The announcement was made just before 11 o’clock the morning of Jan. 5. In politics across the state, a mixed metaphor described the reaction: The news spread like wildfire and landed like a sledgehammer.
At lunch in Reno’s Gold ’n’ Silver Restaurant, a favorite café for long-time Nevadans, including local government officials, the news could literally be seen spreading from booth to table to booth.
That evening at Casale’s Halfway Club, a favorite Italo-American hangout since 1937, a few people still hadn’t heard. A bartender turned from a chattering crowd to “Mama” Inez Casale and said, “Bill Raggio quit.”
There it was, the news that, in an instant, changed Nevada politics. Plagued by a severed tendon that followed back surgery, Washoe County Sen. William Raggio announced his resignation, effective Jan. 15, after the longest senate tenure in state history. This is one of the few instances when a public figure’s retirement for health reasons was taken more or less at face value. “I don’t think anything else would have made him do this,” said one legislator.
There were reminders of the way the state’s turnover leaves fixtures like Raggio behind. On KRNV, an anchor and a reporter mispronounced Raggio’s name (Rawggio, akin to Nevawda).
But the real meaning of Raggio’s legislative career, beyond his specific accomplishments, was the evolution in his political style from militant to moderate and the deterioration in dialogue and civility over four decades while he became a leader of resistance to those trends.
Raggio himself began his public career in a mode that would have fit neatly into today’s politics. As a hard-right district attorney with a law-and-order orientation, he was like chalk squeaking on a blackboard to liberals. He had a take-no-prisoners style in both law enforcement and politics. His law-and-order orientation was so pronounced that President Nixon and Vice President Agnew—running a 1970 midterm election law and order campaign against what they called “radiclibs” (radical liberals)—recruited a reluctant Raggio, who was already running for governor, into an unsuccessful U.S. Senate race. Among the state’s major political figures, he was probably the most polarizing. After taking that style into two unsuccessful statewide campaigns, an opinion survey showed he had a very high “antipathy quotient” among the public.
But when Raggio entered the legislature, he learned quickly that he needed Democrats and interest groups he had previously demonized. At his first legislature, there were only six Republicans in the Senate—and that number went down in the next election. If he wanted to get anything done, he would have to learn to work with the other party—and he did. His evolution into the legislative process was probably eased by the fact that the majority floor leaders in his first sessions were Democratic conservatives. And once he started dealing with Democrats as actual people instead of as vague others—something he rarely had to do as a prosecutor—politics for him became easier and more congenial.
That didn’t mean Raggio wasn’t still capable of getting rough. He once sponsored legislation to damage an old adversary from his district attorney days, brothel lord Joe Conforte. The Senate did him the favor of killing the bill.
Many of the comments that followed his resignation announcement focused on him as a defender of Washoe County, which obscured the fact that it was Raggio himself who provoked the biggest financial setback the county suffered during his terms. In 1990, he stirred up north-versus-south feelings by telling voters in Washoe County that a Democratic majority in the Senate would hurt the north. It was no longer an age when something said in one region was not heard elsewhere, and his comments exploded in Southern Nevada, where he had effectively cast his southern Republican candidates as defenders of the north. He ended up losing Senate races at both ends of the state and the Southerners headed north determined to punish him. They enacted “Fair Share,” which forced Washoe to repay subsidies it had been receiving from the rest of the state.
But Raggio also learned from these episodes. Thereafter he defended the North without demonizing the South. It was another step in his learning to value amity and respect for an adversary’s point of view. (And Conforte did himself in.)
But as Raggio was tempering his style, his party was headed back to where he started. Politics was changing, though national trends took a while to bleed down into state legislatures. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, which moved the political frame of reference to the right and set in motion more meanspirited politics. This was in defiance of Reagan’s own example. Reagan reached out to Democratic leaders like Edward Kennedy and cultivated Democrats in both houses of Congress. His first budget was opposed by Republican “new right” senators but supported by “blue dog” House Democrats.
Reagan is the Republican president with whom Raggio most closely identifies, but many of Reagan’s followers, such as the National Conservative Political Action Committee and evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell favored a more confrontational, adversarial politics than the president. Leading figures like Robert Dole, Barry Goldwater and Jack Kemp increasingly became targets of rightists.
Raggio probably did not realize initially that this new harsh tone of the party was anything but temporary, a burst of venting after years in the wilderness. But over time it became apparent that it was here to stay. Raggio had once used his share of vituperative rhetoric—after he condemned in acidic language the reversal of a death sentence, the Nevada Supreme Court opened an investigation of his use of free speech—but as a legislator he had learned how to make his case without questioning the motives or good will of his opponents.
Year by year, the temperature level of politics rose, and the rhetoric became harsher. As these trends moved into state GOPs, Raggio himself became a target. In 2000, a conservative activist circulated a CD of a song called “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Raggio?” along with some printed matter calling him a RINO—a “Republican in name only.” The claim was preposterous—Raggio had been the party’s candidate for U.S. Senate in 1970 and for lieutenant governor in 1974 and had taken the Senate Republican caucus from 3 out of 20 senators in 1975 to regular majorities in the 1990s.
But the newcomers to the party—Reno Mayor Bob Cashell calls them the RINOs—were increasingly intolerant of bipartisanship, and Raggio was an exemplar of it. (During the same period, Nevada’s current lieutenant governor and new governor both were branded with the RINO label.)
It took time for these trends to catch up to Raggio. His consistent success at both legislative accomplishment and building up the party kept him unassailable. Rarely has an elected official who did not hold statewide office so dominate the state’s politics. One deft move that fueled Raggio’s rise to statewide power came after 1982, when Republican governor Robert List was defeated for reelection, leaving a vacuum in the in-state leadership of the party. Raggio made it clear he had no interest in filling that vacuum and foreswore any further statewide races. It meant he was no threat to other rising Republicans and freed him to concentrate on building the GOP’s fortunes in the Senate, which he did with enormous success.
The new hardliners
In 2003, the Assembly Republican caucus held the legislature hostage for weeks, using a minority control provision in the state constitution to halt all business and keep the legislature meeting through the regular session and two special sessions in order to get its way on a tax hike package. Raggio was appalled, less by the tactics than by the attitude of disrespect for majority opinion. It reminded him of the polarization of the Republican Party during the mid-1960s, particularly the 1964 presidential campaign when the John Birch Society and the GOP were linked.
“If the Republican Party continues to be the party of the far right, rather that what I term ‘Reagan-type conservatism,’ the party will never elect people,” this one-time far rightist said. “We cannot be the party of the far right. That doesn’t sell. And if that means moderate or RINO in some people’s eyes, so be it. … I believe in free enterprise, I believe in limited government, and I believe in fiscal responsibility. But in Reagan’s eyes, that meant a lean government, not a mean government. And it also, if I recall, meant everybody was welcome under the Republican tent, even if you didn’t agree on everyone’s social issues. And I want to emphasize that. I helped resurrect this party with a fellow named Paul Laxalt in the early ’70s when the John Birchers had taken over this party. Took us 10 years to dig out. I’m not going to let all that effort fall by the wayside and let radicals take over the Republican Party. Not while I’m in it.”
That was outside the frame of reference of his critics, many of whom were children or unborn in the 1960s.
Raggio argues that his views have not changed over the years. Though there are some demonstrable exceptions, there is merit to his assertion. He has been a solid conservative throughout his legislative years, though he never had much in common with those lawmakers who—as the late former governor Kenny Guinn described them—“do not believe in government” and latched onto the GOP as their vehicle. Raggio never confused their stances with real conservatism.
Raggio is not well known for specific bills he got passed because he tended to work on issues and policies through the budget process. (He was a member and usually chair of the Senate Finance Committee.) But he occasionally did sponsor significant bills, one establishing the regional planning process in Washoe County, another creating the Washoe County Airport Authority.
One of his bills, an education accountability and standards measure for kindergarten though high school enacted in 1997, is noteworthy for the way it demonstrates how he worked. Democrats and the powerful teachers union were suspicious of it, and Raggio did not get everything he wanted in it. But because he had a history of cooperation on other issues with both groups, and they had come to trust him—and because he was able to bring the Democratic governor on board—he was able to get most of what he wanted. He had advanced a conservative initiative with support from the teachers and Democrats.
“I obviously had, over the years, to work with the teachers union,” he said. “They were generally supportive, but they were very resistant to any kind of reform, and so I had to get them involved, and I had to get Gov. [Robert] Miller involved. And so we were able to do that, come together. You know, there was some give and take there. We had to agree to some class size reductions. But overall, I think it was a giant step in the state for K-12 because it paved the way for a lot of reforms, and they’re still ongoing.”
But it was just that kind of cooperative relationship with Democrats that drove Raggio’s right wing critics crazy. They didn’t want Republicans to “come together” with the enemy. And they were having impact. The parties started using huge swaths of legislative time to hold regular caucuses behind closed doors to enforce party policy. This was a sharp break from the past when partisanship at the legislature was understated and party discipline unknown.
Reno attorney Thomas “Spike” Wilson, who served in the Senate for 16 years, some of it with Raggio, has said, “I don’t think we ever had a party caucus when I was there.”
“It seems like they caucus on every vote,” Raggio said. “You know, we didn’t do that in the past. … Once the election was over, everyone was willing to sit down and compromise and now that’s a four-letter word to some of these extremists.”
Those who obstruct, he said “don’t belong in the process, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats. Legislation is still the art of compromise, and over the years that’s been my mantra. You know? I’ve had to deal consistently with a house of the other party. And we would have gotten nowhere if we weren’t willing to compromise, and if we were going to put good and evil labels on things, we might as well not have shown up. Now, there’s some that still feel that way. I think they’re an impediment to accomplishment.”
If some Republicans did not like their leader’s style, Democrats watched it with envy. In 2009, shortly after Raggio forced Democrats to reduce planned tax hikes, former Democratic senator Terry Care told the Las Vegas Business Press, “Bill Raggio is a pleasure to watch. I could tell you all kinds of Bill Raggio stories. You know, he’s been in the majority, I think, since the 1991 session, maybe the 1993 session. He’s 82 years old. You wouldn’t believe it to watch him because he has a lot of energy that people that age, if they ever get that far, don’t come close to having. He’s very bright. He’s shrewd. He is about five steps ahead of you on everything, and even as we know from this last session, when he’s in the minority, he still has a way of being very effective and, in many cases, getting what he wants. … We’ve had our shouting matches and our debates, but man, I hold deep, deep respect for him.”
As the years passed and the benchmarks of age appeared and passed—heart surgery, the death of his wife—Raggio still seemed indefatigable. There was a point when his weight fell alarmingly because of his heart problems, but he continued to hold the twin posts that were as much reflection as source of his power—Republican floor leader and member of the Senate Finance Committee (which he chaired when the GOP held the majority), where he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the state budget. And he still practiced law full time when the legislature was out of session.
The notion that Washoe County will be at the mercy of Clark County, which has received so much attention since Raggio’s announcement, is overstated. The alliance between Washoe and the small counties against Clark is outmoded. In recent years, legislators from the two urban counties have formed close alliances because of the common problems of both their areas. There will always be competitions for funds among the different parts of the state, but that is as much urban-versus-rural as it is North-versus-South.
Raggio’s departure from the legislature is a substantial setback to the state’s new Republican governor. The Washoe senator has always been a legislative leader who is very oriented to governors’ programs, even when—as in the case of Jim Gibbons—the governor did his best to alienate him. He has done his best to get their programs enacted. Some legislators felt he was too willing to serve as a cat’s paw for GOP governors. Raggio even supported Gov. Robert List’s now-infamous “tax shift” from property to sales tax reliance that has led the state into chronic budget crises.
After a lifetime of service to the Republican Party, Raggio does not expect to play much of a role in it now. In November, time finally ran out for him with the far right of his party, when he was forced out by his Republican colleagues as floor leader after he grudgingly endorsed Democrat Harry Reid’s reelection as U.S. senator against putative Republican Sharron Angle.
After he announced he would resign, Raggio said, “I’m not in favor very much with the party leadership at this moment. … They’ve been passing resolutions around the state in the last year that are very critical of me, so I’m not sure that I would have a role in the organized party.”
But that doesn’t mean he won’t speak out if he sees something that particularly interests—or bothers—him.
“And on occasion I might even pop off, which I have done in the past occasionally.”
Raggio is at relative peace with his legacy. After he announced his retirement he found himself giving some thought to things he might have done differently as a legislator. He thought open meetings had been extended too far, and that the Nevada Ethics Commission—which he helped create—has gotten out of control “to the point where good people just don’t want to subject themselves to some of these requirements.”
But he said, “Otherwise, I think there’s very little I would have done differently, in reflection.”