Governor’s divorce is Nevada’s gossip jackpot

Times Staff Writer

. -- Few things get a state talking like a first lady scorned.

Although Nevadans yawn at quickie divorces, drive-through weddings, topless showgirls and legalized prostitution, the divorce proceedings between Gov. Jim Gibbons and his estranged wife, Dawn, have transfixed folks here like a daytime soap opera.

“I don’t want to know all the details -- it makes me feel prurient,” says Carol Hendricks, 79, at the Comma Coffee shop across from the state Legislative Building. “But when it’s out there, I can’t stop reading it.”

There is no shortage of details.

Gibbons filed for divorce last month, saying he and Dawn were incompatible. Since then, the first couple has brawled over custody of the 23-room governor’s mansion. (Dawn finally agreed to sleep in the guesthouse.) She has accused him of cheating. He says “absolutely not.”

Gibbons, 63, lacks the looks and charm of a Gavin Newsom or Antonio Villaraigosa -- yet the governor is now trailed like a club-hopping starlet.


The Republican governor has been spotted with his alleged paramour, according to published reports, at a sushi bar and at her daughter’s high school play. He escorted another woman to the movie “Sex and the City.” A Las Vegas paper posted video of him chatting with a dark-haired woman whose face is mostly obscured. The headline: “Video of governor with ‘other woman’ surfaces.”

Nevada’s top drama is even featured in the current issue of People magazine. “She Won’t Move Out!” a headline exclaims.

“You’d like to think,” blogged Jon Ralston, a Las Vegas Sun political columnist, “this is the nadir.”

On Monday, the couple’s lawyers announced the Gibbonses would pause their court battle and try to negotiate.

Conservative activist Chuck Muth says the governor needs to clean up the mess. “If they get divorced -- this is Nevada, for crying out loud -- it’s not a big deal. But a messy divorce, that’s trouble for everyone.”

The governor won’t face voters until 2010 -- a political eternity -- but GOP activists fret that his purported philandering could hurt the party in November. What if fed-up Republicans pare back campaign contributions -- or stay home on election day? That could flip control of the state Senate, where Republicans cling to a slender majority -- or even hand Nevada, which twice voted for President Bush, to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

“You’re going to have candidates begging the governor not to come into their district because he’ll make things worse,” Muth says.

The state’s libertarian streak allows public officials leeway for personal blunders. After New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was linked to a prostitution ring, for example, publications here wondered whether a Nevada governor would resign over similar indiscretions.

“If that occurred in Nevada,” wrote columnist Jane Ann Morrison in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “Spitzer might have taken his wife’s advice and contended sex with a prostitute is ‘personal’ and doesn’t affect his governing.”

A laissez-faire electorate helped Gibbons secure the governorship. Just weeks before the election, a Las Vegas cocktail waitress accused him of trying to force himself on her in a parking garage; authorities declined to file charges. Dawn held the governor’s hand at a news conference, where he reminded reporters, “I’m a happily married man, a father and a grandfather.”

Nevadans might also have shrugged off his wife’s recent allegations had his 18 months in office been less acrimonious. The Silver State is struggling with plummeting revenue and a population that has more than doubled since 1990, but it’s a rare day when the governor makes headlines about policy.

He put a Yucca Mountain supporter on a commission tasked with fighting the proposed nuclear dump. He dismissed the outcry over a hepatitis C outbreak as the result of media “buffoonery,” though his statements since have been sympathetic.

The FBI is investigating whether he took gifts from a defense contractor while serving in Congress. Photos of the governor on a contractor-hosted cruise show him giving a woman bunny ears and wearing a white cloth napkin as a bandanna. During the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, he belittled his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Dina Titus, as “Dina Taxes.” Now critics are chastising him for refusing to consider tax hikes: The state is facing an almost $1-billion shortfall.

“He’s stubbed his foot a lot, so politically this was very, very poor timing,” said David Damore, an associate professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It seems kind of tone-deaf to file for divorce, but that’s kind of his style.”

Jim and Dawn, 54, met on a blind date. He was a pilot who had served in Vietnam, and she ran the Heart of Reno and Starlite wedding chapels. In two decades together, they became Nevada’s top political couple. She served in the state Assembly. He spent five congressional terms representing mainly Reno, Carson City and the “cow counties.”

While he made a second run for the governorship (he lost in 1994), she campaigned for a seat in Congress. GOP primary voters, however, didn’t buy that she could juggle Washington and Carson City.

As first lady, she pushed in vain to ban alcohol in the governor’s mansion, and her news release announcing she would wear Giorgio Armani at inaugural balls was roundly mocked.

But even Jim’s biggest cheerleaders admit that, in the first round of Gibbons vs. Gibbons, Dawn won.

Her lawyer, Cal Dunlap, filed a scathing brief last month requesting that the case be unsealed. It made public Dawn’s allegations that a “marital intruder” was to blame for the divorce.

The other woman, it says, frequently dines and grocery shops with the governor and has allegedly “stalked the man who could give her the public persona and prestige” she desires.

Dawn is referred to as a “castaway wife” and Jim as possibly “the most scandal-ridden governor in the history of this state.” It also claims the other woman resembles the cocktail waitress who accused the governor of assault.

“It’s like the Clintons,” says Donna Kattchee, 74, another coffee shop patron who hopes the theatrics end, “if they had gotten divorced.”