my Ford Taurus, and getting elected to state senate in seven years, based entirely on the fact that people in Northern Nevada accepted me, took me as I came to them, trusted me, believed in me, and provided an opportunity for me,” Kieckhefer said. “That’s a beautiful thing that you don’t get everywhere.”

Arriving as a total stranger, and now serving as one of the most powerful members of the State legislature, Kieckhefer’s journey was not always smooth sailing—including stints as controversial Governor Jim Gibbon’s press secretary. But through his time in Nevada, Kieckhefer said he has continually learned to appreciate the values of policy, bipartisanship and what makes government run well.

Kieckhefer’s path from humble beginnings to legislative power began in college, where as a senior at DePaul University he balanced coursework with evening shifts at United Press International news service. Though majoring in English, Kieckhefer was essentially entering the family business—both his father and grandfather worked for UPI outlets.

“Journalism was in the blood,” Kieckhefer said. “It runs in the blood in my family”

After graduating from the University of Illinois, Springfield’s Pubic Affairs Reporting Master’s program, Kieckhefer began working for a number of news organizations, including the Associated Press, the Reno Gazette-Journal and the City News Bureau of Chicago.

Though he began his career in Illinois, Kieckhefer said the level of press access in Nevada is much more open than in Illinois. At one point, he attempted to interview the Illinois governor at a dinner before being stopped by staff members prior getting within three tables. Nevada, however, was completely different.

“Fast forward to 2003, I come here; I’m working for Brendan Riley, the sage AP reporter,” Kieckhefer said. “We sit down to have lunch at Mom & Pop’s (Diner), early in the session, and Kenny Guinn just comes and sits down, sits there and talks to us. No staff, nobody with him, he’s just Kenny, and he sat there for an hour. Literally, you couldn’t get rid of the guy.”

It was a combination of the friendly environment and a relationship began with his future wife, April, which prompted Kieckhefer to stay in Northern Nevada after his AP gig was completed. After working for the RGJ for several years, he transitioned into a public relations job before eventually being hired by Gibbons as press secretary in 2008.

An anonymous letter to the editor in the Las Vegas Sun remarked that Kieckhefer was committing “career suicide” by joining the Gibbons administration. Almost immediately, controversy began to arise.

“I basically got offered and accepted the job, and then immediately following was the news that there was some discord in the marriage,” Kieckhefer said. “It was tough on staff. But, it was a tremendous experience for me, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. I’m proud of what I did there and how I conducted myself there.”

Gibbons fired Kieckhefer in November of 2008, amid claims of wanting more experience in his press secretary. Though he landed on his feet at the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, he said there were no hard feelings lingering about his removal.

“I like the phrase that (Political columnist Jon) Ralston used at the time, and I think it was ‘unceremoniously dismissed,’” Kieckhefer said. “It still makes me chuckle.”

For Kieckhefer, transitioning into the state legislature was a big step up. Though he initially wanted to run for the Assembly, his wife, April, convinced Kieckhefer to run for the seat being vacated by long-time state senator Randolph Townsend. Many of his reasons for running, incidentally, came about as a result of his experience as a legislative reporter in the 2003 session.

“I got the distinct impression that there were a good number of people who, in my mind, didn’t put enough energy or investment into the process and really learning the issues and being able to adequately debate the merits of policy,” Kieckhefer said. “I found that frustrating. I love our system of government – I’m a big dork. I think it’s fascinating, I think it’s fun; I think it works, and I think it’s done great by the people of this state and this country. And for people to hold elected office and not take it seriously enough bothered me substantially and significantly. So I decided to run when a seat was opening up.”

The focus on policy, rather than partisanship, is supported by Kieckhefer’s work in crossing the aisle and making lawmaking a collaborative process. In the 2011 session, Kieckhefer said he wasn’t prepared to let a $500 million hole in the Governor’s budget lead to further cuts in education and social services, so he worked with Democrats to avoid those cuts.

This session is no different—Kieckhefer sat next to Democratic Senator Debbie Smith and Assemblyman David Bobzien to testify in favor of Assembly Bill 46 several weeks ago, which would raise taxes in Washoe County to pay for construction and renovation of the county’s schools.

With many new faces in leadership roles this session, Kieckhefer said he’s confident that this session will be successful from a policy standpoint.

“Bipartisanship is something that is more of an ethos than a game plan,” Kieckhefer said. “If you walk in and pretend, at the end of session when you’re trying to get your bill passed, it’s just not going to work.”

“I think bipartisanship is something that you do out of common decency, not because you have to,” he added.