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"I have to tell you, if I hadn't been mayor," says Jan Jones, "I might have been considered for this position but I'm not sure."
Photo by CHRISTINE H. WETZEL


Jones is the kind of public figure people either love or hate.
Photo by CHRISTINE H. WETZEL

Thursday, March 03, 2005
Copyright © Las Vegas Mercury

Self-made woman

Why aren't there more powerful women in gaming? Jan Jones wonders too

By Emmily Bristol

Jan Jones as murdered prom queen.

This is one of Maura Lasater's favorite memories of her mother, the former mayor of Las Vegas.

As Lasater remembers it, she was in high school and her mom was mayor. It was Halloween, and Jones and family decided to deck out the house in full spooky trimmings. "She got this old, old white dress and she got this big, huge, long blond wig," says the 25-year-old Lasater, the oldest of Jones' three children. "And my mom had a fake knife sticking out of her chest. And every Halloween my mom makes her chicken chili and cornbread and everybody comes over. I had just started school at [Bishop] Gorman and I remember some people came by, and out comes my mom with her knife in her chest and blond wig and murdered-prom-queen fake blood.

"My friend was like, 'That's the mayor?'"

The scene is layered, like Jones herself. It reveals Jones' ability to make fun of her own image. At the time, many considered Jones to be as credible and important as an 8x10 glossy, especially considering her gender and appearance as an attractive, feminine, leggy blond. An exaggerated wig and a phony dagger through the heart are almost a metaphor for her plight in trying to be taken seriously as a woman in what until then had been a man's position.

But Jones, 55, doesn't play the victim in real life. And she's never been afraid to use any of her talents, as when, before her political career, she dressed up in silly costumes in various Fletcher Jones auto dealership TV ads. That was when she was married to the dealership's namesake's son, one of four marriages Jones has had.

At the time of Lasater's memory, Jones was one of the city's most high-profile mayors and its first leading lady. She was in the process of elevating the office from glorified ribbon-cutter to spokesperson for America's favorite playground--something current Mayor Oscar Goodman openly thanked her for when he followed her into office in 1999.

But her political life was full of controversy. She is the kind of public figure people either love or hate. There are few Las Vegans who are ambivalent about her years as mayor from 1991-99.

This makes the family memory perhaps more poignant, or more bizarre. Jones faced at least eight different ethics charges while mayor. Unlike both her predecessor Ron Lurie and successor Goodman, Jones' ethics complaints were all either dropped or beaten.

"I knew I was under attack and I was tried in the press," says Jones, now an executive at Harrah's Entertainment. "I'm not sure you can be mayor, or an elected official of anything with high visibility, without an ethics complaint. It's just part of the territory because it's not always about doing something wrong. Sometimes it's just your political opponents looking to bring you down. There's a lot of reasons it can happen.

"Ethics is murky water," she says. "We used to look up to our elected officials. Now you're considered a crook until proven otherwise."

But the experience taught her at least one thing about herself: "I always knew I was tough. Now I'm really tough."

If the shoe fits

We sit at a small round table in the corner, a part of the room more elaborately decorated than the rest of Jones' tidy, elegant but sparse office. In the corner there is a mix of mementos and strategically placed pieces: Half a dozen photos of her with President Bill Clinton are interspersed with framed, school-era art pieces from her children. A large frame holds mayoral memorabilia, including photos from her first meeting, a gavel and council chambers nameplate.

On a pedestal next to an arrangement of dried roses sits a tiny glass slipper, no larger than a pen cap. The shoe reflects Jones' love for shoes. The native Californian confesses to having never thrown out a pair. This sort of feminine iconography is just the sort of thing that was frowned upon when Jones was taking business courses at Stanford. (She earned a bachelor's in English.)

"Back then, they taught you that if you stand out [as feminine], you can almost be more of a target," Jones says.

Today Jones actively seeks to promote "smart, aggressive, visionary women." And she speaks often on the issues facing women in the business world in public speeches as a member of the Women's Leadership Board at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

"I get frustrated sometimes because I will listen to both men and women say, 'You don't need feminism because it's all equal. We fixed it.' We haven't fixed anything. It's exactly the same as it was 20 years ago," she says. "Women get to a certain level in management and stop. I have to tell you, if I hadn't been mayor, I might have been considered for this position but I'm not sure. Young women avoid going into business because they know it's very hard to get to a significant level."

This makes her image as a headshot mayor all the more irritating to her. Jones said she feels she was unfairly targeted by the press and her detractors because she was both a woman and attractive--and made no effort to conceal either.

"There's no question that there's a double standard," Jones says. "I'm not a wallflower."

The anger still seems fresh when she recalls how she was portrayed in the media while mayor. Jones says it seemed to her that the reporters and photographers were always looking to catch her in a weak, stereotypically feminine moment. For instance, she remembers an August 1998 Review-Journal photo of her crying during a speech by Tipper Gore.

"That really plays to type," Jones says of the photo and headline attached to the story: "Jones brought to tears at Tipper Gore speech."

This, too, highlights how difficult it was to go through breast cancer treatment while mayor. Gore's speech took place at a time when Jones was undergoing chemotherapy, following a lumpectomy. Last month, Jones celebrated her five-year anniversary of beating cancer.

"She is a force," Lasater says. When her mother had breast cancer, Lasater says it was important for the family to show a united, strong face to the world, especially while the usually private issue was playing out in local front-page headlines. "That was very difficult," Lasater says.

And while Jones' children mostly kept up the strong family front, Lasater says she sometimes found herself defending her mom to school friends and teachers. Or, as in a Nov. 16, 1997, R-J letter to the editor, she defended her mom to the community, writing, "[S]he is not the idiot whom you like to portray. ... You can't find anything that is truly bad about her so you have to make things up and report stories that have no newsworthy content."

Jones says she has always taken strength from her biggest role model--her father, whom she calls an extraordinary human being. When times get tough, Jones says, she remembers a defining moment in her childhood when she was playing football with her two brothers in the back yard. She got knocked down and hurt, which sent her to the sideline. Instead of coddling her, Jones' father told her to get back in the game when she felt better. To this day, that philosophy has guided Jones.

"I don't focus on [the negative]. I just try to keep going," she says.

Self-made woman

From her top-floor office overlooking the Strip, Jones says she doesn't think she would have been considered for her position as Harrah's Entertainment's senior vice president of communications and government relations if it hadn't been for her achievements as mayor.

And that irks many. There are still plenty of people who see Jones' past and present roles in Las Vegas as controversial. Bill Thompson, an outspoken UNLV public administration professor and gaming expert, says Jones may have been a little too friendly with the gaming industry while mayor. "She was ingratiating herself with gaming while being mayor," Thompson contends.

In some ways, the question in Nevada is, who doesn't? After all, Thompson himself points out that Goodman actively promotes gaming businesses downtown, which are clearly in his jurisdiction.

But Thompson, like others, found Jones a little too cozy with gaming executives. She came under fire for co-owning a store in the Stratosphere while mayor. Further, she was aggressive in using the power of eminent domain to condemn private property downtown to ultimately assist private companies to create the $70 million Fremont Street Experience, launch the construction of Neonopolis and help the Stratosphere to expand.

"She did make decisions favoring the Stratosphere and made decisions favoring the Fremont Street Experience," Thompson says. "And right after she was mayor, she got a very lucrative job with Harrah's. She has been very tight with the casino industry."

In fact, while fighting breast cancer in 1998, Jones married her third husband, Richard Schuetz, who was the president of a gaming consulting company. They met during meetings regarding the decline of the neighborhood surrounding the Stratosphere, while Schuetz was CEO of that casino.

"I think it was bad public policy," Thompson says of the property seizures.

Jones has admitted to making mistakes in how she handled the issue of eminent domain in downtown. "Everything that happened downtown happened under my watch," Jones says, adding that she paved the way for Goodman's downtown projects.

Even though Thompson criticizes Jones for many of her decisions, he does think she may be the most powerful woman in gaming. This may change if a prediction in the Feb. 25 R-J holds true. Following the approval of the $8.7 billion MGM Mirage buyout of Mandalay Resort Group, MGM Grand CEO Terry Lanni said current company executive Renee West may become the first female president of a Strip property.

For now, Jones is not only one of the highest-ranking women in her industry, she's one who has done it on her own terms. She is not a gaming executive's wife or relative. Certainly, Jones is not the American fairy tale of a poor girl growing up to be a powerful business executive (and politician), but she is one of the most self-made women in the industry. And who knows how her role may change as Harrah's inches closer to a $9.4 billion merger with Caesars Entertainment?

Jones herself has a lot to say about the industry and Las Vegas. When she was hired at Harrah's, she was one of two female executives in decision-making roles in the company. She is proud of her company, calling it "very gender-neutral" in management--but she's not afraid to dish out tough love when it's warranted.

Case in point: The recent flap over Darlene Jesperson, a bartender with a Harrah's property in Reno who was fired for not adhering to what some have called a sexist dress code.

"That was a mistake," says Jones, who called the Reno office after she heard that Jesperson was fired for not wearing makeup (as defined in the dress code at the time); Jones told them to make it right by hiring her back. Jesperson sued the company for discrimination, lost at the state level and at a panel hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. She was offered her job back, but declined because of her personal principles, Jesperson said.

See Jan run?

Ever since Jones left office in 1999, there has been speculation that she may run for office again. While mayor she ran for governor twice and lost. She also ran for Democratic National Committee chair in 2001 and lost to Dina Titus. Jones has said she will not rule out politics in the future.

But the only thing she hasn't done yet is slow down. She routinely works 70-hour weeks and flies across the country and the world at least two weeks out of each month. This includes as many weekend commutes as possible to Greenville, S.C., where her husband of 10 months, Dana Blackhurst, lives.

Blackhurst, Jones' fourth husband, is the headmaster of the nationally known Camperdown Academy, a private school for dyslexic children. He also works with the Andre Agassi Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas. Blackhurst, severely dyslexic himself, is known as an expert in the field of dyslexia education. Several high-profile Las Vegas families send their children to his South Carolina private school, he says.

Jones jokes that she doesn't look for husbands anymore. "They just keep asking me to marry them." And the gaming executive admits that her hectic schedule and high-profile job make relationships difficult. "It's cost me three marriages."

Her failed marriages taught her to value her children above all else, she says, because you can't always count on men to be there. In the past, her husbands have been threatened by her power in the community and wealth, she said.

Maybe that's why she speaks with measured optimism about the role of men in her life now. However, she and Blackhurst find time to talk on the phone (no matter how briefly) each day.

"She's amazing. She's a hurricane and I'm a hurricane, too," says Blackhurst, 49. "It's amazing when the eyes cross paths. I admire her. She's my best friend and my hero."

Despite their busy schedules, the couple manages to find time for vacations together. Last year they traveled by motorcycle through Canada and Alaska up the Alaska-Canadian Highway. When they met up to embark on their trip, Blackhurst balked when Jones showed up with piles of luggage. Of course, she had to leave them behind and pare it down to one bag--no suits, no makeup, no cell phones, no titles. Just Jan.

"She's a better mother and human being than anything else she's ever done," says Blackhurst. "She's just real and genuine. There's a totally other side to Jan that no one ever sees."


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