BERKLEY, Shelley

BERKLEY, Shelley
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1951–

Biography

In 1998 Shelley Berkley, a former Nevada state legislator from Las Vegas, won election to the U.S. House of Representatives from one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. During her seven terms in Congress, Berkley focused on policies important to her district—water control, renewable energy, veterans’ issues, and regulations affecting the gaming and entertainment industries.1 Berkley also led opposition to the federal government’s plan to store nuclear waste in Nevada. “Ordinarily you’re [called] the Congresswoman from Nevada,” she said. “From the very beginning, I was the Congresswoman from Las Vegas. I mean, it was my hometown. I grew up here. I know it very, very well. I often say that it’s not so much that I grew up in Las Vegas, I grew up with Las Vegas.”2

Shelley Berkley was born Rochelle Levine in New York City on January 20, 1951, to George and Estelle Levine.3 Her grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Europe who, she once said, “came off the boat as Democrats.”4 Berkley’s parents moved the family to Las Vegas when she was 11, and after graduating from Valley High School in Las Vegas, she became the first member of her family to attend college, graduating from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 1972; she earned a law degree from the University of San Diego Law School in 1976. She married Fred Berkley and raised two sons: Max and Sam. The couple divorced in 1995. In March 1999, she married nephrologist Larry Lehrner, who had two children from a previous marriage. Before entering politics, Berkley held a variety of jobs in the Las Vegas area, everything from keno runner to vice president for government and legal affairs at the Sands Hotel Casino. She also chaired the board of the Nevada Hotel and Motel Association.

Berkley cited her family’s immigrant history for why she moved into public service. “[I wanted] to give something back to this country for having taken my family in. It gave us not only an opportunity to survive but an opportunity to thrive, and we certainly have done that.”5 Berkley served in the Nevada state assembly from 1982 to 1985. Five years later, she was appointed to the board of regents of the university and community college system of Nevada. She twice won re-election to the board and served until 1998.

When Nevada Representative John Eric Ensign of Las Vegas decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Berkley entered the race to fill the seat and narrowly defeated Republican Don Chairez. In 2000 she was re-elected by an eight-point margin over Republican Jon C. Porter, 52 to 44 percent. Berkley’s district initially consisted of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, and the surrounding suburbs in Clark County. By 2001, however, Las Vegas was absorbing more than 6,000 new residents per month.6 “From year to year, you could knock on the same door, and there’s an entire new face opening the door,” Berkley recalled about her campaigns. “Also, you’re not only reintroducing yourself to those that have voted for you, but you’re constantly introducing yourself to the new people that were coming into your congressional district,” she said. “I would say that was a bit of a challenge.”7 After Nevada picked up a seat in the U.S. House in 2012, Berkley’s district dropped its suburban areas. From 2002 to 2012, Berkley defeated her GOP challengers by 30 to 40 points.8

In the 106th Congress (1999–2001), Berkley was elected vice president of the freshman class of Democrats, and she joined the New Democrat Coalition which advocates for business-friendly policies and lower deficits. Berkley served on three committees: Transportation and Infrastructure; Veterans’ Affairs; and Small Business. In the 107th Congress (2001–2003), she moved from Small Business to International Relations (later named Foreign Affairs). “Foreign Affairs was where my heart was,” she stated. “That was the perfect perch for me to forward the issues that I think are very important to the United States and our strongest ally in the world—Israel.”9 During the 109th Congress (2005–2007), Berkley became ranking minority Member on the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.

When Democrats took control of the House in the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Berkley gained a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Berkley used her spot on the tax writing panel to protect the financial interests of the major industries in Las Vegas. She pushed for tax reform, and, because of the many retirees who settle in Nevada, opposed the privatization of Social Security. While Ways and Means is typically an exclusive committee assignment—meaning its members give up all their other committee assignments— Democratic leadership allowed Berkley to serve on Veterans’ Affairs in the 110th Congress and Foreign Affairs in the 111th Congress (2009–2011). After Republicans gained control of the House in the 112th Congress (2011–2013), Berkley sat exclusively on Ways and Means.

A longtime member of the House Democratic Whip organization, which helps party leadership communicate with their Members and count votes, Berkley served as a regional whip for Members from the Southwest beginning in 2002. In 2006 House Democratic Whip Steny Hamilton Hoyer of Maryland promoted Berkley to senior whip, responsible for helping to coordinate with the entire Democratic Caucus.10

Berkley began working on health care policy early in her career. Shortly after her first election, Berkley was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Using her own story, she pressed Congress to expand health coverage to alleviate the costs associated with bone mass measurements, an important procedure for women susceptible to osteoporosis.11 In 2001 she sponsored a bill with Pennsylvania Republican Patrick Joseph Toomey to limit the ability of Medicare administrators to cut off payments while also allowing patients charged with improper billing to challenge the fees.12

Foremost, however, Berkley focused on the needs of Las Vegas’s diverse workforce and its gaming industry. “Since I had worked in the casinos as a youngster … I understood what it was like to be a worker in these hotels,” she recalled.13 She also routinely defended the gaming industry, leading the fight against the federal online gambling ban and a regulation, backed by the NCAA, that sought to prohibit betting on college athletics in Nevada. The measure, she said, “is like outlawing aspirin and saying the drug problem is under control.”14 A member of the Congressional Gaming Caucus, Berkley served as the group’s chair from the 109th through the 112th Congresses.

From an environmental standpoint, Berkley opposed a federal plan to store radioactive nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of her Las Vegas district. She led the Nevada delegation in laying out several arguments against the proposal: the mountain was prone to earthquakes; it sat atop an underground flood zone; trains transporting the waste were vulnerable to accidents or terrorist attacks; and the project, she said, was a “financial boondoggle” which would likely cost much more than was forecasted.15 “You need to have a tremendous amount of water to cool the nuclear rods,” she also pointed out. “I don’t know whether people in Congress have noticed, but Nevada is in the middle of the desert, and there’s no water here. We’re having enough of a struggle with … limited water for growth.” She continued, “The state of Nevada does not create any energy from nuclear power. So why should we be the repository?”16 The House nevertheless approved the bill allowing the government to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in the spring of 2002 that was later signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The debate around Yucca Mountain persisted throughout Berkley’s House career. In 2009 President Barack Obama began to draw down funding for the Yucca Mountain repository and eliminated support for the project altogether in his 2011 budget. On the House Floor, Berkley worked to beat back attempts to revive the repository. “President Obama put a stop to Yucca Mountain because it is too dangerous a site to store radioactive nuclear waste,” she said in April 2011. “This is a political stunt with one goal—turning my home State of Nevada into a nuclear garbage dump.”17

Berkley sought to increase federal funding to her state for highways and other transportation projects, as well as school construction. She supported using certain public lands in Nevada for renewable energy development. And while she opposed larger gun control, she favored several gun safety measures.

From her seat on Veterans’ Affairs, Berkley worked to improve care for America’s servicemen and women. After a constituent died of an overdose at a Veterans Affairs medical center, she pushed for a review of VA mental health care facilities.18 She also worked with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada to secure funds for a VA medical center in North Las Vegas that opened in 2012.19 She later called the VA hospital her proudest accomplishment in Congress.20

When Senator John Ensign resigned in May 2011, Berkley announced she would not run for re-election to the House but would instead run for Nevada’s Senate seat in 2012 when it came up for election to another full six-year term. Her Republican challenger in the 2012 Senate race was former House Member Dean Heller, who had been appointed to the Senate to fill the remainder of Ensign’s term. In a close race, Heller defeated Berkley by a razor-thin margin, 45.9 to 44.7 percent.

As her political career came to a close, Berkley reflected on her three decades in state government and on Capitol Hill. “From 1983, when I started my service in the Nevada state assembly, to 2013, when I concluded my service in Congress— that’s a 30-year stretch of people in this state that knew who I was… . I think for a large number of youngsters, especially girls in Las Vegas, I think I served as a role model for their future aspirations. I think, if anything, that would be my legacy.”21

Since 2014 Berkley has been the chief executive officer and senior provost at Touro University’s Western Division, a nonprofit medical school in Nevada and California.22

Footnotes

1Edward Walsh, “Vote on House ‘Managers’ Draws Out Differences Among Freshmen,” 7 January 1999, Washington Post: A8.

2“The Honorable Shelley Berkley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (22 July 2019): 14. The interview transcript is available online.

3“Berkley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 3.

4Steve Friess, “Adelson-Berkley Feud Comes to Head,” 21 October 2012, Politico, https://www.politico.com/story/2012/10/adelson-berkley-feud-comes-to-a-head-082675.

5“Berkley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 3.

6Mary Clare Jalonick, “Booming Nevada Rolls a 3 in Remap,” 4 May 2001, Congressional Quarterly Weekly: n.p.; George F. Will, “In Vegas Politics, All Bets Are Off,” 12 May 2002, Washington Post: B7.

7“Berkley Oral History,” Office of the Historian: 14.

8Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

9“Berkley Oral History,” Office of the Historian: 21.

10Molly Ball, “GOP Peace Candidate Challenging Ensign,” 6 March 2006, Las Vegas Review-Journal: 3B.

11Ian Mylechreest, “Congresswoman Still Pushes For Bone Density Testing,” 9 August 2004, Las Vegas Business Press: A5; “Berkley Bill Seeks To Protect Patient Access To Vital Osteoporosis Testing,” official website of Representative Shelley Berkley, press release, 3 April 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20090429231559/http://berkley.house.gov/legis/otr/press_releases/2009/pr_2009_04032009.html; Christopher Rowland, “On Health Care, Lobbyists Flex Muscle; Medicare Overruled On Bone Scan Tests,” 31 May 2010, Boston Globe: 1.

12Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2003): 621.

13“Berkley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 26.

14Tony Batt, “House Overwhelmingly Passes Internet Gambling Ban,” 12 July 2006, Las Vegas Review-Journal: 1A; Diane Pucin, “The Inside Track; Potential New Legislation Is A Real Bad Proposition,” 29 July 2001, Los Angeles Times: 2.

15Matthew L. Wald, “House Panel Backs Nevada as Site to Bury Atomic Waste,” 26 April 2002, New York Times: A26; Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. (8 May 2002): H2180.

16“Berkley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 21–22.

17Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 2011): H2251.

18Congressional Record, House, 110th Cong., 2nd sess. (20 May 2008): H9971; Lisa Mascaro, “Vegas Vet’s Death Spurs VA Reform Legislation,” 26 May 2008, Las Vegas Sun, https://lasvegassun.com/news/2008/may/26/vegas-vets-death-spurs-va-reform-legislation/.

19Keith Rogers, “Med Center Promise Kept to Southern Nevada Vets,” 7 August 2012, Las Vegas Review-Journal: 1B.

20“Berkley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 31.

21“Berkley Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 31–32.

22“CEO and Senior Provost,” Touro University Nevada, accessed 7 November 2019, https://tun.touro.edu/administration/leadership/ceo--senior-provost/.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Special Collections, University Libraries

Las Vegas, NV
Papers: 1982-2013, 15.210 linear feet. The collection documents the political career of Rochelle "Shelley" Berkley when she served as U.S. Representative for Nevada's 1st Congressional District. Included are correspondence and constituent mail; congressional documents and subject files, a variety of materials about Yucca Mountain, awards, and multimedia materials, including VHS and beta video tapes and an external hard drive. Topics documented include Las Vegas, health care, veterans' affairs, the hepatitis C outbreak of 2008, and Yucca Mountain and the nuclear waste controversy. A finding aid is available in the repository and online.

University of Nevada, Reno
Mathewson IGT Knowledge Center

Reno, NV
Papers: ca. 1982-1991, 10 items. The collection includes campaign flyers and stickers for Shelley Berkley's 1982 and 1991 political campaigns for election to the University of Nevada System, Board of Regents.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Shelley Berkley" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Foreign Affairs
  • House Committee - International Relations
  • House Committee - Small Business
  • House Committee - Transportation and Infrastructure
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
  • House Committee - Ways and Means
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