Adam Paul Laxalt wants to be the next attorney general of Nevada. Of course he’s running for office, you might say, sneaking a peek at his biography — his grandfather the former senator and governor of Nevada and close friend to Ronald Reagan; his mother, Michelle, a Washington mainstay; among other political genes. But upon meeting him, hearing the joy with which he speaks of his family, you wonder why the Iraq vet, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor, and young father of a one-year-old, would bother getting himself into the mix and mess of campaign politics. I ask him about his campaign and his drive for public service and what he sees for the future of Nevada and this country we share stewardship of in an interview for National Review Online.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so important about the office of attorney general in Nevada? What makes you the right fit?
LOPEZ: Is this just a stepping-stone to something bigger and more powerful?
LAXALT: I am not a career politician, and this office is emphatically not a self-aggrandizing position. If I am honored by the people of Nevada to be elected as our next attorney general, I will be focusing fully on the job at hand: defending Nevada from federal overreach and working with law enforcement around the state to make sure we are as safe as we possibly can be. I think that’s a big enough challenge for now. My wife and I spent a lot of time discerning if the decision to run for this office was the right one for our family, and any family faced with a big opportunity — no matter what it is — can relate. We couldn’t think much further down the road. I have a large challenge in front of me as a first-time political candidate.
LAXALT: The decision to run for office is a major effort. Even so, I completely believe that the future of our state — and the nation — is worth it. The response from Nevadans has been so overwhelming and encouraging that I am ready for the challenge.
I have never run from any major undertaking. I learned how deep I can reach in my time in the U.S. Navy and in Iraq. I wanted to be a part of making Nevada and our country a safer place. My goal now is the same — to make Nevada a safer and freer place to raise my children. I am a fourth-generation Nevadan, and my family has long roots in this state.
Their political views run the gamut, just like any extended family. What motivates me, though, is the astounding support I have received from ordinary Nevadans. These citizens expect something different from their elected officials: integrity, leadership, and courage. They see these qualities in me, and I will try hard to live up to their expectations.
LOPEZ: What’s the difference between you and Miller that you’d like people to come to see?
LAXALT: I’d like people to know three things about me: First, I was raised by a single working mom who gave every ounce of her energy to make sure she provided for me. My mother had me in a time when women were not encouraged to raise a child out of wedlock. Single-mom-hood was no easy thing in the 1980s, but we tackled the world on our own for most of my childhood, and I never felt left out without a dad. She was truly heroic and will always be the most amazing person I have ever known.
Second, I am a leader. Becoming a naval officer most certainly changed my life. I learned so many things about how to treat people, how to respect your oath and uniform, how to lead by example and by word. I learned that there is no separation from the man you are at work and the man you are the rest of the time. In the military you are always on duty and always accountable for your actions and your character. I am grateful for having learned such an immensely valuable and important lesson so early in my life. It provided me with multiple opportunities over several years to develop myself not only professionally as a lawyer, but how to think critically and strategically.
Third, I have the professional experience necessary to lead the attorney general’s office. In the detainee world, we helped with the capture and prosecution of some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists in Iraq. After my combat tour, I served as both a Navy prosecutor and as a federal prosecutor. I have also served as an assistant professor of law, leadership, and ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. In my nine years as an attorney, I have advised commanding officers and major companies, so I am well-qualified to be Nevada’s top attorney.
LOPEZ: There has been some coverage of the fact that you say “marriage is between a man and a woman.” Isn’t that a lost cause at this point in history? And what do you say to people who believe your position to be a bigoted one?
LAXALT: The job of the attorney general is to defend the law. As the law stands today, Article I, Section 21 of the Nevada constitution only recognizes marriage between “a male and a female person.” As legal counsel for my state, I am compelled to defend our constitution — regardless of whether I personally agree with the politics of the position, just like I did when I served in the U.S. military. The attorney general’s office, in particular, needs to return to a respect for the rule of law and for our constitutional system, or we will fail to remain the strongest nation this earth has ever known. I run to uphold respect for the rule of law — not to weigh in on any one particular policy debate.
LOPEZ: What would be your agenda and priorities as AG?
LAXALT: I will join the growing list of attorneys general who actively resist the federal government’s overreach. I would place a much more significant effort and resources in challenging the federal government on the laws and regulations they force on our citizens and our economy. Whether Washington is trying to dictate what kind of health-care coverage we have to purchase, the kind of gun laws we should have, the listing of various species under the Endangered Species Act, or damaging EPA regulations on our leading economic industries, I will be an attorney general who protects Nevadans and our interests. I’ve always believed that Nevadans are much better stewards of our lives and the overall protection of our lands and habitat than some bureaucrat in a cubicle in Washington.
LOPEZ: You come from some pretty serious political lineage. How does that affect who you are and how you look at government? How does it affect your campaign?
LAXALT: On one hand, a public life is a tough commitment on a family, and I have a young one, so I know of the sacrifices my wife and family will be making for me. It is also tough on privacy, and this is especially so now in an era of social media and nonstop tar-and-feather campaigning.
On the other hand, however, it gives me great hope. Both my grandfather and my father were children of first-generation immigrants. I think a lot about how my grandfather was the son of a non-English-speaking sheepherder, was raised in a town of 1,000 people, and then worked hard, eventually becoming the “First Friend” to Ronald Reagan and an icon for conservatives throughout the country. His story is almost unimaginable. He made a difference, and I hear about it from so many in Nevada and around the country. All of this creates a strong foundation for the desire to help my state and represent Nevadans. I was always taught you must give back more than you take, and I’m hoping to do that here. I think I can make a real difference in politics.
There is certainly no shortage of opinions on what I need to do this year! But I am blessed because as people who know my father and my grandfather know these men are just wonderful mentors. They have never pushed me to run, but they are giving good advice. My personal principles and my vision for the campaign, however, are what my entire team is focused on supporting. So far it is a lot of fun.
LOPEZ: You have politics in your genes. Did you ever consider forgoing it yourself?
LAXALT: I must flip this question on its head. Until a few months ago I never even entertained running for office. I am sure skeptics will not believe me, but it is honestly true. Politics is hard on families.
Being raised by a single mom and then going through the process of gaining sobriety at the ripe age of 19 also shaped my life differently than people may expect. I spent my twenties working very hard every day on becoming a good man, a man of faith, and a man of action. I am still working on this. As many know, there is a saying in AA called “one day at a time.” This is still my life. I take one day and one challenge at a time. I have no big plan. I am a believer in the saying that “man plans and God laughs.”
LOPEZ: Did being in the Navy change you at all?
LAXALT: Signing on the dotted line in a recruiting office and later having a Marine swear me into the U.S. Navy was absolutely life-altering. I entered a proverbial (and literal) band of brothers when I did that, and this is something that will never disappear. I am a Navy veteran, and because of this I am linked to the people who have served this great country in times of peace and war since the beginning of our nation. That is staggering to think of at times, and I will forever be humbled by the awesome responsibility that came with it. I also think the process of signing away my freedom to the U.S. military was one of the greatest formative experiences of my life. Overnight I had to become obedient and selfless. I had to work toward becoming a man of humility and strength at the same time. All of this, as anyone who has tried knows, isn’t necessarily easy. I had to learn to work within a team and sacrifice my own self for one of the greatest causes on earth — patriotism for my nation — and of course my own faith as well.
LOPEZ: How do you look back at your time in Iraq? What lessons did you learn?
LAXALT: I grew more in that stretch from 2006 to 2007 than I will probably ever grow again because of the intensity of the situation. I still discover things that made me a better and stronger person because of my time in Iraq. Some were obvious, but others were far more subtle and pervade my personality today.
I learned that our nation will be safe no matter what challenges we ever face on a battlefield. I learned quickly that our nation is filled with some of the most talented and selfless men and women in the world and that they come from every background imaginable and from every state in this country. This gave me great hope. I think the leaders of my generation, many of whom served in this way, will get this country on track. They are not in Washington. Most do not come from the elite schools. They come from strong and tight-knit communities all over this nation. They love it and will not allow it to continue the decline we are in today. I really think they will lead when the baton is passed.
LOPEZ: What’s the work you do with St. Thomas More Society of Nevada and Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada? Is it about more than a well-rounded résumé? What have you learned while working on either?
LAXALT: Getting out of the Navy was a serious adjustment because it was such an all-encompassing and comprehensive lifestyle. As soon as I moved back to Nevada, I really wanted to get engaged in my community. This is what my Church calls us to do as well, and this is what my conservative principles tell me I am called to do — use our talents as best we can to make our community a better place.
As for the St. Thomas More Society, it was not too long into my civilian legal career that a friend asked if I could help him fill a void in our legal community and help found a society that would emphasize ethics and leadership. After all, I taught leadership and ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy.
We decided to build this organization around the age-old tradition of the Catholic Red Mass. For our first Red Mass, we were blessed to have over 30 priests from throughout Nevada concelebrate the Mass with our bishop in Las Vegas. We were also blessed to have Justice Antonin Scalia as our first keynote speaker at the gala that followed, and then this year Justice Samuel Alito — both were amazing opportunities for Nevada and our legal community to meet a Supreme Court justice. This event has enabled 40-plus judges and hundreds of lawyers from around the state to focus on our call to serve ethically in our legal community. Outside of the Red Mass, we have additional programming and speakers throughout the year for the Nevada Bar.
Catholic Charities is the largest social-service provider in Nevada, and we do the type of work that Pope Francis has emphasized. My work with Catholic Charities came about when a board member and the bishop asked if I could use some of my time to serve the charity. After touring the campus and seeing the thousands of lives they touch directly — from feeding and housing the homeless to helping the elderly — I was humbled even to be asked to serve. We are very much the Church’s outreach to the poor and needy here. It is truly a miracle to behold.
LOPEZ: Are the likes of Catholic Charities necessary ingredients in a flourishing democracy and civil society? Do we appreciate that enough? Do regulators and others in government?
LAXALT: We are all called to serve other people by making a personal commitment to their well-being. But government cannot serve people as well as communities can. Sending money to the poor through taxes is not the kind of personal commitment that makes America a better place to live. Reaching out to a neighbor or someone who is struggling in our own community is. We often can see their needs more closely, and it pulls us out of ourselves. When solely the government takes care of the poor, the dynamics of our communities change and turn us from the generosity, charity, and selflessness that each of us is called to. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s letters, he comments that Americans take care of their own — and government is nowhere to be found. We are rapidly losing this unique feature of the American experiment. When we call for the federal government to “do something” about many of the issues we face, we are in some ways saying that we as a local community are no longer willing to do that important work ourselves.
LOPEZ: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your grandfather?
LAXALT: My grandfather is a “lead by example” type. When I was a teenager, I went to the U.S. Senate to see him speak. I entered an elevator with a name tag on, and the elevator operator was an elderly man who asked if I was related. When I answered, he told me my grandfather was the kindest and nicest man he ever met in decades of operating an elevator. This stayed with me and has taught me more than a hundred books ever could. I came from a sheepherder, and I will never forget that.
LOPEZ: They call his the “Greatest Generation.” What are the challenges your generation is called to? Is this generation up to the task?
LAXALT: Paul Laxalt’s generation was forged in economic depression and war. As a leader of the Reagan Revolution, he tackled economic malaise, ever-encroaching federal power, and a general distrust of the American experiment.
My generation, too, has come of age in a time of recession and conflict. Like my grandfather, we face a new economic malaise and even larger federal overreach. The time is ripe for a renaissance of the Reagan Revolution, and my generation is sympathetic to those values — freedom, personal responsibility, and smaller government.
LOPEZ: What gives you hope and confidence?
LAXALT: My one-year-old daughter’s laughter gives me great hope and confidence. Becoming a husband and a father made me realize that I am responsible for leaving a better world for my children.
LOPEZ: You were raised by a single mother, who found herself unexpectedly pregnant. You’re pro-life and the father, along with your wife, of a young child. How can we better support life in unexpected circumstances as both a political and cultural matter? How can we better support family life?
LAXALT: My experience as a prosecutor and my time in the Navy protecting our families has made me acutely aware of the concerns families have for safety and security. As attorney general, I will work tirelessly with local law enforcement to protect Nevada families and make Nevada the safest place to raise a family that we can.
LOPEZ: From the write-ups, it seems that many of the questions in your first press event were focused on biography — your parents and your teen struggles with alcohol. Do we care too much about such personal details in politics?
LAXALT: I heard from Nevadans all over the state that they thought these details didn’t matter. Many were appalled that I was asked. They were more excited to hear about my qualifications for the job and what I will do as attorney general to make this a better state.
LOPEZ: On questions of conscience, what role can the attorney general play in protecting religious liberty?
LAXALT: The attorney general can play a decisive role in protecting religious liberties. For example, Obamacare’s mandates infringe upon the religious liberty of certain groups. Attorneys general from across the country have led the charge to stop its implementation. I, too, will protect Nevadans from federal overreach if I am elected attorney general.
LOPEZ: Do you have any optimism about America’s future? About how the states can lead the way in helping women and men and families flourish?
LAXALT: We must return to our roots of federalism. Americans must resist the temptation to impose uniform rules on every state. Our country is spread out over 3.8 million square miles, and we are far too diverse in our needs, views, livelihoods, and environments to have a one-size-fits-all approach. If we return to a system where each state decides how to govern its people, then we can all find a comfortable home in America. We choose our own priorities. If the federal government continues to grow and impose blanket rules on all states, people will lose all faith in the system.
People fundamentally understand this. Having traveled this state this year, Nevadans get it . . . and more than anything, they just want to be left alone. They want to be free from the irrational and crippling regulations coming out of Washington. They feel like they are not taken seriously and that the feds just don’t get our state. I’m sure this sentiment can be found in other states as well. People will understand this more and more as new initiatives like Obamacare beat them over the head, so the consensus is growing. No one in Washington is listening yet. I hope to be a part of the voice for Nevadans that pushes back against the federal government so that we can run our own affairs.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.