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Can Former Gang Member Lucy Flores Become the New Face of the Democratic Party?

Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores has had an abortion and been arrested for driving a stolen car, but she might be the Democrat most likely to win Nevada's lieutenant gubernatorial election.

by Grace Wyler
May 4 2014, 12:00pm

Photos courtesy of the Lucy Flores campaign

Being in a Las Vegas street gang and having an abortion usually aren't things you want on your resume, but don’t tell that to Lucy Flores. The Nevada state assemblywoman did both during her misspent youth in a low-income, predominately Hispanic neighborhood in the shadow of the Las Vegas Strip. By age 17, Flores had dropped out of high school and been arrested for driving a stolen car on a beer run, but after a stint in juvenile detention, she turned things around. She attended college and law school and got elected to public office. Now she is running for lieutenant governor of Nevada as the most interesting candidate in the most important race that you have never heard of.

As far as campaigns go, the Nevada lieutenant governor’s race is about as unsexy as it gets, ranking somewhere between a city council runoff and an American Samoa delegate selection on the list of political events that interest people. This year’s race has national implications that could reverberate into 2016, because Nevada’s Republican Governor Brian Sandoval is his party’s best shot at beating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when the Nevada Democrat comes up for re-election in two years. But Sandoval is cruising to a second-term victory this fall, and he's unlikely to vacate the governor’s mansion unless there is a Republican lieutenant governor to take his place. Reid, who is like Kevin Spacey’s House of Cards character in the body of Grampa Joad, is fully aware that he needs a strong candidate in the lieutenant governor race if he wants to keep Sandoval, Nevada’s most popular conservative, off his back in 2016. 

Enter Flores. At 34 years old, the Las Vegas attorney doesn’t look like most politicians. For one thing, she’s a woman—a Latina one at that. She's kind of a babe, which basically makes her a unicorn in the powered halls of white, fleshy jowls and lady pantsuits.

Democrats love her. In the weeks since Flores announced she was running for Nevada’s number two executive job, she has built up a surprisingly veteran campaign team, including Brandon Hall, Harry Reid’s 2010 campaign manager. Reid himself has gushed that she is the “perfect” candidate. In March, she co-headlined a fancy (as in $5,000 a head) Palo Alto fundraiser for the Ready for Hillary super PAC. “Lucy Flores is exactly the new kind of leader Nevadans are looking for,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which helps pro-choice, Democratic women get elected. “She’s just getting started.”

Despite the praise in Washington, Flores is still a long-shot to win in November. Republicans won’t pick her opponent until the primary next month, but a recent poll shows both of the top two GOP candidates beating Flores in the general election. Apart from this rags-to-riches elevator pitch, Flores hasn’t said much about what she actually wants to do if she's elected. (At this point, her campaign website is just a plug to donate to her campaign, sign up to her email list, and follow her on Facebook.) With Reid’s seat in play, the campaign is bound to get fierce, especially if Republicans start digging around Flores’s colorful past. I called up Flores to talk about what she expects from the campaign, why she thinks she can win, and why she refuses to cut her hair.

VICE: You have a pretty unusual background for someone in politics. Do you think that it has helped you, or do you think your opponents will use it against you in this race?
Lucy Flores: I think that it’s maybe one of the reasons people are so excited about this race. I think oftentimes they feel like their elected officials don't understand them. They don't identify with them. They feel like their elected officials live in an entirely different world—and that is really the antithesis of who I am. I am proud to represent the district where I grew up. It's not an affluent community. It's a very low-income community—and I did experience a lot of challenges there.

When I had problems growing up in this district, there wasn't a support system for me. There weren't any resources available to me, and I did very quickly fall through the cracks. My mom left my family when I was nine, and we were very poor—I come from a very large family. At the time, there were only four of us in the home, but my youngest brother was three years old, so as you can imagine, my dad was just trying to keep us clothed and fed. I started to experience a lot of problems. I was doing very well in school, but that didn't make a difference. As soon as I started failing my Advanced Placement exams and doing poorly in school, that didn't raise any flags—no one noticed, and I literally just fell through the cracks. There wasn't any support at home, so I did fall in with the wrong crowd, and I did end up on juvenile parole by the time I was 15, and I did end up a high school dropout at 17. There wasn't any indication at all that I would end up where I am now based on the circumstances I was in.

That's really the gist of what I stand for. The outcome of your life should not be determined by your circumstances or the zip code that you grew up in, and that's very much the situation for so many of our young people. Their circumstances very much determine the outcome of their lives, and it just shouldn't be that way.

I think it's also a demonstration that when you do invest in people—and when you do invest in education, and mentorship, and the resources that are necessary to really break the cycle of poverty and pull people from that cycle—that it pays off. It literally pays off. You have people who are self-sufficient, who are good community members.

That's where I came from, and why I do what I do. At the beginning, when I first started talking about my challenges and where I came from, it was really scary. I think it's human nature to be concerned about being judged, or about having people think about you differently. I definitely went through that, and to a certain extent sometimes I still do. I don't like it when I'm described in the media as a reformed gang member or criminal, but at the same time, it's my reality. It's my truth. There's nothing I can do about it, other than be honest.

Young Lucy Flores with her father and brother 

You’ve also talked about getting an abortion as a teenager, and you even received some death threats when you mentioned it in a state assembly hearing last year. Are you worried that this will be an issue in the campaign?
To a certain extent, I cannot control what people say about me. Abortion is not one of those things you come to a consensus on. There is no happy agreement—you are either for it or against it. Luckily, I have not experienced the level of vitriol that I experienced after I said that in my testimony. I still receive really hateful, vile, just really disturbing messages on social media, but they are always immediately deleted. That's really the only thing I can do, is just kind of tune that stuff out.

But at the end of the day, I am not ashamed of my testimony. I am not ashamed of talking about it in public. This is about a larger issue for me. I want to talk about how we can prevent other young women from having to make that difficult decision, but at the end of the day, it is settled law, it's a settled issue. Women have the right to choose to have an abortion or not in this country. In terms of my stance as a pro-choice elected official, that is what it is. If others are going to bring that up in this campaign, then there is really nothing I can do about it.

The job of lieutenant governor in Nevada hasn’t been very interesting—it’s mostly just pumping up tourism and watching over the state Senate. Do you have any plans to expand the role? What do you want to do if you’re elected?
I think it's considered that way because of the way that office has been utilized by the people who have been there. A lot has been made of the fact that the governor [Sandoval] moved over much of the economic development duties that were part of the lieutenant governor's office into his own economic development shop, but you know, I think that's just short-sightedness on the part of the people who have been in that [the lieutenant governor] position.

Any job is what you make of it. You can do so many expanded things with this office. I mean, you're the number two in the state of Nevada! You have a platform. You have a budget. You have the ability to be a facilitator, to bring people together. Whether that's around education issues or economic development and tourism, you have a convening power. You can accomplish so many things that people have not done in the past, but this office is only as limited as the people in it. So I do have a lot of ideas about how to make the office more visible, how to make it more active.

You have a pretty unconventional look for a politician. How often do consultants try to make you cut your hair?
It was pretty often, but I said, “The most I will do for you is get a trim.” I threw a fit. I was like, “There is no way.” I have managed to get this far all by myself—how I look, how I dress, how I speak, and how I put myself forward. If I've made it this far, I can certainly make it a little bit further.

I'm not opposed to tweaks and to improving, but absolutely not. I'm not changing who I am, and if that means I don't get elected, well, that means I don't get elected, but I felt very strongly about that issue. 

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