"Commissioner Broadbent is losing touch with reality," concluded Las Vegas Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun in a 1976 newspaper column.
He referred to an incident the previous day in which a representative of the Salt Lake City-based Skagg's Drugs had come before the Clark County Liquor and Gaming Licensing Board seeking a package liquor license. Quite routine, until Commissioner Robert Broadbent asked the man, "How much money did you give to the United Way last year?"
Unprepared for such a question, the man stood silent. Spectators muttered and whispered. Commissioner Dave Canter declared the question improper, and asked Broadbent if he was joking. He wasn't.
Broadbent felt that while local entrepreneurs tended to be active, charitable citizens, these chain guys tended toward apathy and stinginess. Broadbent thought it was perfectly reasonable to make philanthropy a requirement for a privileged license. It was a minority view.
"Every major supermarket wanted 25 slot machines and I voted against them for a long time," he said. "But they just kept coming, and getting approved. I finally quit voting on them."
It was one of the few fights Broadbent lost in an eclectic 40-year career in public service. He earned a reputation for being thoughtful, innovative and, above all, honest.
In 1975, Broadbent became the first Nevada public official to point out that Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal was a crook, and shouldn't get a state gaming license.
A powerful leader in the GOP, he rode Paul Laxalt and Ronald Reagan's coattails to Washington in 1980. There, as commissioner of reclamation, he increased Nevada's share of Colorado River water, and decreased the amount of money Southern Nevada pays for Hoover Dam power. He came home in 1986 to become Clark County director of aviation, completing the massive McCarran 2000 project, which gave Southern Nevada one of the nation's largest airports.
Robert N. Broadbent was born in Ely June 19, 1926. His parents were N.E. "Broadie" and Hope Broadbent. "Broadie" was mayor of Ely for 16 years, and also served on the University Board of Regents and the State Pharmacy Board.
Young Bob followed his father's career path, graduating from Idaho State University with a degree in pharmacology in 1950.
That year, he was hired by the owner of Boulder City Rexall Drug, a former associate of his father's. Broadbent disliked his new boss, and quit after a few months. But the proprietor died not long after, and Broadbent's dad bought the pharmacy in 1950, eventually selling out to his son, who liked the friendly, chatty ambience of a small-town drug store, and the town itself. Here, he and wife Sue would rear their four children, who remain in Southern Nevada.
In 1950, Boulder City was still a federal reservation, originally built as a temporary community for Hoover Dam workers. By 1955, Congress decided to sell the many towns that had sprung up around 1930s public works projects to the people who lived in them.
Broadbent found himself immersed in this Herculean task. It was decided the Boulder City Hospital, built and operated by the feds, was too expensive to operate and would be closed. Public reaction was unequivocal -- keep it open. Broadbent's own business would not be helped by the closure, and he shouldered the job of finding a stable source of funding for the hospital. A longtime member of the Lion's Club, Broadbent convinced his fellow felines, and several other local service clubs, to make the hospital their prime project.
"That was what really got me into politics," he recalled. "Our goal was to raise $15,000, and we took over that hospital to operate and run with a little over $16,000 in the bank. It's been moved from one location to another, and it's grown a little bit, but it's still run by the same kind of organization."
On Jan. 4, 1960, Boulder City was officially incorporated. The city charter called for an elected five-member council, which picked one of its number as mayor.
"I was elected to the first City Council and (it) picked me as the first mayor," said Broadbent.
The post entitled him to a seat on the newly formed Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, where he would serve 20 years, eight of those as chairman.
Broadbent remained on the Boulder City Council until 1968. By that time, the pharmacist's addiction to politics had prompted him to run for the Clark County Commission, representing Boulder City, Henderson and North Las Vegas. He won, and served 12 years.
"The County Commission at that time was mostly concerned with the management of the unincorporated area of the county," said Broadbent. "They didn't have responsibility for the water district, or the sanitation district or the hospital. In the administrative office, there was a county manager and he may have had three or four people, and a budget officer with a couple of people. You had a public works department and a parks department. That's about all there was to the county government."
Broadbent emerged as a political savant; like most successful politicians, he was tactful yet persuasive. Moreover, he could actually get things done. The Silver Bowl is a good example. From the time it was announced in the summer of 1969, the proposal to build a large outdoor sports stadium had incited controversy. Expensive and unneeded was how foes described it.
"There were four or five of us that really pushed to build it," said Broadbent. "We felt we needed it for the university." The site is in Broadbent's commission district. Coincidence?
"I had as much to do with it as anybody," he grins broadly.
Just before Christmas of 1975, anonymous late-night phone calls began coming to the Broadbent house. They concerned the pending gaming license application of one Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, an executive of the Argent Corp., which operated the Stardust and Fremont hotels. The caller urged Broadbent to look further into Rosenthal's record. With some difficulty, Broadbent recalls, he was able to obtain a copy of the sheriff's investigation of Rosenthal, which showed him to be a convicted felon. Broadbent contacted state gaming authorities with what he thought was new information. They already knew about Rosenthal's shady past, said Broadbent, and furthermore, they planned to license him anyway.
"You can't license him, he's tied to the mob," said an incredulous Broadbent.
Broadbent asked the county to force Rosenthal, on the basis of the information in the sheriff's report, to undergo an investigation and qualify for a county gaming license. Argent Chief Executive Allen Glick publicly denounced Broadbent, who did likewise before a meeting of the Republican Men's Club.
"I honestly and sincerely feel that organized crime has gotten into the operation of some of our resort hotels," he told the group. "If there isn't concern at the state level, there sure ought to be, and there is at the county level." He also chided his colleagues on the County Liquor and Gaming Licensing Board for being "nothing but a rubber stamp," and the sheriff's office for not telling the board what it knew about Rosenthal.
All of which was being watched from Carson City.
"The control board got nervous and wrote me a letter and said that if I had any information, I should send it to them, and they would schedule a hearing and bring it up. I wrote a letter back and said, `You have all the information in your files. Deal with it.' "
The FBI was concerned about Broadbent's safety.
"They told me there was talk that they were going to try and get even," said Broadbent.
"They issued me a gun and a permit, and I carried it for a couple of days. But if they want to get you, they'll get you."
Rosenthal eventually ended up in Nevada's "Black Book," a short list of people whose very presence in a casino is illegal.
And the mob didn't get Broadbent. Paul Laxalt did.
"When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1974, I was chairman of his campaign in Clark County," said Broadbent. "It was a very tough race." It was not a Republican year. The Watergate affair dominated the news, and voters decimated GOP ranks in Congress. Laxalt also had the problem of Clark County, always a Democratic stronghold, which Harry Reid expected to take easily. But Broadbent's political muscle overcame the odds, and Laxalt beat Reid by a scant 611 votes. Laxalt was deeply impressed by Broadbent's performance.
By 1980, the political pendulum swung to the right again. Ronald Reagan crushed incumbent Jimmy Carter, and Laxalt beat Democratic challenger Mary Gojack by a generous 88,351-vote margin. Reagan and Laxalt were not only ideologically matched, they had been personal friends since Reagan was governor of California and Laxalt governor of Nevada.
Broadbent had just been elected to his fourth term on the county commission when Laxalt invited him to Washington "to interview for a couple of jobs." One was in the commerce department, another in Housing and Urban Development. Both jobs involved the distribution of federal grants and loans.
"I told them that I wasn't really interested in giving money away," said Broadbent. "Even if it's to local governments." Laxalt kept looking for the job that would satisfy his political debt to Broadbent.
"One night Paul called me up, and he had (Secretary of the Interior) Jim Watt on the line, and they said they wanted me to take over as commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation." He would command over 20,000 employees, administer a $1 billion budget, and earn $72,300 per year.
He inherited an agency gone moribund in the four years of the Carter administration, which had stopped work on some 71 Western water projects in progress. Broadbent finished them.
When Hoover Dam was completed in 1935, the states that received its hydroelectric power signed 50-year contracts with the Bureau of Reclamation. Broadbent was at the helm when it came time to renew.
He negotiated a deal wherein the dam's electrical output would be split equally among Nevada, Arizona and California, and the power would be sold at cost, rather than market value.
Had the bill failed, Southern Nevada power rates would today be much higher.
"In some areas, rates would have doubled by now, even tripled," said Broadbent, who also pushed through a $135 million bill to increase Hoover Dam's electrical generating capacity by about 20 percent by installing newer, more efficient generators, and adding four new ones.
As the nation's "Water Czar," Broadbent worked out a plan whereby Southern Nevada received credit for treated wastewater returned to Lake Mead. The effect of the return-flow credits was to increase the valley's water allotment from 300,000 acre feet per year to 480,000.
"If we didn't have return flow credits, we would be out of water right now," he said.
By early 1986, Broadbent was approaching age 60, and the Potomac pace was wearing him down. At about the same time, a feud between members of the Clark County Commission and County Aviation Director John Solomon was reaching critical mass. Things were going badly on the airport's $400 million expansion project. The $9 million heating and air conditioning system was defective, contractors were threatening litigation to collect some $30 million still owed them, and a group of airlines had combined to sue the county over what they regarded as "arbitrary and capricious rates and charges."
County Commissioner Manny Cortez had initially called Broadbent to ask if he would be interested in the job, and Broadbent called other commissioners, as well as County Manager Pat Shalmy, who invited him to apply. Solomon was forced to resign and Broadbent was unanimously approved.
"The board said they wanted me to end the lawsuits and the claims. That was the first job, and it took a couple of years to do it."
His own priority was repairing McCarran's deteriorating runways, something that had been shunted aside during the terminal expansion project. Somehow, both problems were solved at once, said Broadbent.
"When we settled with the airlines, we also got approval to spend $200 million to rehabilitate and rebuild the old runways. That's when we built the second east-west runway."
Broadbent's solution to the airlines' cost complaints was to rely less on the airlines for revenue and more on peripheral sources such as advertising and concessions.
"We weren't getting hardly any federal grants," said Broadbent, who resigned the post in mid-1997. "The airport now gets $15 (million to) $20 million a year."
Those federal bucks, and the man who obtained and administered them, created the McCarran International Airport that exists today.