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August 2018

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'I Come From Labor': Tenacious Nevada Sister Brings Working Family Values to Statehouse Race

Jennie Sherwood bursts with enthusiasm as she talks about her run for the Nevada state Assembly. It's plain to see that the first-time candidate has a zest for life that she isn't afraid to let show, even in the often-stodgy business of politics.

"One of the things I really try to do is continue to be myself," said Sherwood, past chair of Las Vegas Local 357's sign unit, whose tradecraft lights up the glittery, neon Strip and beyond. "I just want to talk from my heart. And listen. It seems like nobody in politics really wants to listen."

Sherwood won the Democratic primary in June for Assembly District 2 west of Las Vegas. She was on the edge of her seat for hours election night, describing a "mix of shock and jubilation and surprise and happiness" when the race was called.

Her opponent outspent her $12,000 campaign budget by $30,000, but Sherwood's resolve and charisma proved more valuable, netting her 54 percent of the vote.

Now she's on the November ballot, challenging a Republican incumbent who's held the seat for 10 years, including two as Assembly speaker.

As her campaign moved into its new phase and she got ready to knock on Republican voters' doors, she focused on worries shared by all Nevadans, topped by an education system ranked worst in the nation. She tells voters she's "dedicated to fixing our problems, just like you are, regardless of party."

"When you get down to the fundamentals of issues, we all want solutions," Sherwood said. "But then we get so caught up in how we do it that we turn against each other instead of working with each other. I want to get into the nitty-gritty of the issues and find that common ground."

Active in her county and state Democratic committees, Sherwood threw her hat in the ring just before the primary's March filing deadline. At the time, she was midway through Emerge America, the party's months-long training program for future women candidates.

"I was looking to run in a couple of years," she said. "But then I thought, 'I'm sitting here in the year of the woman during a blue wave. If I don't jump in now, I might miss my chance.'"

Jim Halsey, assistant business manager and political director for Local 357, gave Sherwood the reference she needed for Emerge, believing she'd make a good candidate one day. "We've had other women from the local go through Emerge, and we usually prefer they complete the whole class and then run," he said.

But Sherwood was ready and eager. She told Halsey, her friend and mentor, that she wanted to run for state Senate. But the party and labor were already backing a seasoned candidate in her Clark County district. So they looked at Assembly District 2, where a Democrat new to Nevada was running.

Sherwood believed her working-class Las Vegas roots and career as a tradeswoman would appeal to voters in a race against a Harvard-educated doctor, lawyer and professor who'd moved from Indiana in 2017. She was right.

"Her campaign is a perfect example of our members using their commitment to the community to help elect one of their own," Halsey said. "We truly believe we can make Las Vegas a better place to live. Our sister, Jennie Sherwood, can help make that happen."

Her platform includes taking on Nevada's right-to-work law, raising the minimum wage, restoring rights to public-sector unions "that have taken a huge beating" legislatively and other pro-worker reforms, along with tackling economic, education and health care issues.

Thinking about the state's public schools crisis and education in general, she believes trades are part of the answer. "I come from labor," Sherwood said with pride. "Not only do I want to strengthen K-12, I want to strengthen trade schools. The world needs skilled, talented labor. I want Nevada to be the labor trainer of the country."

Local 357 Business Manager Al Davis believes Sherwood could get a lot done. "The leadership skills she acquired as sign unit chairman will serve her well in the state Assembly," he said. "We look forward to having another voice for labor in elected office."

In fact, Sherwood said, she held all positions in the unit at one time or another, experience that's been invaluable. "I've always been really good at talking sense to people, getting them to see a different view," she said. "I've gotten people who were dead-set against the union to join the union, showing them that it's better for all of us."

Halsey said one of Sherwood's strengths is that she isn't afraid to take on her party. "One thing she says a lot is that she wants to put a backbone back in the Democratic party. Sometimes she offends other Democrats, she irks some people. But she's tough and passionate and she wants change."

Local 357 members are gearing up for more labor walks and phone banks for Sherwood as November's midterms approach. "I never would have gotten through the primary without them," she said, gushing with gratitude for the local, her family and friends. She gave her father a special shout-out, saying he knocked on roughly 300 doors a week for her while still recovering from a fall from a second-story window.

Sherwood worked as a journeyman signman for Yesco, one of the world's largest sign companies, for more than a decade. She's given up the trade in recent years to care for family members and is on honorary withdrawal from the local. Her husband, Jerry Cooper, is an active member, a crane foreman who installs some of the massive Las Vegas signs his wife once serviced.

Those signs are part of what made her fall instantly in love with Las Vegas when it became her home at age 5.

"My first weekend in Vegas, Mom and Dad thought it would be a good idea to go for a walk," Sherwood shares on her campaign website. "I could not believe how big and bright our great city was! The endless flashing neon lights racing up 'The Dunes' sign, then back down again was mesmerizing! The chasing bulbs continuously going around and around the buildings had me in awe. Who would have thought that 14 years later it would be me putting all those flashing neon and chasing bulbs to work?"

No wonder people Sherwood meets on the campaign trail tell her, "I love your passion."

Her reply?

"You haven't seen anything yet."


Las Vegas Local 357 members and other activists gather for a labor walk to help elect union sister Jennie Sherman (kneeling with sign) to Nevada's state Assembly.

50-Year Member, Louisiana Political Heavyweight
Calls it a Career

Ben Nevers has filled a wide variety of roles since entering the apprenticeship program at Bogalusa, La., Local 1077 more than 50 years ago.

He's a been a journeyman inside wireman, successful business owner, respected member of the Louisiana House and Senate and trusted adviser to the governor. Now he'll add grateful retiree.

Nevers announced his retirement as Gov. John Bel Edwards' chief of staff in February to return to Bogalusa and spend more time with his six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

"I felt like they were at the age where I needed to get back with them and enjoy life," he said. "It was a privilege to serve people all those years, in both the business and political fields. But I spent a lot of time doing it and I needed to get back to my family."

Nevers, a U.S. Army veteran, was Local 1077's business manager before starting Nevers Electrical Contracting in 1980. He remains its president and CEO and the company is an IBEW signatory contractor.

He served on the Bogalusa School Board before being elected as a Democrat to the Louisiana House in 2000 and the Senate in 2004, where he was a defender of labor rights and respected on both sides of the political aisle. The Legislature historically has been controlled by Democrats, but the GOP has controlled both chambers since 2013.

One of his proudest moments came in 2015, when he helped Edwards — also a staunch advocate for union rights in the Deep South — get elected governor, giving Democrats a rare statewide win in the region. Edwards responded by asking Nevers to be his chief of staff.

"I told him I would do it for one year and we would evaluate it after that," Nevers said. "As a chief of staff to the governor, it's a 24-7 job. With all the catastrophes and the many things happening in the states, it's really a difficult position. I was so proud to serve for him and I know he's going to continue to do a great job."

Indeed, one of Nevers' primary roles while serving as chief of staff was coordinating the state's response to record levels of flooding in 2016.

"Ben Nevers has been one of my closest friends in the Legislature and a fierce advocate for the people of Louisiana for more than 30 years," Edwards said in a statement. "Over the last year and during my time in the Legislature, I turned to Ben for guidance, support and prayers, and he has delivered on each. I know I speak for a lot of folks at the state Capitol when I say that we will miss seeing Ben around here every day, but we know he won't be going far."

Fellow Democrats weren't the only ones showering Nevers with praise.

"Ben's ever calming, steady and caring voice will be missed at the state Capitol," Louisiana Senate president John Alario, a Republican, told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "Throughout his years of service as a school board member, state legislator and then as the governor's chief of staff, Ben had earned the respect and friendship of his colleagues, staff and constituents. He has always been dedicated to giving Louisiana's hardworking families the tools they need to improve themselves, their communities and their state."

Nevers' approach was simple, although it sounds old-fashioned in the day of hyper-partisan national politics. Bi partisanship works.

"I believe when you have a problem, reasonable people can sit down and discuss the solution," he said. "Not everyone will get their own way, but it's in the best interest of the country and each state if we solve the problems we have. The partisanship stereotype has gone too far. We should be able to work together and be able to identify and solve problems."

Nevers said any success he's had was made possible by being an IBEW member. He was proud of how the union supported the campaign of Edwards, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and his longtime colleague in the General Assembly.

"I am very thankful," he said. "The IBEW stepped up, as well as others in organized labor, and helped tremendously in that election cycle. I've heard this governor tell many business people he wanted to make sure organized labor had a place at the table, be treated fairly and have a chance to be part of any work that takes place in the state of Louisiana."


Ben Nevers, middle, then-chief of staff to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, examines approaching floodwaters in the state during a January 2016 helicopter flight with Maj. Gen. Glenn H. Curtis, adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.

Credit: Creative Commons / Flickr user Louisiana National Guard