Steve Yeager, the recently elected speaker of the Nevada Assembly, steps into his new role in a chamber that is more diverse than ever, with members who bring a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives. The NCSL Leaders’ Center caught up with Yeager shortly before the start of the 2023 legislative session to ask him about diversity in the Assembly, what he’s looking forward to as speaker and what makes him tick as a leader.
The Nevada Assembly has achieved a historic level of diversity. Can you tell us more about the chamber’s makeup and how it compares with the past?
In 2019, the Nevada Legislature became the first legislative body in the country to have a female majority. And I’m proud to say that has remained the case ever since. In the Assembly, we have 42 members; 26 are women, so that’s 62%. In addition, 43% of the members are Black, Indigenous or people of color. That’s pretty exciting in terms of the level of diversity that we have in the body. For example, we’ve elected the first Filipino state legislator and the first legislator of Indian descent. So we are more diverse than ever, and I would say we’re probably the most diverse legislature in the country.
What factors have contributed to this shift in diversity?
Term limits have definitely helped bring new faces into the body. But, beyond that, I think that my predecessor as speaker, Jason Frierson, really made a point of recruiting diverse community leaders to run for the Legislature. And we’ve continued those efforts after he left. We’re actively looking for people to be able to represent what the state of Nevada looks like, because we are a majority-minority state at this point. The Legislature certainly ought to (reflect) the actual constituency of the state.
I would also say that we have a lot of partner groups in the community that really focus on diversity, racial equity and inclusion, and they’ve really started working to create pipelines of people who would like to run for office. As a result, we’re seeing more diverse faces coming forward and saying they want to serve.
“Nothing would make me happier than to fast forward 10 or 20 years and see what all of these people are doing in the future, because I work with them every day and I know how smart they are and how hardworking they are.”
As speaker, how do you view your role in supporting and promoting diversity within the membership?
It’s a huge part of the role that I’m in now. I want to make sure that the Assembly continues to look like the state. So I’m looking forward to carrying on that legacy from the previous speaker in helping to recruit candidates. I think that simply by having these folks in the Legislature, who represent the communities that they come from, will help create a natural pipeline that’s going to happen for the next generations of diverse legislators. Because there can only be one first, and we want to make sure that the first is not the last.
And it’s important to mention that this is not a situation of wanting diversity merely for diversity’s sake. These legislators are very smart individuals who are chairing committees and bringing a lot to the table. We have 10 committees in the Assembly. Nine of them are chaired by women and six are chaired by people of color. So we’re not just recruiting to say, “You’re going to serve in the Legislature,” but we’re empowering people to make sure that they’re stepping up into leadership roles. And that is going to help with the further recruitment from some traditionally underrepresented communities.
With such a diverse chamber and caucus, you have a wide range of perspectives that you have to take into account. How do you as leader ensure that all these viewpoints are heard and considered?
In my mind, the more perspectives, the better. I have my own background, but obviously it’s different from a lot of my members and from members of our leadership staff. It’s incredibly helpful to be able to get their perspective on legislation, policy and whether we’re doing the right thing. I don’t want yes people around me. I want people around me who are going to step up and share their opinions and offer different directions. I am a decently talented legislator, but I certainly don’t have all the answers. So the variety of perspectives brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the legislative process, and ultimately that makes for better legislation.
Legislative staff play a key role in operating and strengthening the legislative institution. Are you seeing changes in the staff ranks that mirror the shift in diversity among the legislators?
We definitely are, and I think that’s a function of the diversity of the Legislature, because many times staff members happen to be friends or people that volunteered on the legislators’ campaigns. This applies to the campaign staff as well, and we work really hard to make sure we’re recruiting people as staffers who maybe haven’t previously gotten involved in politics or are from underserved communities. And we’ll continue with that as long as I’m in a position to do something about it. I’m just really proud that, for the first time, the executive director of our caucus is Latino, and my chief of staff is an Asian American Pacific Islander.
It’s really important that we put people in leadership positions and positions where they can grow. Nothing would make me happier than to fast forward 10 or 20 years and see what all of these people are doing in the future, because I work with them every day and I know how smart they are and how hardworking they are. If their work in the Legislature can be a stepping stone to whatever it is they want to do in their career and their lives, then I feel honored to have been a part of that.
You’re just beginning your first session as speaker. What aspects of this new role excite you? What challenges are you preparing for?
For me, the exciting part is the honor of being the leader of this chamber. We have so many talented people who I know are going to do great work. These sessions are 120 days of madness: You hit the ground running, and you don’t stop until the end. But I’m just really honored to lead these folks and to prepare our new people to begin stepping up as leaders, because with term limits, we just don’t have a lot of time. Newer members are going to be asked to step up right away, and by the time you’re in your second or third session, you’re going to be running committees. So I’m excited about getting them prepared.
Of course, there are some challenges. We are going from a Democratic trifecta state to having split government with a newly elected Republican governor. So that’s going to be a different dynamic from the last two sessions. We have to be realistic that maybe not all of the Democratic priorities are going to be met with approval by the governor. But, no matter who the governor is, we will communicate and we will collaborate. And, while we won’t agree on everything, I’m pretty confident we’ll probably agree on 95% of the things we work on.
What would surprise people to learn about you?
Poker is what originally brought me to Las Vegas. When I was in law school, I got really fascinated by poker. It took me a while to get here permanently, but once I did move here back in 2009, I very seriously considered becoming a professional poker player. But ultimately, I chose to take a job at the public defender’s office, which I think long term was a good choice. But I always have that little nugget in the back of my head that wonders, well, what if I had played poker? A lot of people that know me in this current role don’t necessarily envision me sitting at a poker table.
The skill set required to be successful in poker is probably similar to being successful as a legislative leader. You need to be strategic, you need to think ahead. In poker, you’re always thinking about what your opponent is doing and what story they are trying to tell you. You have to have a long-term game plan and strategic thinking. Also, you can be absolutely right in poker and mathematically make the right decision but still lose the hand. And there’s some lessons there for politics as well. You could do everything right, but sometimes things don’t go your way, and then you regroup and you live to play the next hand.
What book are you reading, or have you read recently, that’s had an impact on you?
That would be “Forged in Crisis” (about leadership, by Nancy Koehn). There are a ton of lessons there for leaders. Sometimes we think that we’re in a tough situation that no one’s ever been through before, and it’s hard to see a way forward. And the lessons from that book show that other leaders have been in these sorts of spots. My takeaway is that things move so quickly that we as leaders tend to be very reactionary, and we don’t often sit back and contemplate a decision before we make it. One of the emphases of that book was recognizing that sometimes you do have to act quickly, but there are other times where it’s warranted to be more deliberate and take your time with an issue. That’s a great lesson for any leader, especially in today’s world. Information is coming at you fast and furious, but if you can take that second to step back, you’re probably going to make a better decision.
Taylor Huhn is a senior program specialist with NCSL’s Leaders and International Program.