By David Montero
The brothel owner walked through the double doors of the casino ballroom with Paris and Destiny _ two sex workers in slinky black dresses _ gliding next to him like pilot fish.
He wore a cowboy hat and a dark blazer. He smiled a lot. He shook a lot of hands. His chief executive assistant, Zack Hames, guided him to his table at the 39th annual Lincoln Day Dinner hosted by the Pahrump Valley Republican Women and the Nye County Republican Central Committee on Friday night.
Dennis Hof had been told he'd have less than five minutes to address the crowd _ which included Sen. Dean Heller and Lt. Gov. Adam Laxalt. He hadn't prepared a speech.
"I'm just winging it," he said. "I don't need to prepare."
In less than three minutes, he would rip his opponent for not being a real Republican, say his priority would be to eliminate the state commerce tax and tout that he was so wealthy, he couldn't be bought.
Hof has filed papers to run for Nevada State Assembly District 36, which primarily covers Nye County _ a deep red, rural region of about 43,000 people. It also includes a portion of Lincoln County and a small part of Clark County. The district is home to about 67,000.
The 71-year-old said he saw President Donald Trump as a kindred political spirit and the spark that got him to switch from Libertarian to Republican and run this year. Hof ran for the first time in 2016 as a Libertarian and lost to the GOP incumbent, James Oscarson. He announced his switch to the Republican Party a month after Trump won.
Hof says he hews closer to Trump than most, but he isn't the only one inspired by the commander-in-chief's attempts to reshape the party. Individuals from all walks of life have stepped up to run for political office, inspired by Trump's election. And some are contemplating a run. The Brookings Institution has labeled this group of candidates "mini Trumps" and announced it plans to chart their progress through the 2018 primary season.
"We're both famous _ and infamous. We're both high profile. We're both celebrities. We're both successful businessmen. We both have reality television shows. We both have written books. We're both rich and we can't be bought," Hof said. "There's a lot of similarities. And we're doing it for the right reasons."
Some see negative similarities.
Nye County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman said Hof has often acted as if he's above the law, doesn't have to answer to anyone because of his celebrity status and uses bullying and intimidation tactics to try to get his way.
That appeared to come to a head on Feb. 25 when authorities from the Nye County Sheriff's Department arrived at Hof's Love Ranch brothel on the dusty outskirts of Pahrump at about 2 a.m. and seized the work cards of the prostitutes. Hof said the whole thing was politically motivated. The county said the property was in violation of several building and fire codes before the shutdown.
Since then, it's been a steady back-and-forth of letters and accusations that have defined the recent relationship between the county and Hof.
The Nye County Planning Department on Friday issued a letter to Hof telling him he would remain shut down and was still noncompliant with building and fire codes. The five-page letter details the problems and even points to a YouTube video link of former Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss giving a tour of Love Ranch in 2013.
"She proudly shows off the major renovations at your property, many of which require proper permits and inspections and none of which Nye County has a record," the letter says.
Hof denies there were any new modifications to the brothel. He said he also doesn't think it's about public safety, but an attempt by Oscarson's allies to damage his campaign.
"He has a habit of _ he will appear before the board and whatever the issue is you're trying to get resolved, he will have an immediate and ready answer for you," she said. "Ten minutes later after you do research, you can prove it isn't a fact. Is that a nice way of saying he's a liar?"
Despite the controversy over the brothel, Hof has been actively pursuing the Assembly seat with several billboards in and around Pahrump and public appearances _ sometimes with his sex workers _ to run as the anti-establishment candidate in the Trump mold, as he sees it. And though prostitution is legal in Nye County, it's hard to imagine a candidate more anti-establishment than a brothel owner.
To get to the hub of his campaign, one must walk through a series of long hallways passing the BDSM Room (bondage-sadomasochism kinks) painted red with assorted leather switches, the peep show room and even a chapel area _ that isn't fully furnished yet.
"Dennis is an ordained minister," Hames explains. "He could perform marriages here. Who wouldn't forget getting married at a brothel?"
He keeps stacks of his book, "The Art of the Pimp: A Love Story," nearby ready to sell. There is no shortage of souvenirs to be bought out front, by the bar area. It's the "Glengarry Glen Ross" sales approach to brothels: ABC _ always be closing.
But Oscarson said he isn't buying any of Hof's campaign rhetoric or even the seriousness of his candidacy as a vehicle to make better public policy. He said Hof is just a relentless self-promoting opportunist.
"Remember he had Hookers for Hillary? Then he was a Libertarian. Now he's a Republican," Oscarson said. "It's confusing to me how he thinks he can run and not have core principles and values."
Oscarson said he expects the primary fight to be nasty. Hof has resurrected charges that Oscarson was arrested, using billboards that proclaim "Arrested for Assault," coupled with the image of a figure in handcuffs.
But Oscarson addressed the issue in 2016, when Hof ran against him as the Libertarian candidate.
"My opponent, a man who calls himself a pimp, seems to think he is going to 'get me' by threatening to tell people that 20 years ago, I had to plead guilty to disorderly conduct at a hockey game," the statement read in part, adding Hof has "redefined disgusting in politics."
Oscarson is also wary of Hof's political party switch. In 2014, the Nye County Republican Central Committee voted to remove Oscarson from the group over a tax vote, Chairman Joe Burdzinski said. Oscarson said it's just the committee's action _ he remains a Republican despite the broad assertions made by Hof.
The Committee to Elect James Oscarson also created the StopHof.com website that serves as an internet hub for attacks on Hof's party affiliation as well as charges he exploits women as a brothel owner. Hof, of course, denies this and Sonja Bandolik, a Love Ranch madam who was a teacher before the career switch, says "he's a boss who treats us like family."
Michael Green, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said Hof's decision to run in the Trump era as a Republican makes some sense _ both stylistically and substantively. But he said Hof also is probably still an underdog.
In 2016, Oscarson beat Hof by more than 21 points _ though he said that Hof was probably hurt by being a Libertarian, even in libertarian-friendly areas like Nye and Lincoln counties.
"I'm sure the vast majority of Republicans would claim, with some justification, they are Libertarian-Republicans or at the very least, don't like government," Green said. "But there is also tribal loyalty that, in the end, a Republican will punch the button for his or her party. Having the R next to his name probably makes Hof look more like a viable candidate."
After Trump's election, however, Green said perhaps nothing is impossible. "The loudest sound you heard after the election was the sound of crystal balls crashing to the ground."
At the Lincoln Day Dinner, Hof made sure to promote his allegiance to the Republican Party _ calling himself a "RINO hunter," or Republican in name only _ and castigating anyone who would suggest curbing 2nd Amendment rights. Craig Mueller, a Republican running for attorney general, patted Hof on the shoulder and said he thought he could win.
"That would shake things up, wouldn't it?" Mueller said.
Inside the banquet room, Hof had brought boxes filled with porcelain coffee mugs _ replete with his picture on a $100 bill and his ubiquitous "I can't be bought" tagline.
By the door, Paris and Destiny stood by with more mugs. Nobody was to leave empty-handed.
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