Elected: 2012, 1st term.
Born: April 29, 1973, Las Vegas
Home: North Las Vegas
Education: University of Nevada-Reno, attended, 1992-97, 2009
Professional Career: CEO, Culinary Training Academy, 2001-present
Family: Married (Sonya Horsford) , 3 children
Steven Horsford, the state’s Democratic Senate majority leader, won a close election in 2012 to claim the seat in a new district that encompasses Las Vegas’ northern suburbs and some central Nevada counties. Horsford beat Republican Danny Tarkanian to become the first African-American elected to Congress from Nevada.
Horsford was born in Las Vegas in 1973 and grew up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood in West Las Vegas, the historic heart of the city’s black community. The oldest of four, he had responsibility forced on him early in life. His mother, now sober for 20 years, struggled with drug and alcohol problems, and his grandmother required constant care. He attended the University of Nevada-Reno, where he studied political science and communication, but had to drop out to support his family when his father was killed.
The next few years were turbulent. Horsford worked a variety of jobs and struggled to keep up financially. Between 1998 and 2002, he defaulted on loans, missed court dates, and was sued for missed payments, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Several judgments were made against him, and he eventually settled all debts. Horsford’s campaign attributed the problems to bad luck following a car crash in the late 1990s and cited them as evidence that he understood the financial woes of hard-hit Nevadans.
Horsford has important connections to Nevada’s main industry, hospitality. In 2001, he became CEO of the Culinary Training Academy of Las Vegas. The organization, a joint venture between casino owners and union workers, trains people from across the country for jobs on the Las Vegas Strip by teaching both food service and English skills.
In 2004, Horsford ran for a seat in the state Senate representing parts of Clark County. Following the 2008 elections, Democrats gained two seats, took control of the Senate, and chose Horsford as majority leader, the first African-American elevated to that office in Nevada history. He became the face of the Democratic opposition to the state’s Republican governor, Brian Sandoval. But in 2011, Horsford worked with Sandoval on a budget compromise that introduced new taxes on business while ending teacher tenure and modifying the state’s collective bargaining law.
Horsford’s Senate career was not without controversy. He came under fire in 2010 when he offered dinners with himself and committee chairmen in exchange for campaign donations. Although the Secretary of State’s office determined the letter did not violate state election law, Horsford returned the donations. He also had to reimburse PokerStars, a British online gambling group aiming to legalize the practice in Nevada, for a trip he took to the Bahamas “to learn more about Internet gaming policy before federal and state governments.”
Horsford announced a run for Congress before the district lines were finalized, hoping to secure the urban and heavily Democratic 1st District. He later switched to the 4th District, which has the highest percentage of black voters of Nevada’s four districts. Horsford dodged primary opposition when John Lee, a moderate Democrat state senator from North Las Vegas, dropped out of the race. However, Republicans were eager to contest the district. Tarkanian, the son of legendary basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, beat eight other Republicans in the June primary.
The candidates accused each other of ethical impropriety. Horsford cited Tarkanian’s $17 million debt on a bad land deal in California. He also hammered his opponent on immigration; Tarkanian had supported Arizona’s tough immigration law and opposed the Dream Act, which would allow children brought to the country illegally to establish residency if they attend college or serve in the military. The district’s slight Democratic tilt was enough to put Horsford over the top, and he won 50% to 42%, with two other candidates splitting the remaining votes.