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HENDERSON, Nev.— Wayne Allyn Root is your typical Vegas oddsmaker turned vice-presidential candidate. Root grew up wanting to be Jimmy the Greek, and he built a sports-handicapping empire by talking fast and selling himself. When he's playing the part of Bob Barr's running mate, the pitch is pretty much the same: Root looks at America and sees a potential client. Like a guy who lost everything making dumb bets on football games, the United States has done everything wrong, gotten itself into a huge hole, and needs professional help. Root thinks he's just the guy to patch things up, but his prescription will have to wait. Dallas is at Arizona, a "Game of the Year" for Root (the term is relative; there are 12 to 15 Games of the Year each season), and he's desperate for the Cardinals to cover the spread.
Add Wayne Allyn Root to Nevada's claims to fame: the perennial fastest-growing state in the nation, the only place in America with legalized brothels, and now home to the only candidate for national office who runs a sports book on the side. (Or is it the other way around?) And in 2008, if it goes from red to blue, Nevada could legitimately claim to have tipped the election to Barack Obama.
To get a sense of the state mood, I could have gone on a statewide listening tour with stops in Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City, Elko, and Pahrump. But with gas prices what they are these days, I decided it would be more prudent to confine my reporting to a single block. Anthem Country Club is an upmarket gated community in the Las Vegas Valley—mountain views, a waterfall or two, the Strip's sparkling lights a mere 20 minutes away. Past the security guards is a pair of houses abutting a circular drive. Behind Door No. 1 is the Libertarian Party's vice-presidential nominee. Behind Door No. 2: Nevada's foreclosure king.
A former stalwart Republican with the glory wall to prove it—hello there, Karl Rove!—Root now peddles "conservative libertarianism." In April, he's releasing a Goldwaterian manifesto called The Conscience of a Libertarian. The theme of Root's campaign is to turn America into one big Nevada—a freedom-loving stronghold with no state income tax and a government that doesn't care if you gamble, smoke a joint, or pay for sex.
In 2004, the rest of the states might've signed off on that live-and-let-live plan. It seemed to be working for Nevada, with housing prices and gambling revenues soaring and unemployment an afterthought. Today, however, Root might have trouble getting people in Nevada to buy into his idea, much less the rest of the country. Tourism is on the wane, causing Strip casino revenues to fall for eight straight months and companies like Harrah's Entertainment to make big layoffs. Unemployment is now up to 7.3 percent, the state's highest in 23 years. With credit hard to come by, home builders and Vegas moguls have halted new projects. Nowhere has the housing bust been felt as acutely: Nevada has owned America's highest foreclosure rate for 20 straight months, and according to the Greater Las Vegas Association of Realtors, home prices in Southern Nevada have gone down 31 percent since last September.
Which brings us to Root's next-door neighbor. Michael Krein is the owner of Nevada Real Estate Services and the president of the National REO Brokers Association, a trade group for brokers who manage and maintain real-estate-owned properties—that is, foreclosures. "Most real estate agents are not equipped either financially, mentally, or with the right skill set for this business," he says. Krein explains that the hassles and stresses of the foreclosure business are mostly mundane (though he does admit to being shot at twice and stabbed once): paying the utility bills, getting the pool cleaned, dealing with homeowners' associations.
In the last few years, Krein has had a lot of properties to maintain. Speculation in the Las Vegas market, he says, pushed home prices beyond the reach of the average people who live and work there. The bad news in Vegas is that foreclosed properties are everywhere. That's also the good news: Krein says there's never been a better time to buy a house (he is a Realtor, after all), so long as you have good credit and money for a down payment.
While many Nevadans seem to be heeding his advice—September home sales in Vegas were up 181 percent over the deader-than-dead September 2007 market—a lot more are sitting tight, uncertain about the economy and their jobs. Still, as Root tells it—and the Census Bureau would agree—Nevada must be doing something right because its 2.9 percent growth rate led the nation in 2007.