It is always risky to attempt a historical judgment of a public figure before time has passed. But we asked a couple of scholars, anyway.
Historians James Hulse and Guy Louis Rocha were both skeptical of Kenny Guinn when he became governor, largely because his candidacy for governor was sponsored and funded by a handful of powerful lobbyists. That anointment did not portend a reformer, though in many ways that is what Guinn became.
Hulse is author of two histories of Nevada and a volume of social criticism of the state’s public policies. He says, “I believe Guinn has been a very productive and progressive governor. When he was elected, like many skeptics, I was uncertain. But I think the kind of budget realization that he acknowledged and offered to us at the beginning of his second term was one of the most progressive things that has happened to Nevada for a very long time. … We’ve been quite lucky in Nevada because the revenues have been ahead of the expenditures. But I think Nevada, for a very long time, had neglected its social responsibilities to the poor people, the needy, the schools—the basic human services. And it seems to me Guinn offered the possibility of turning that around and putting us on a much more stable footing.”
Rocha, author of numerous articles on state history and administrator of the state archives, says Guinn has made a very significant mark on state history.
Rocha attributes part of Guinn’s success to his general lack of partisanship. He kept some Democrats in office when he became governor, Rocha points out, and was open to other views.
Rocha dates modern Nevada history from 1931, when the state began to turn from concerns like desert reclamation, railroads and mining. A new era began with the construction of Hoover Dam, legal gambling and spectacular growth in southern Nevada. It was in those years, he said, that conservative Democratic governors enshrined the practice of getting other people to pay Nevada’s taxes, people like tourists and millionaires lured to establish tax residences in the state. But that policy long ago started running out of steam. Guinn’s response to that trend, Rocha believes, made him one of Nevada’s best governors.
“I knew, and people knew, that the state was facing a fiscal crisis. … He [Guinn] could have capitulated. … The most important thing was when the chips were down in arguably one of the more catastrophic economic times in Nevada history, this man said, ‘You know what? Nevada first. Not Republican, not neocons, not Bob Beers—none of this. I’m going to do what I think is best for Nevada. … I’m not going to watch Nevada go into a tailspin.’ He proved to me he was a Nevadan first and a Republican second. … I’ve just seen other people who lacked the internal and intestinal fortitude to do the right thing. Instead they did the political thing, or they did the partisan thing. And in my opinion, in 2003, he did the right thing. And that was ugly. That whole situation was ugly. He was under assault. He was under siege. This thing with two special sessions, it was protracted. …When the dust cleared, this state was solvent. Now I still think there’s some long-run systemic problems that still need to be addressed … but he addressed both the immediate need and probably the mid-term need. I think he was trying to find a way out of the crisis, and he took the high road.”