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Nevada venture capitalist wants to try hand at being governor

RENO — In 1975, Guy Nohra was 15 and fighting in his native Lebanon’s civil war. Fearing for his life, his family whisked him away to safety in California, hiding his passport to prevent his return.

There, in Alameda, he lived a typical American teenager’s life, running track and playing in a rock band. He got into a top university, then a top business school, became an American citizen and, as the years passed, grew wealthy as a biotech venture capitalist.

So when people tell him running for governor of Nevada as a first-time candidate is a pipe dream, Nohra, whose political awakening came under Ronald Reagan, shrugs them off. He says he heard as much, and faced similar odds, when he aspired to the rarefied realm of venture capital in business school, and later, when he invested in companies working on cures for cancer.

“I’ve taken on the odds before, and I’ve succeeded,” Nohra, 61, says an interview at his home in Reno’s Sierra foothills. The soft-spoken Bay Area transplant, with an unplaceable accent and unremitting half-smile, has made Nevada his home since 2014.

Nohra, whose first name is pronounced “Ghee,” in the French style, now has more than chutzpah in his favor: He has a blueprint for running that Republicans across the country hope to replicate. This month, Glenn Youngkin, a private equity multimillionaire, defeated well-known former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race in his first bid for office, deftly keeping President Donald Trump at arm’s length while not alienating the former president’s ardent supporters, and winning back the state’s suburban swing voters by focusing on, and fomenting, their frustrations with the education system.

Nohra clearly likes the comparison, calling it “uncanny.”

“He’s been a godsend from my perspective,” he adds. “You couldn’t write it better as far as a script for us.”

Like Youngkin, who poured more than $20 million into his race, Nohra is ready to put up whatever cash it takes. His firm has investments in companies totaling more than half a billion dollars. As for his net worth, a spokesman said Friday that Nohra would file a finance disclosure with the state in January.

“It’s a mission,” he said. The return on his investment for running, he says, is “whatever I can do for the people of Nevada.”

Newcomers face long odds

Reality check: Nohra has to be considered one of the longer shots in a Republican primary for governor that boasts at least five other announced and active candidates: former U.S. senator and former Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore and Reno lawyer and former boxer Joey Gilbert.

Though the big field helps Nohra’s chances, the format of Nevada’s Republican primary probably does not: Youngkin, in Virginia, won his party’s nod in a ranked-choice election of delegates who voted via an “unassembled” drive-thru convention, prevailing in the sixth round. Republican voters in Nevada will pick their candidate in a closed primary. That format benefits the candidate with best name recognition and, given the party’s rightward shift, the strongest conservative credentials.

“We all have the same platforms, You can pick one through five,” Nohra says. “My challenge is going to be I’m going to show competence. I’m going to show using business skills to solve very, very tough problems. I’m going to show why I think economic diversification is important. So my challenge is going to be articulating that.”

He adds: “You know, there’s this big fight going on right now, who’s the most conservative. Just look at my life. I don’t need to sit here and tell you how conservative I am. Just look at my biography.”

From Beirut to Baghdad by the Bay

Laying out his conservative cred, Nohra, who fought for Maronite Christians as a Lebanese teenager, cites his support for gun rights saying: “If I hadn’t used guns in Lebanon, my people would have been massacred by the PLO and thrown into the Mediterranean Sea.”

A practicing if untethered Catholic — he attends services but doesn’t have a home parish — Nohra opposes abortion. He describes himself as economically conservative and recounts how in 1980, when other college kids were backing Jimmy Carter or even independent John Anderson for president, he was drawn to Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric.

“This guy that everybody was trying to make fun of made the most sense to me,” he says. “I always kind of resonated (with) Ronald Reagan’s style and what he was trying to achieve, let people do their thing. And, you know, government should be here as support, but not the main player.”

He majored in history at Stanford, then opted for business school at University of Chicago, where conservative scholar and Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman held court. Multilingual in French, Arabic and English, he had been dissuaded from an interest in career diplomacy in college. His first job after business school was selling medical equipment to Asia. Co-workers encouraged him to look venture capital, though others doubted he could succeed.

“It was one of those things where people said, ‘Are you serious? You’re going to try to go into venture capital?’ The same way people now tell me, ‘Oh, you’re serious? You’re going to become governor?’”

Supporting biotech businesses

He landed with a Boston-based venture capital firm as an associate, made partner three years later in 1989 and co-founded his own firm, Alta Partners, seven years later. He said his firm raised eight funds totaling $2 billion and invested in more than 150 companies, creating thousands of jobs. He stopped raising capital for Alta in 2006 and created a new fund in Spain, where he saw a “huge need” for Silicon Valley-type financial support and acumen. He relocated to Nevada in 2014, feeling out of place and unwelcome in the Bay Area.

“With regard to my values, my morals, and, of course, my political views, California in general and the Bay Area in particular were just becoming so different for me,” he said. In Nevada, “when I meet people from the other party, it’s not so intense.”

He adds that his reaction to being a political outcast in progressive San Francisco was shaped by his experience in Lebanon “a long time ago, when some people just had to hide, and you don’t want to hide when you’re in your country.”

So why run?

In a word, COVID. Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak’s handling of the pandemic, Nohra says, left him “very disappointed.”

“Monday morning quarterbacking is always an easy thing, but I was actually on the field, so it’s a little different because that’s what I do. I invest in companies in that space,” he says.

After the first couple of months of the pandemic, when so much about the virus’s pathology was still unknown, he said he came to see it as neither the flu nor the bubonic plague.

“I’m not going to be naïve, but shutting down everything and schools and gyms is not the way to go,” he says.

Nohra said he saw Sisolak following California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lead on the pandemic response and not listening to experts on “both sides” of the debate over treatment. Despite FDA guidance against using an anti-malaria drug to treat COVID, he labeled Sisolak’s decision to ban its use in Nevada political because then-President Donald Trump endorsed it.

And after months of observing how other states handled the pandemic, many with fewer restrictions and closings than Nevada, he said he had data to support his gut feeling that “this guy’s doing it wrong.” Death rates in states such as Florida and Arizona, with less strict lockdowns or none at all, weren’t much worse than in states like Nevada.

“They’re so darn close that you’re going to tell me you shut down every middle-class family in Clark County so that you have 1 out of 100,000 deaths less than Arizona did?” he said.

Asked about the family of that one additional victim, he replies: “Who wants to be (among) the hundreds of thousands that don’t have a job, that are unemployed, (whose) kids who have lost the whole year of school?… It’s all cost benefit.”

He adds later: “So we shut down the whole state for all this kind of time. It was just bad public policy. It did not help our state. And the candidates on my side will tell you it’s wrong. But hopefully I’m explaining to you with data why I think it was wrong.”

Deciding to run

Frustrated, Nohra said he called an old fraternity brother from Stanford, James Dickey, former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, and told him he wanted to run. Then he started his research.

“I needed to learn how this game is played and what people do,” he said. “As a venture capitalist, I don’t just jump into things, I always do my research.”

With Dickey’s guidance, he hired Republican political consulting firm Ascent Strategic. He has had trouble finding a day-to-day campaign manager but says he close to locking one in. He plans to set off across the state reaching people through direct contact and with ads, which he sees as “the best way for people to know who I am.”

“We’ve got to go back to product, just basic marketing,” he says. “I need to differentiate, because if I’m just some rich guy who wants to play this game who can afford it, I don’t think that’s differentiation.”

“I’m very serious, but I also have a little bit of irreverence,” he adds. “This is not life and death. I’ve been in life and death. I’ve seen it. So if this is not life and death, then we’re going to have a little bit of fun as we do it. But we’re also incredibly serious.”

He says he prefers flying somewhat under the radar for as long as he can as his better-known GOP rivals call each other out and Democrats attack the entire field. Much of his script, in fact, is not unfamiliar for a first-time candidate from the business world aiming right from the get-go for high office. He stresses his business success and not being “your average typical politician,” that running for office is not just an investment one can cast aside if returns don’t pan out. His candidacy “is a mission, and when you have a mission it’s very different.”

Winning rural Republicans

He says conservative Republican voters who predominate in the state’s rural counties will warm to him, looking past or maybe even embracing his rich-guy business pedigree and his slightly foreign bearing. Winning their support is about “competence and heart.”

On a quick rundown on issues and top-of-mind topics among Republicans, he plays concerns over election integrity as an issue for both sides, not just Republicans angry with the results in 2020.

He says he knows President Joe Biden was elected fairly because — he says with sarcasm — inflation and gas prices are high and “we left Afghanistan with our tails between our legs,” blaming Biden for it all. The 2020 election, however, is settled.

“What are we going to do? We’re going to look backwards all our lives? It’s over,” he says.

He is dismayed but resigned to how Nevada’s Democrats pushed through a redistricting plan that benefits them, saying it’s “how the game is played,” often to the benefit of Republicans as well as Democrats. “You don’t like the game? Change the rules.”

He talks about convening an education summit if elected, attracting and working with business to diversify the state’s economy, explaining decisions to constituents with data and directness.

On critical race theory, fears over which Republicans have parlayed into a successful wedge issue, he cites a personal basis for disliking it, recalling the ethnic and political strife that brought civil war to Lebanon.

“The more you start Balkanizing things, the more things go sideways,” he says. “I don’t want to debate with the left whether it’s being taught or not. What I want to do is, let’s go back to basics.”

With education, he says, that means sitting down in a room on Day 1 with all stakeholders and not leaving until there’s an agreement on how to raise Nevada’s public schools from 49th in the country to, say, 25th in four years.

“I’m not stupid. People are going to say they want more money,” he says. “People are going to say they want more choice. … All right. That’s OK. Put it on the table. Discuss it. I’ll lead. I’ll take the arrows. Just get it done.”

It’s the kind of optimism from a political newcomer that can make veterans roll their eyes over its seeming naïveté, but Nohra predicts his Republican rivals will copy his plan. He has a primary and a general election before any of that can come to pass and acknowledges that the political part of running for office “is something you have to do, because that’s our system and I understand it.”

“I’ve been in a world my whole life where it’s a meritocracy,” he says. “And politics is not necessarily that much of a meritocracy because there’s so much more that goes into the campaigns. It’s something I’m trying to get used to and accept because I know that I could do best for the state for everybody.”

That alone, he concedes, won’t get him elected. But neither the odds nor the challenges seem likely to dissuade him, either.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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