Growing up in Las Vegas, Steven Horsford never dreamed he’d one day serve in Congress.
To help his single mother and his three siblings, he started working at age 14 for a Pizza Hut during the day and an animal shelter at night, cleaning the kennels.
Horsford, D-Nev., grew up poor but has since climbed the political ladder. He was the first in his family to attend college, and he led the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas before winning a seat in the Nevada state Senate and later, a seat in Congress, the first Black person to represent the Silver State in that body. And in his new role as chair of an influential congressional caucus, he has pushed also Nevada to an even higher position on the national level.
“I know what it’s like to be in classrooms and to wonder what your life and your future is going to be like, and not to have a lot of hope of what necessarily that looks like because you might only see what’s close around you,” Horsford told the Review-Journal. “I’ve been afforded a lot of blessings. Many of them have been around providing exposure for me to see other ways of life and other opportunities that I didn’t know as a 10-year-old.”
“I just remember believing that I couldn’t do something positive for my community,” he said. “And even now, it’s not so much the position as it is the ability of what you can do for people that still motivates me to do what I do.”
In December 2022, Horsford was elected as chair of the 51-year-old Congressional Black Caucus, a body made up of soon-to-be 58 members who represent about 80 million people.
The caucus, known as the “conscience of the Congress,” has played important roles in pushing the House to take action on issues. It was involved in fighting apartheid in South Africa, for instance, decades before Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa to bring about the establishment of a nonracial democracy in the country.
The caucus led the way on voting rights, civil rights and fair housing. Horsford said it also made the vote of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill possible by pushing other members to vote yes.
“Anything of consequence (Congress has) ever done, the CBC is at the center of it,” Horsford told the Review-Journal in his North Las Vegas office, decorated with tokens marking moments of his career such as a helmet that says “Senate Majority Leader 2011” and awards from his time in the Legislature.
Nevada’s national influence
Historically, Nevada’s power has always come from the U.S. Senate, with the prominence that the late Democratic Sen. Harry Reid built over the years, said David Damore, professor and chair of UNLV’s Department of Political Science. With Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto in her second term and Jacky Rosen in her first, the seniority that Nevada accrued under Reid — and all of the power and resources that came with that — is no longer there, Damore said.
But Horsford’s new role helps Nevada’s position especially in the U.S. House, a body in which Nevada has not had much clout historically, Damore said. Between Horsford’s new role and Republican Rep. Mark Amodei’s chairing the Appropriations Committee’s legislative branch subcommittee, Nevada has more influence in the House than it has historically, Damore said. (In the previous Congress, Rep. Dina Titus — the dean of the delegation — chaired the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.)
“If we can, as they build seniority and start getting leadership, valuable leadership in the House, that only bodes well for the state,” Damore said.
The Nevada congressman is the voice for the Congressional Black Caucus now, and he gets more staffing and more of a role with policymaking, Damore said. But the caucus is made up entirely of Democrats, who are the minority party. Horsford would have even more power if Democrats were the majority party in the House, “but who knows what will happen in two years?” Damore said.
As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Horsford is focused on the issues of police accountability, public safety and gun violence, which hits close to home for him. When he was 19 years old, a gunman shot and killed his father.
Losing a loved one in any way hurts, Horsford said, but losing a loved one to something like gun violence “hurts all the more because you feel like there was something that could have prevented it.”
He introduced the Break the Cycle of Violence Act, which focused on preventing crime by investing in community-based violence intervention programs for young people. Part of that bill became part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, gun violence prevention that became law in June 2022.
Since Horsford has been in his role as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, he already has accomplished a few rare tasks, including getting a meeting with the president within five days of his election to talk about public safety in the wake of the death of Tyre Nichols, who was killed by Memphis, Tennessee, police officers.
He is pushing for bipartisan action, working to convince Republicans that it does not have to be an “either/or” with public safety: One can support law enforcement while also holding bad actors accountable.
“I’m going to work to make the culture of policing better for everybody, for them and for the communities that they serve,” he said. “And for my constituents, who expect me to use my position to call out injustice and to seek improvements in law. … And there are ways for us to do it that are meaningful, that are realistic, that can get done, that isn’t going to divide us (and) that actually can help bring us together.”
As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, Horsford pushed for a racial equity and justice initiative that he has carried over as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, focusing on how to provide equity in education, employment, health care, business and housing.
He and the caucus members are working with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge on different initiatives to help address homelessness, such as helping Black homeowners deal with the appraisal process and increase the number of veteran vouchers to keep veterans in housing.
“I’m using this position as a platform for me to advance issues that I know are important to people in rural Nevada, just like they’re important to people here in Las Vegas and North Las Vegas,” Horsford said. “So it’s a phenomenal opportunity; it’s a lot of responsibility. I don’t take it lightly.”
Horsford’s career has proved to be incredibly resilient, even after significant challenges. After his first term serving Nevada’s 4th Congressional District from 2012 to 2014, he lost his re-election bid to Republican Cresent Hardy in a year when Republicans won every statewide office in Nevada and took over the Legislature. But he won the seat back in 2018 in a rematch with Hardy, after then-incumbent Rep. Ruben Kihuen declined to run for re-election in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
And when a long-term affair became known after his mistress discussed it publicly on a podcast, followed by public criticisms from his wife, he still managed to win re-election by 4.8 points. Damore called it the “Bill Clinton Effect” and the “Donald Trump Effect,” a change in the norms in a relatively short period of time.
Horsford is “not focused” on the next election, he said.
“I wish we could govern longer than we campaigned in the House of Representatives,” Horsford said. “Because they’re two-year terms, we have the habit of ‘OK, what’s next?’ The next election. … We have families here in our community that are unhoused and children that are food insecure. We have real issues we need to tackle right now, and I’m focused on what that means. The next campaign will take care of itself.”