Las Vegas mayoral candidate Kara Jenkins wants inclusivity to be a hallmark of local government. (Credit: Kara Jenkins’ campaign)

“When I’m sworn in as the first Black female mayor of Las Vegas, it will make national news.” 

So says Kara Jenkins, who currently serves as the administrator of the Nevada Equal Rights Commission – and who hopes a successful run for Sin City’s top office will “drive a huge conversation” about diversity and bring a much-needed fresh perspective to the economic center of Nevada, a 2024 battleground state.

“Local government needs to be … a beacon for everyone,” especially the marginalized, says Jenkins, who’s been endorsed by Higher Heights, a political PAC that supports Black women running for office, as well as the women’s committee of the Forward Party.

But before she can bring her inclusive vision to fruition, Jenkins has to make her way past a rather crowded nonpartisan primary – 14 candidates are vying Tuesday for a chance to snag the mayorship in Las Vegas. Depending on what voters say day-of, winner could take all; if necessary, however, a run-off election involving a whittled pool of candidates would take place Nov. 5. 

Jenkins is up against some serious fundraising power in this race, including that of millionaire Shelley Berkley, a former Democratic state representative who was leading with 16% of the vote, as of an April poll. “We’re going against the ‘old guard.’ But I don’t have millions,” Jenkins says. “My donors [in contrast] give $5 to $15 – but every vote means the same, even if you don’t have a Super PAC” funding you. 

That same poll showed other well-funded candidates, including two members of the Las Vegas city council – Republican Victoria Seaman and Independent Cedric Crear – with leads over Jenkins. That said, 56% of Las Vegas residents classified themselves as undecided in that same poll – giving any one of the 14 a reasonable chance at winning. 

Jenkins has been campaigning for several years, in hopes that an extensive, grassroots effort will help her rise above Las Vegas’ well-established political machine. She wants residents to ultimately see someone in charge “who is relatable, accessible and ‘with the times.’”

Becoming, and Being, the Change

Jenkins, 46, put down roots in Las Vegas after attending Xavier University, a historically Black college in New Orleans, and earning a law degree at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law. She also earned a public leadership certification from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

She is originally from Sacramento, where she was raised by “two phenomenal human beings,” – her mother, Susan, a nurse, and her father, Darryl, a former executive who passed away in May of last year following a heart attack. 

The loss rocked her and her family. “He was so intelligent, so resilient,” she says. “He raised [all of us] to speak up, and to be intentional about who you are.” And part of who she is, he would add, is a Black woman. “He wanted us to be proud about that.”

Those formative years perhaps led Jenkins to her work at the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, an agency that combats discrimination, and her role as an ombudsman to the state, mediating conflicts between homeowners and housing boards. She was first appointed to the latter role under Gov. Brian Sandoval, but continues to occupy it now under Gov. Joe Lombardo. Jenkins also sits on Nevada’s Task Force on Sexual Harassment. In the past, she was a director at Access to Healthcare Network, a public-health nonprofit serving immigrants and other disenfranchised folks.

As mayor, she says she would leverage her experience and know-how to address one of Las Vegas’ most pressing problems – homelessness. In a city of just over 656,000 people, just shy of 6,600 are on the streets, and about 16,300 are expected to experience housing insecurity for at least a portion of the year. 

Jenkins says the city has, to date, largely addressed the problem by criminalizing the homeless themselves – for example, by enacting bans that prohibit those without housing from erecting makeshift camps outdoors. She’d want to, instead, create a new task force to draft legislation around the dual lack of affordable housing and depressed wages that feed the problem. 

Jenkins also wants to pursue bills that would make starting a business in Las Vegas easier – for example, by streamlining the process by which one secures a liquor license. And, she expressed concern about healthcare for Las Vegas residents while speaking with The Story Exchange, calling for a greater investment in the city’s hospital facilities specifically.

Whoever emerges victorious on June 11 will succeed Carolyn Goodman, an independent who is married to her own predecessor, Oscar Goodman. Current-mayor Goodman is not seeking reelection as she has reached her term limit, but both spouses committed numerous slip-ups while in office – including Carolyn’s short-sighted (and vaguely racist) Covid response. “This isn’t China. This is Las Vegas, Nevada,” she told CNN in 2020, regarding the notion of shutdowns.

That lackluster pandemic response partly fueled Jenkins’ electoral run, in fact. “There are certain people who are not getting included in government services, at both the city and state level,” Jenkins says. She continued: “There are real lives” hurt by such inadequate policies. And in the face of them, “I could not just sit still.”