Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce of Las Vegas dies of cancer

Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce, known for her fearless efforts to raise taxes when others were afraid of even uttering the T-word, died early Thursday after a recurring battle with cancer. She was 59.

The Las Vegas Democrat, whose condition worsened toward the end of the 2013 Legislature, received a loud and long standing ovation from her colleagues when she showed up on the Assembly floor to vote on key bills toward the end of the session in June.

“Peggy was more than just a colleague,” said Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-North Las Vegas. “She was my friend and will be missed by everyone in our caucus and by her constituents who she served well. There was no one who cared more, fought more on behalf of all Nevadans when it came to speaking truth to power.”

Her longtime companion, Jon Sasser, said funeral arrangements are pending, but the plan is to have a funeral in Las Vegas on Oct. 19.

He and two of Pierce’s sisters were at her bedside in her home in Las Vegas when she died about 4:15 a.m.

She had been diagnosed with cancer three times over the past 10 years.

Sasser said Pierce, a native of Milton, Mass., moved to Las Vegas about 30 years ago with hopes of becoming a singer. She took jobs as a food server at banquets to finance her singing career. When those dreams passed, she became active in the Culinary Union Local 226. In recent years, she worked for the United Labor Agency of Nevada.

She first ran for the Assembly District 3 seat in 2002 and served the maximum six terms in the seat. In 2012, she defeated her opponent by a 2-to-1 margin.

Pierce never thought herself as an extremist, but just someone who wanted to take Nevada from being near the bottom in education and quality of life toward the middle ranking among states, according to Sasser. In the 2011 session alone, she introduced five bills to raise taxes — none which passed.

In an interview that year, she cited statistics that showed the number of public employees per 10,000 residents was about two-thirds of what it had been in 1978. She said Nevada would need to hire 44,000 more employees just to keep pace.

“How did this happen?” she asked. “We were the fastest growth state for most of that time. We’d hold a Legislature and conservatives would scream ‘We can’t expand government.’ Then we would go home and, when we came back, Nevada would have added 50,000 to 75,000 more people. And conservatives again would scream ‘We can’t expand government.’”

In her private life, Sasser said Pierce loved hiking and dancing, watching TV shows and keeping up with the news.

He said her passion for improving Nevada education was so great that she would have been out campaigning this summer for people to support the 2 percent business margins tax plan advocated by the Nevada State Education Association. The proposal will be on the November 2014 ballot.

“I think her message to people would be that our only chance to get Nevada needs is to vote for the teachers’ initiative,” Sasser said.

Her seat in the Legislature does not need to be filled before the 2014 election unless the Legislature is called into special session, according to Rick Combs, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau. In that event, the Clark County Commission would select someone from the same political party who lives in her district.

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., called Pierce’s passing “very sad news for Nevada.”

“Peggy was a fighter for everyone who needed one.” he said. “She will be deeply missed and I send my condolences to her colleagues and her family.”

Tributes for Pierce were given even by Republicans. Gov. Brian Sandoval called Pierce a longtime advocate for the people of Nevada.

“I admired Peggy’s tenacity and commitment to those she represented and she will be missed,” he said. ” Kathleen and I extend our thoughts and prayers to Peggy’s family and friends.”

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.