Bill Raggio: Master of Nevada Politics

Bill Raggio

RENO, Nev. — Progress had come to a halt last month in Nevada's special budget-cutting legislative session. Governor Jim Gibbons, a combative and controversial Republican, was getting nowhere with the Democrats who control the Legislature. And then Gibbons turned on his own party, accusing the longest-serving state senator in Nevada history, 83-year-old William Raggio, of skipping out on budget meetings.

Bill Raggio, a soft-spoken and normally collegial senator who first joined the chamber in 1972, lost no time in hitting back. He uncharacteristically rebuked Gibbons on the Senate floor, telling his colleagues that it was the governor — not Raggio — who missed most of the budget meetings with lawmakers. "Either the governor's memory is failing or he has been misinformed," Raggio said. "Or I think he is distorting the facts."

It wasn't long before Gibbons paid Raggio, the Senate Republican leader, a visit to apologize. The discussion quickly turned to the stalled budget cuts. Several other meetings followed and legislators eventually struck a deal with the governor. And the key to it all was Raggio.

That was no real surprise. Raggio is the master of the Nevada Senate, and of much of the rest of state government as well. More dealmaker than dictator, he has been a force in Carson City pretty much as long as anyone can remember. Recent political setbacks — including the loss of the Republicans' Senate majority in 2008 — have done little to weaken his influence. Raggio remains at the center of almost every major decision made in Carson City.


"He is clearly the negotiator in Carson City and the one that is going to get the results," says lobbyist John Sande III, a partner in Raggio's politically connected law firm. "And he is going to work with everybody."

That sort of praise might be expected from a political ally. But it comes from the other side as well.

"This last session," says State Senator Steven Horsford, the head of the Democratic caucus and leader of the chamber, it was Raggio "who through floor speeches and public condemnation of the governor, actually prodded the governor to finally engage."

Gibbons' office also credits Raggio. Spokesman Dan Burns, who sat in on the meetings between his boss and Raggio, says lawmakers were "bogged down." Every day of the special session cost the state $50,000, the equivalent of one state worker's annual salary. Fed up, the governor set off to ask Raggio what was happening with the budget. "All of a sudden," Burns says, "you had leadership."

Now serving his 10th and last term in the Senate because of term limits, Raggio is often described as a holdover from an earlier political era. He talks that way himself. When he first entered politics, he says, Republicans and Democrats often worked together to address the state's biggest problems, from improving colleges to diversifying the economy. "We used to have elections," he says. "They were rather spirited, not mean. We got them behind us and then we worked together. Well, anymore it doesn't matter who is in charge, who controls the process, that doesn't seem to happen."

Over the years, Raggio has earned plaudits from conservative groups even as he's worked with Democrats. But increasingly his willingness to compromise — especially on the issue of taxes — has put him at odds with other members of the Republican Party. "I enjoy the public service, but I don't enjoy the politics," Raggio says. "And I particularly don't like them today, where it's so uncivil. It doesn't matter whether Republicans or Democrats are running the show."

These are not easy days to govern in Nevada. The state's gaming-based economy has been in a free-fall since the onset of the recession. Home foreclosure rates and unemployment are near the highest in the country. State revenues, which depend greatly on the gambling industry, continue to plummet.

But it's personal as well. The governor spent most of his first term embroiled in a very messy and very public divorce from his wife, a former state legislator. Gibbons' approval ratings have hovered around 20 percent. The governor has continually feuded with legislators, and particularly with Democrat Horsford, who last year accused Gibbons, a former fighter pilot, of  "cowardice." Last year lawmakers of both parties banded together to approve a budget over Gibbons' objections.

Democrats have a supermajority in the Nevada Assembly, giving them the ability to override Gibbons' vetoes on their own. But in the Senate, they need the help of several Republicans to reach the two-thirds threshold, meaning Raggio has a seat at the negotiating table, along with the leverage to eke out concessions. To get GOP support for a budget last year that included tax increases, Democrats had to agree to Raggio's demands that the tax hikes expire in a few years, along with other concessions.

Observers in Carson City sometimes speculate about whether Raggio is more powerful than the governor. "This governor? Yes," says Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, a fellow Republican. "Any governor that he's served under, he's an equal."

The shrinking tent

But for all his power, Raggio has begun to have serious problems within his own party.  On the one hand, he's received numerous awards from Republican groups for his effectiveness. On the other, he increasingly is called a RINO, a Republican In Name Only, by militant conservatives and Tea Party activists.

"I wear that label with a little pride," Raggio says, "because I equate it with being a Reagan conservative." Ronald Reagan, he says, stressed the importance of making the Republican Party a big tent that welcomed all people who believed in limited government and free enterprise. And the former president also stressed the idea of not speaking ill of other Republicans. "But these new guys, this new crop, are much like the John Birchers of the late 60s and 70s. They're intolerant," Raggio says. "Unless you agree with everything they want — both their fiscal and social agenda. they'd rather beat you and let a Democrat win."

In the 2008 elections, Raggio experienced the wrath of anti-tax Republicans first hand. That's when he faced a primary challenge from Sharron Angle, a former legislator. Her attempt to take out Raggio resulted in the closest election of Raggio's public career. He beat Angle by roughly 500 votes out of 9,200 cast, after raising more than $500,000 in the effort, 10 times what Angle took in.

Angle attacked Raggio for orchestrating the tax increases championed by Republican Governor Kenny Guinn in 2003, which Angle said were the largest in state history. She criticized him for signing off on a map of legislative districts that made it too difficult for Republicans to win. Raggio survived with an all-hands-on-deck effort.

"We were on the defense from Day One," says his Senate colleague and close ally, Randolph Townsend. "It came down to he and his wife physically walking. Now this is a guy who was 80 at the time, knocking on every door, (with) every friend he's ever made knocking on every door, every interest group that ever had been helped by him making phone calls every night."

But it was in many ways a pyrrhic victory. Raggio's survival cost the Republican Party so much money that its treasury was depleted in the fall, when the GOP had to save two of its incumbents to retain a Senate majority. Both lost. Townsend insists the primary fight led directly to the Republicans' loss of the Senate, by devoting resources that could have gone to boost the general election candidates instead.

Angle says Raggio should not have devoted the caucus' resources to the primary fight instead of the general election. The vulnerable Republicans, she says, didn't get the same show of support from politicians walking precincts. Angle says the strategy showed the Republican leadership thought "it's more important to have Raggio in the Senate than to have the majority."

The fight is on again this year for the soul of the Republican Party in Nevada. The two camps again are the establishment Republicans who identify with Raggio and the newly resurgent anti-tax militants, such as Angle and Gibbons. Of course, Raggio is in the thick of the fight. One of his new law partners — whose office is next door to Raggio's — is Brian Sandoval, a former Nevada attorney general who gave up a lifetime appointment on the federal bench to take on Gibbons in this year's GOP primary. Raggio is backing Sandoval over Gibbons.

A long legacy

Raggio's political career started in 1958, when he was elected Washoe County district attorney. His reputation grew during three terms as prosecutor, especially after he prosecuted the killer of a young Olympic skier and ordered the destruction of a nearby brothel. (See sidebar). In 1970, Raggio wanted to run for governor, but fellow Republicans, including President Richard Nixon, persuaded him to run for the U.S. Senate instead. Raggio was beaten soundly by Democratic incumbent Howard Cannon. Still, by the end of the campaign he had near-universal name recognition, which helped him when he ran for the state Senate in 1972. 

Nearly four decades later, symbols of Raggio's influence are all over northern Nevada. Visitors to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport walk past his statue near the check-in counters, under a sign calling Raggio the "Father of the Airport Authority." At the University of Nevada-Reno, a building that houses the college of education bears his name because of his focus on promoting higher education. He helped redesign the Nevada state flag.

"I often joke I'm going to be remembered for two things," he says. "One when I was DA, I burned down a brothel. And secondly, I passed a bill that you don't have to have a front license plate if you're wealthy enough to have a Bentley."

To the public at large, maybe. But in Nevada's political circles, he'll be remembered as builder of consensus. "He will include his worst enemy in the conversation," says Reno Mayor Cashell, "and, before it's over with, they're buddies. He is a diplomat."


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