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 office, much of Congresswoman Berkley’s focus was local—on water controls, renewable energy projects, veterans’ issues, and gaming and entertainment industries important to Las Vegas.1 Berkley also led opposition to the federal government’s plan to ship the nation’s nuclear waste to Nevada. Known for her home-town pride, Berkley said of Las Vegas, “I remember as a girl with my family driving out west in search of the American Dream and finding it in Las Vegas, Nevada. Over the years I have watched Las Vegas become the quintessential American city. . . . The best is yet to come.”2

Berkley was born Rochelle Levine in New York City on January 20, 1951. Her parents, George and Estelle Levine, moved the family to Las Vegas when she was 11. After graduating from Valley High School in Las Vegas, she became the first member of her family to attend college, earning a B.A. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 1972, and a J.D. 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 remarried to nephrologist Larry Lehrner, who had two children from a previous marriage, Stephanie and David. Before being elected to the state assembly in 1982, Berkley held a variety of jobs in and around Las Vegas, from working as a keno runner to serving as 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 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 Ensign of Las Vegas decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, Berkley entered the race to replace him. That year she narrowly defeated Republican Don Chairez, and in 2000 she was re-elected by an eight-point margin over Republican John Porter, 52 to 44 percent. Berkley’s district initially consisted of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, and the surrounding suburbs in Clark County. But by 2001, Las Vegas was absorbing more than 6,000 new residents per month, and the state had one of the fastest growing populations in the nation.3 Nevada picked up a seat in the U.S. House after the 2000 Census, causing Berkley’s district to shed its suburban areas. The new map left Las Vegas and North Las Vegas as the core of a Democratic-leaning district. From 2002 to 2012, Berkley convincingly defeated her GOP challengers by 30 to 40 percentage points.4

As a freshman in the 106th Congress (1999–2001), Berkley had three committee assignments: Transportation and Infrastructure, Veterans’ Affairs, and Small Business. During the 106th Congress, colleagues elected Berkley vice president of the Democratic freshman class, and she joined the centrist New Democrat Coalition. In the 107th Congress (2001–2003) she exchanged her Small Business assignment for a seat on the International Relations Committee, where she advocated strongly on behalf of Israel. In the 109th Congress (2005–2007), Berkley was named Ranking Member of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs. When Democrats gained the House majority in the 110th Congress (2007–2009), Berkley left Transportation and Infrastructure and International Relations for a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, an assignment she had sought since her election almost a decade earlier. Berkley used her spot on the tax writing panel to protect the interests of the major industries in her district, push for tax code reform, and oppose Social Security privatization. While Ways and Means is typically an exclusive committee assignment—meaning its Members give up their assignments on all other committees—Democratic leadership allowed Berkley to serve on Veterans’ Affairs in the 110th Congress and International Relations in the 111th Congress (2009–2011). She sat exclusively on Ways and Means in the 112th Congress (2011–2013).

A long-time member of the House Democratic whip organization, Berkley served as a Regional Whip beginning in 2002. In 2006, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland promoted Berkley to Senior Whip, expanding her responsibility to measure support for legislation from southwest Representatives to encompass the entire Democratic House membership.5

Shortly after her first election, Berkley was diagnosed with osteoporosis. Using her personal story, she pressed for expansion of health care coverage to alleviate the costs associated with bone mass measurements, an important procedure for women susceptible to osteoporosis.6 In 2001, she sponsored a bill with Republican Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania to curtail the power of Medicare administrators to cut off payments, while also allowing those charged with improper billing to challenge the accusations.7 She routinely defended the gaming industry, leading the fight against the federal online gambling ban and an NCAA-backed regulation that sought to prohibit betting on college athletics in Nevada, saying, “This bill is like outlawing aspirin and saying the drug problem is under control.”8 A member of the Congressional Gaming Caucus, Berkley served as the group’s chair from the 109th through the 112th Congresses (2005–2013).

Berkley’s opposition to a federal plan to store radioactive nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of her Las Vegas district, made her a leader on the state’s hot-button political issue. 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 prone to accidents or terrorist attacks; and the project was a “financial boon-doggle,” costing much more than was initially appropriated for it.9 “Nevada does not produce one ounce of nuclear waste,” Berkley said in the spring of 2002 when the measure came to a vote. “Yet Nevada is being asked to carry the burden of a problem it had no part in creating.”10 The House nevertheless passed the bill, 306–117. President George W. Bush signed the measure into law after it cleared the Senate.

The nuclear waste issue persisted throughout Berkley’s House career. Fulfilling a campaign promise to the people of Nevada, President Barack Obama’s administration began to draw down funding for the Yucca Mountain repository in 2009, completely eliminating support for the project in its Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Berkley often spoke on the House Floor about congressional attempts to revive the project when Republicans gained the House majority in 2010. “President Obama put a stop to Yucca Mountain because it is too dangerous a site to store radioactive nuclear waste,” she said on April 1, 2011. “This is a political stunt with one goal—turning my home State of Nevada into a nuclear garbage dump.”11

Berkley sought to increase federal funding to her state for highways and other transportation projects, as well as school construction. She favored increased use of Nevada’s federal lands for renewable energy development, and opposed new gun control but favored several gun safety measures. Berkley also kept veterans’ issues a priority during her tenure. After a constituent died of an overdose at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center, she pushed for a review of VA mental health care facilities.12 She worked with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada to secure funds for a VA medical center in North Las Vegas which opened in 2012.13

When Senator John Ensign resigned in May 2011, Berkley announced she would run for the 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 seat to fill the remainder of Ensign’s partially completed term. By a razor-thin margin, Heller defeated Berkley, 45.9 to 44.7 percent. After packing up her Washington, D.C., office, replete with Las Vegas ephemera, Berkley remarked, “For me, public service was my way of giving something back to this country . . . for taking [my family] in and giving us the opportunities that we’ve had. Frankly, I feel I’ve repaid that debt to this country that my family has.”14

Footnotes

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

2Congressional Record, House, 109th Cong., 1st sess. (17 May 2005): H3338.

3Mary Clare Jalonick, “Booming Nevada Rolls a 3 in Remap,” 4 May 2001, Congressional Quarterly Weekly, http://w3.nexis.com/ (accessed 29 July 2013); George F. Will, “In Vegas Politics, All Bets Are Off,” 12 May 2002, Washington Post: B7.

4Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://history.house.gov/Institution/Election-Statistics/Election-Statistics/.

5Molly Ball, “GOP Peace Candidate Challenging Ensign,” 6 March 2006, Las Vegas Review-Journal: 3B.

6Ian 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,” 3 April 2009, States News Service, http://w3.nexis.com/ (accessed 29 July 2013); Christopher Rowland, “On Health Care, Lobbyists Flex Muscle; Medicare Overruled On Bone Scan Tests,” 31 May 2010, Boston Globe: 1.

7Politics in America, 2004 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2003): 621.

8Tony 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.

9Matthew 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): 2180.

10Nick Anderson, “House Backs Nuclear Dump Site,” 9 May 2002, Los Angeles Times: A13.

11Congressional Record, House, 112th Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 2011): H2251.

12Congressional 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, http://lasvegassun.com/ (accessed 13 August 2013).

13Keith Rogers, “Med Center Promise Kept to Southern Nevada Vets,” 7 August 2012, Las Vegas Review-Journal: 1B.

14Karoun Demirjian, “Berkley Reflects On Her 14-Year Congressional Career, Ethics Probe, What Comes Next,” 9 December 2012, Las Vegas Sun, http://lasvegassun.com/ (accessed 13 August 2013).

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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