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First woman to chair Nevada Gaming Control Board sets sights on reforms in the #MeToo era

First woman to chair Nevada Gaming Control Board sets sights on reforms in the #MeToo era
Becky Harris, chair of Nevada's Gaming Control Board, speaks at a hearing in Las Vegas in March. (K.M. Cannon / Las Vegas Review-Journal)

It was a brief moment near the end of another Nevada Gaming Commission meeting.

The April 19 agenda item required the commission to ask for any administrative reports from the head of its regulatory advisory counterpart, the chair of the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

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Tony Alamo, chairman of the commission, looked down and the words spilled out before he could catch them.

"Chairman Harris?" Alamo asked.

Becky Harris, the first woman to lead the Nevada Gaming Control Board, smiled — slightly amused. Alamo looked up and quickly corrected himself.

"Chair Harris," Alamo said. "Gender neutral."

Alamo said he'd been reading from the printed agenda, which still had the words "Board Chairman" on it. He told Harris it would be corrected next time. After the meeting, Harris casually noted to a reporter that she'd been on the job for more than three months now.

Harris, a former state senator, was appointed to the position in January by Gov. Brian Sandoval — five days before Las Vegas was hit by its own bombshell #MeToo moment, when casino owner Steve Wynn was accused of sexual assault and harassment by former employees. She's finishing the term of A.G. Burnett, who resigned in December.

The 49-year-old Harris is aware of the bright spotlight as she navigates the new terrain after the fall of one Nevada's gambling titans. Wynn is now being investigated by the Gaming Control Board. with his gambling license possibly on the line.

A few months into the job, Harris is now pushing ahead on another priority: Amending the broad language in the current regulations that are used to strip, fine or suspend gambling licensees.

The current regulatory language focuses on whether an establishment has engaged in conduct that would be harmful to "the public health, safety, morals, good order and general welfare of the inhabitants of the state."

Harris said she wants to add sexual harassment to that list.

In March, she invited the state's nearly 3,000 gambling license holders to a series of workshops to discuss sexual harassment. The first workshop began Thursday.

Jan Jones, executive vice president of public policy and corporate responsibility at Caesars Entertainment, said she was aware that there has been "pushback by some in the industry" against the workshops and a possible sexual harassment regulation. She said Caesars, one of the major casino corporations, is supportive, however. Jones also said Harris is the "right person at the right time" to lead the board.

When Harris was plucked to take the chair position, she understood the historic nature of the appointment. Before Harris, the only woman to serve on the board was Patricia Becker in 1982. The control board is the state's investigative, enforcement, licensing and taxing arm for gambling establishments, with more than 400 employees and six divisions.

Becker said she sent Harris flowers as congratulations. But as she reflected on it, her excitement was tempered.

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"I was so very thrilled," Becker said. "But the sad part is that it's been close to 40 years gone by since my tenure and her appointment to board chair. That's far too long."

Jones, who became Las Vegas' first female mayor in the 1990s, had a theory on why only two women have served on the board.

"I've been a mayor and a senior executive for almost 20 years, and the complexions of the board rooms never really changed," Jones said. "So they don't see it. They're not intentionally discriminating. It's unintentional misogyny."

Harris said a key moment for her realization about what her appointment meant came by text message shortly after she accepted the position.

"It was from a friend who said, 'My favorite thing about your appointment to the gaming control board is that I get to go home today and tell my daughters that the new chair's name is Becky,'" Harris said. "It reminded me perhaps that pathways that women felt previously didn't exist have opened up."

The married mother of two got her law degree from Brigham Young University in 1992 and said she still recalls being told by a man that her admission to the school was "taking up the spot of a breadwinner." That stung, she said, but it just made her more determined and she shrugged it off.

Asked if she'd ever been sexually harassed, she said "not to the level women have been reporting" in the high-profile cases surrounding people like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Wynn.

"I was never fearful and I was never in danger of being retaliated against," Harris said. "My personal experiences are completely different and not of the same magnitude as what some women have had to experience."

However, she agreed that her experiences "provide a context" for what women have been reporting over the past several months. Even now, with the workshops attempting to tackle sexual harassment in the casino industry, she said she had gotten some pushback on the proposal.

"You hear, 'Why do we need that? There's already regulations in place,'" she said. "Yes, there are. But this issue is important."

Alamo said the commission would wait and see if there would ultimately be a recommendation coming from the Gaming Control Board on sexual harassment regulations, but said that at this point, the workshops were for discussion purposes.

"I think it's always a good idea to discuss with the industry possible changes and to see what comes back in terms of input," Alamo said. "We are entrusted to regulate the gaming industry and it is the steam engine to the state's economy."

Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said Harris has arrived at a critical moment in the gaming industry.

"Putting her in this role is a little like getting a surgeon out of medical school who trained under the top surgeon in the newest techniques and now finds the perfect patient on the table," he said.

Steve Wynn's namesake casinos in Las Vegas.
Steve Wynn's namesake casinos in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)

As a Nevada state senator, Harris advocated for women's rights but said she found herself challenged by a particular vote in 2017.

Nevada — with a state legislature made up of 38% women, the third-highest percentage in the country — was on the cusp of being the first state in decades to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Harris voted against it, explaining that the amendment didn't protect families from having both parents being in the military and serving in combat, possibly leaving a child without parents. The measure passed, however.

But, in light of the #MeToo movement, she said that vote would be more difficult now. Asked how she'd vote on ERA ratification now, she paused.

"I don't know," she said.

State Sen. Pat Spearman, one of the key forces pushing the ERA bill through the Nevada Legislature, remembered Harris' vote and said she understood Harris' turmoil even while disagreeing with her final vote.

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Now, seeing Harris as chair of the Gaming Control Board, Spearman said she has an opportunity "to shed some light on the issue of sexual harassment."

Harris has never seen herself as a crusader. "I like to build bridges," she said. But she is aware of her new role and the impact it could have — even if she is only in it for a year since the four-year term expires in December. It will be up to the next governor to decide whether she gets another term.

""I think we all have an opportunity to influence and some of our spheres are larger than others," she said. "I would like to think that I will always have an opportunity to be able to influence, no matter the position."

Standing in her office prior to leaving to watch the Golden Knights, the city's new NHL franchise, play (she is a rabid fan), she pulled out a badge and card that identified her as a state law enforcement agent.

"They had to make a new one," she said, holding the gold badge. For the first time in state history, it had a word never before inscribed on a badge in the Gaming Control Board's 63-year history.

Chairwoman.

Twitter: @davemontero

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