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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Gonzaga alum U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto pulling for Zags (and bipartisanship)

On certain mornings, three of the most powerful women in the nation meet on the floor of the U.S. Senate to talk about an important topic before the day’s session formally convenes:

Gonzaga basketball.

For Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, it’s about how the best team from their home state is doing. But for Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, it’s a little more personal because she’s a Zag.

And a passionate one at that.

But before we explain how Nevada’s longtime attorney general eventually replaced former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – becoming the first woman elected to the Senate by Nevada, as well as the first Latina to serve in the Senate – there’s another question we need answered first:

Just how does someone born and raised in Las Vegas end up in Spokane for law school? Especially during an era notably known as BF – Before Few.

Well, serendipity played a healthy role.

After Cortez Masto graduated from the University of Nevada at Reno, she took a year off and worked for a small construction company in Las Vegas. Everyone there knew she wanted to go to law school.

While she was filling out applications to various law schools, the brother of one of the women she worked with had graduated from Gonzaga. After talking with him, she began to realize Gonzaga was exactly what she was looking for in a school.

“I loved the fact that it was smaller,” Cortez Masto recently explained in a telephone interview from her office in Washington, D.C. “The student-teacher ratio was right on, you really had the opportunity to talk with your professors, get to know your class members, and it wasn’t too large. It just kind of fit in to what I was looking for, and I was right.”

Not only was this Before Few, it also was before Gonzaga’s new law school had been built. Because it was a smaller class, she said there was a unique opportunity to get to know others, help each other get through the classes, prepare together and even create study groups. Some of her best friends to this day were made in that old law building.

“It was one of the best experiences I think one could have at a law school,” she said. “The school itself had phenomenal professors and teachers. The education I received at Gonzaga always felt above par and competed with any law school anywhere in the country.”

The senator even gets back to Spokane from time to time. Most recently, it was to give the commencement address to last spring’s law grads.

On that day inside the McCarthey Athletic Center, she told the graduates that being the first isn’t about history, it’s about not being afraid to open a door or to take that initial step. She said the real key is what you decide to do once that door has been opened.

“I now have a seat at the table to be a voice for those who are underrepresented and to ensure that the door I walked through to get here is open even wider for others to follow,” she said during her speech.

When she was Nevada’s attorney general, getting over to the West Coast Conference Tournament to see her Zags play was an almost annual rite. Now, with so much of her time spent in D.C., it’s a whole lot harder.

But she knows many of her friends will be at The Orleans on Monday.

“It is so exciting to see all the people who have graduated from Gonzaga who live in Las Vegas and I know they’ll be there,” she said. “One of my good friends, Renee Reuther, who I graduated with, also is from Las Vegas. She went to undergrad and to law school there and has an incredibly successful practice.

“We’re all proud of our school and love to show our support.”

Interestingly enough, both Nevada and Gonzaga have a similar problem – it’s almost a drinking game to see how each gets mispronounced. So which drives her crazier: Ne-vah-duh or Gun-zah-guh?

“Both,” she said, laughing out loud. “People ask me that all the time. And I say it’s Nevada and Gonzaga. I’m always correcting them.”

In 2014, many thought Cortez Masto would run for Nevada governor. When Reid decided not to run for re-election in 2016, he immediately endorsed Cortez Masto as his successor.

It hasn’t taken long for her to show her leadership skills. In November, she was chosen to be the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, becoming the first Latina to lead Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.

Even in today’s state of political polarization and hostility, she’s confident that something else is brewing in the background: civility.

“There’s faith and hope I have working every day,” she said. “I’m on five committees here, and I see the working arrangements and the bipartisan work that is being done between my colleagues and me.”

Each bill she has introduced has had a colleague from the other side of the aisle as a part of it, and she said that’s not unusual.

“You have to reach out and that work is happening in the committees,” she said. “There’s good work being done – good policy being worked on. You just don’t hear and see it at the national level.”

Her goal is that more and more of that will happen.

Well, and for the Zags to go to the Final Four again.