Viva Las Vegas
Jan Jones fights cancer, GOP in run for Nevada
By STEVE FRIESS
Jan Jones lies.
It's not a completely unexpected concept for a politician,
and perhaps not even all that surprising for a woman who is
mayor of Las Vegas, the booming southwestern city built on slot
machines and often dubbed as Sin City.
But in this case, it's understandable and completely forgivable.
The mayor will be out on the stump, offering her thoughts on
education or crime or the environment, and someone will ask
the question. Or she'll just be finished helming another rollicking
city council meeting, and an audience member will approach her.
Or maybe she'll be trying to steal away for a quiet dinner out
with her new husband, and someone will stop by the table.
"How do you feel?" they typically want to know, looking
over her almost waifish 5-foot-3 frame intently to detect any
sign of physical weakness.
Yet the mayor never gives, never lets her 1,000-watt grin fail
her. "Great!" she exclaims convincingly as her tiny
hand she firmly clasps the hand of a friend, a constituent or
a potential voter. The only outward evidence of her health challenge
is the thinning of her champagne-tinged blonde tresses, but
few are familiar enough with that mane to notice and a skilled
stylist has covered it up anyway. "I feel great."
Most of the time, she's telling the remarkable truth. Despite
her lumpectomy and her months of radiation and chemotherapy,
Jones feels at least OK. But, she confides, occasionally she
feels "just so nauseous. But they don't need to know that."
It's especially important now for Jan Laverty Jones to project
the image of health, vibrance and energy that has served as
her most enduring political attribute. She's not just any big-city
mayor or any breast cancer survivor. Just four months after
surgeons removed a fast-growing, if minuscule, carcinoma from
her left breast and amid on-going treatment, Jones chose in
May to volunteer for the political fight of her career.
At age 48, she filed for the Democratic nomination for governor
of Nevada. Among her rallying cries: "If I can beat cancer,
and I have, I can certainly beat a Republican."
* * *
On the grim January day when cancer first introduced itself
to Jones, her thoughts could not be farther away from a run
for the statehouse in Carson City. The Democratic powers that
be in Nevada had already begged her to oppose well-financed,
well-organized Republican candidate Kenny Guinn for the open
governor's seat. As recently as November, Jones announced publicly
she wouldn't do it, that she preferred to concentrate on her
relationship with her boyfriend Richard Schuetz and her two
teenage daughters. She'd already seen her second marriage crumble
under the weight of her mayoral service.
The lump was found through a clinical breast exam, too tiny
to be detected by the mammogram she also underwent that day.
The doctor assured her it was probably nothing, but took a biopsy
anyhow. Within hours, he offered a different answer. In coming
days, further tests would show her 1.1 centimeter tumor was
fast-growing, was estrogen and progesterone-negative and had
an S-phase of 20.
For the first time in Jones' six-year reign as mayor, city
business became irrelevant to her. She was momentarily dazed
by the sudden and surprising turn of events: "I think I
felt sorry for myself for about 15 hours. I thought, 'How could
I have cancer? I'm the healthiest person I know. I've never
been sick a day in my life.' I never even thought of breast
Indeed, there is no known history of cancer in her well-to-do
California-bred family. She'd made many speeches on health care
reform over the years, especially during her failed first campaign
for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1994, but had
never mentioned breast cancer. And she thought she didn't know
anyone who had endured the disease, although she quickly learned
after her diagnosis how many women friends had simply dealt
with it quietly.
The mayor, known for a flamboyant and blunt style that perfectly
suits a flashy town like Vegas, would be anything but quiet.
Three days after her diagnosis, spokeswoman Cathy Hanson announced
the diagnosis to the local media. Hanson stressed the importance
of early detection and regular examinations, a theme Jones and
Schuetz would harp on regularly in subsequent appearances and
writings. "She expects to make a full and quick recovery,"
Hanson stated confidently.
In private, Jones didn't quite know what to expect. Schuetz
devoured books and Internet data on breast cancer, but his research
that led him to conflicting conclusions about Jones' prospects
and drove him from hope to despair and back again. "What
you find is, after a while some of the information is too much
information and you get to the point that it frightens you instead
of educates you," Jones says.
The couple didn't just analyze; they traveled to clinics in
Houston, Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., before settling
on L.A. surgeon Armando Giuliano at the Joyce Eisenberg Keefer
Breast Cancer Center, part of St. John's Hospital. The surgeon
was able to get clear margins around the tumor, removing it
and determining the cancer did not appear to have spread to
her lymph nodes. She was sent home with orders to undergo by
August six weeks of daily radiation and nine chemotherapy sessions
over seven months.
A week later, Jones was back at city hall helming a council
meeting. The following month, she proved her fitness to a curious
Las Vegas public by allowing TV cameras to film her running
in spandex on her treadmill, a cell phone firmly planted against
her ear to reflect how busy she was. She appeared on local plenaries
about women's health issues in subsequent weeks, and by April
she was in Washington, D.C. at Vice President Al Gore's request
to run with him in the annual Race for The Cure fundraiser.
Schuetz wrote a lengthy two-day, first-person series for the
Las Vegas Sun newspaper detailing his experience as a man standing
alongside a breast cancer survivor.
Also along the way, Jones and Schuetz wed. Schuetz, a gaming
industry consultant who met Jones when he ran a casino resort
and approached her about improving crime conditions around the
property, had proposed around Christmas. A day after Jones'
cancer diagnosis, the couple decided to marry the following
weekend. Before an intimate crowd of 25 in their home, Schuetz
slipped on her lanky finger a wedding ring inscribed, "In
sickness and in health." Explains Schuetz: "I wanted
her to know I'd be with her always on this thing. We'd go through
this together. And we could never tell what the next day would
bring, so we had to do it now."
* * *
Cancer wasn't merely a detour in Jones' career; it may have
driven her to run for governor. As the May 18 filing deadline
loomed, Democratic Party operatives continued their pursuit
of the one politician in the state they believed could seriously
challenge Guinn. Jones flirted with the prospects publicly in
media interviews, then would play coy. But when a Democratic
poll taken the week before the deadline showed she actually
led Guinn statewide, Jones left town for her son's college graduation
in Tucson to think it over.
She returned as a gung-ho candidate, becoming the first American
woman ever known to run for governor and also undergo breast
cancer treatment at the same time. With little serious Democratic
competition, she revived interest and provided spark for a dull
governor's race that much of the media had written off as a
Guinn cakewalk. "Cancer's impact was teaching me you better
not wait for the right time because there may not be a right
time," Jones says. "I decided I could take care of
both my health and my campaign at the same time without either
Still, Jones' first stop on the campaign trail was a California
clinic for six weeks of radiation treatment. After that, her
chemo appointments every three weeks also would interrupt the
flow of her stumping efforts, forcing her to pause and overcome
the nausea she claimed publicly was no worse than morning sickness
during pregnancy thanks to an anti-nausea drug she used. Privately,
she could barely read the word "chemotherapy" in a
magazine story with feeling sickened, and her staff learned
not to schedule her for much on "chemo weekends."
Yet Jones was never the traditional candidate anyway. In 1991
when she entered politics, she had no experience with public
policy or giving election speeches. Her prominence in Las Vegas
arose from a series of hokey but amusing TV ads she starred
in for her then-father-in-law's car dealership chain, for which
she served as an executive during much of the 1980s. Jones as
pitchwoman donned bizarre outfits, including an infamous Little
Red Riding Hood get-up, and appeared with a prominent Las Vegas
Strip drag performer as she tried to convince the masses that
her dealership's prices were the cheapest.
Jones, more regularly seen in designer outfits and stylish
haircuts, blitzed the political scene and enchanted a bored
populace seeking something different. She became the first female
mayor or Las Vegas City Council member, ushering in a new era
in a town generally dominated by white male Mormons, and proceeded
to run the city as if it were the business she left behind.
She fast became one of the state's most popular figures, and
remained such despite her 1994 gubernatorial primary loss to
incumbent Democratic governor Bob Miller and a slew of ethics
controversies that continue to swirl around her.
Whether she can beat Guinn this fall is a looming question
-- mid-summer polls showed her lagging by between 10 and 20
percentage points -- and whether her experience with breast
cancer will have any impact remains a huge curiosity for political
watchers. Guinn's campaign manager, Peter Ernaut, announced
early in the campaign, "If any staff person makes her health
a political thing, they'll be out the door the next day."
That's the right response, says political analyst Charles Cook
of the Cook Political Report, who is tracking the race from
Washington, D.C. "An opponent would be insane to try to
raise this as an issue," Cook notes. "People either
will have reservations or they won't and that's based upon their
knowledge about the disease and what they read and hear about
in the media. No campaign consultant in the world would advise
to bring this up."
But Guinn's top opponent, former movie producer Aaron Russo,
didn't hesitate to suggest that voters may wonder whether Jones
would survive a four-year term as governor. "My understanding
of cancer is you never know whether you've beaten it or not,"
Russo says. "My concern is that running a campaign will
put stress on her. I don't know why a person who has cancer
would run this campaign."
Jones calls Russo's comments "stupid" and says she'd
gladly tell reporters why she's running if they would stop asking
her about her cancer. "If you keep asking people if it's
an issue, pretty soon it will be an issue," Jones complains
over an enormous lunch of an egg salad and a turkey-roast beef
sandwich minutes before dashing off to her eighth chemo date.
"I've been really open about the breast cancer, but it
does get to the point that I have other things to talk about.
How are we going to educate the children in the state of Nevada?
Who is going to make sure there's affordable, safe child care?
What are we going to do to continue health care reform and hospital
reform? How are we going to diversify the economy so we can
stop depending solely on the gaming industry?"
Russo and others suspect the Jones campaign has conducted polls
on whether the cancer can be a liability or even an asset. Not
only does Jones deny it, but no research firm anywhere has conducted
any known research on the impacts of disease on the political
viability of candidates. Instead, the best available information
comes from women like Long Island county legislator Barbara
Johnson and Vermont state legislator Karen Kitzmiller, both
of who have won more than one election after being public about
their protracted bouts with breast cancer.
Kitzmiller, 50, underwent a liver biopsy in Election Day 1996
as she was being re-elected to a fourth term. She cheers Jones'
effort, noting, "All sorts of people will see her as a
role model, an inspiration. That's all good. I don't see a downside.
I know I'm much more well-known all over the state than I ever
was." And Johnson, who took out full-page newspaper advertisements
to update constituents on her thrice-recurring cancer, knew
of Jones' candidacy because her son spotted an item on the Internet.
The 54-year-old has had virtually no negative reaction, aside
from some anonymous grumblings from Democratic operatives concerned
that her death would cost them a seat in the Nassau Legislature.
She advised Jones to view the situation as a campaign bonus:
"This cancer is a hot issue because it's your wife and
mother. All her constituents will respect her for being upfront
Jones believes the fixation on her cancer is part of a sexism
in the media and the public about male and female health issues.
Months before the mayor's disclosure, Nevada Gov. Bob Miller
disclosed he had prostate cancer and received scant questions
about whether he could execute his duties. But Miller was not
running for office, and in Illinois in 1994 both the quadruple-bypass
heart surgery of incumbent GOP Gov. Jim Edgar and the breast
cancer diagnosis of Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate
Penny Severns received similar media play. Edgar won the race
handily, but few believed either side's health issues were particularly
Indeed, these recent anecdotes are more indicative of what
politicians, male or female, are willing to risk disclosing
than any shift among public perception. Presidents Franklin
Delano Roosevelt and John Kennedy both went to great lengths
to hide debilitating physical problems, and Democratic presidential
aspirant and cancer survivor Paul Tsongas as recently as 1992
felt the need to appear in a TV commercial in a Speedo and dive
into a swimming pool to prove his physical competence. After
that race, it was revealed Tsongas did not completely disclose
that his cancer had returned. He died of treatment complications
Ironically, cancer has given Jones the best attention she's
received in her campaign. Dogged by complaints pending before
the state Ethics Commission in the thick of the election season,
Jones' discussion of her health paints her as courageous, determined,
honest and human. Women voters in particular are likely to admire
her, says Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist Jon Ralston.
"It's the best press she's gotten in the governor's race
that's been even remotely positive," Ralston notes. "It's
generally a positive because she's using the story she has to
tell, and it makes it more difficult for anyone to attack her
for missing meetings or not staying up on her duties as mayor."
Like Kitzmiller and Johnson, Jones says she's willing to use
her gubernatorial powers to fight breast cancer, although she
noted the real funding is handled on a national basis. Instead,
she knows her experience in the health care system was eased
by her wealth and prominence, and that most women must fidget
in the waiting rooms for interminable spans of time instead
of seeing nationally known specialists. She believes all patients
should enjoy her luxuries. "I can be involved with reforms
that make sure women with cancer are treated a lot more humanely.
It's a very traumatic time, and it doesn't help being treated
like a number and being made to wait for hours in waiting rooms
or having treatment denied because of finances."
* * *
Mostly, Jones tries to separate the personal and the political,
but she's not particularly convincing. She's well aware of the
precedent she's setting, of the importance her candidacy has
taken on among many women who have faced breast cancer. At least
one campaign aide has wondered aloud whether Jones would be
the first U.S. governor to be a cancer survivor, though that
"Your running for office will save women's lives,"
her husband predicted confidently around the time she decided
to run. "If you accomplish nothing else, it will teach
women the importance of early detection and that you're not
at death's door."
It's a credo that Jones fully believes: " I'm aware of
an image I can project for other women with breast cancer that
it's a treatable disease. You can live, you can be vital.
"Heck, you can even run for governor."
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