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Grant Sawyer

Updated February 7, 1999 - 11:45 pm

Gov. Grant Sawyer must have known something serious was afoot when Nevada Attorney General Roger Foley told him, in the summer of 1961, they had something important to discuss. Foley and Sawyer were rivals within Nevada’s Democratic party, and played their cards close to the chest.
But this time Foley laid them right on the table. His federal counterpart, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, had just asked Foley to deputize 65 federal agents to carry out raids on every important casino in Las Vegas and Reno.
Next day, Sawyer flew to Washington and, if airplanes could run on steam, the jetliner could have broken the sound barrier with the heat rising from the collar of Nevada’s governor. A former prosecutor, Sawyer understood Kennedy’s plan, and it was an outrage. Coordinated raids, at every important casino, could not possibly be based on probable cause that evidence of criminal conduct might be found at each. Kennedy was mounting an unlawful fishing expedition, a dragnet which would ensnare guilty and innocent alike. It would polish the Kennedy image, by smearing Nevada’s.
Kennedy was wearing tennis togs when he received Sawyer. Only a year before, the same man had been in Sawyer’s hotel room at the Democratic National Convention, pleading for Nevada votes for his brother who would be president. But in 1961, said Sawyer later, “Bobby looked upon me as someone who had just stepped out from behind a crap table, and he seemed to imply I was connected with the mob, which really burned me up.”
Getting no answers from the attorney general, Sawyer went the next day to see his brother and boss, President Kennedy. Sawyer explained that Nevada was already taking unprecedented steps to sanitize gambling, and that the raid would give Nevada a black eye that might never fade.
The president made no promises, but the raid never happened.
Grant Sawyer was “A Man For All Seasons” in Nevada. Like Thomas More, he stood up to royalty so resolutely that his head had to roll. Each was unfairly painted as serving corrupt interests he actually fought. More lost his head and Sawyer lost the governorship, but Sawyer’s story ended differently; he died old, powerful, beloved and rich.
Sawyer became the standard by which other governors are judged. Gary Elliott, a CCSN history professor who co-authored Sawyer’s oral history, “Hang Tough,” observed that governors are measured by the crises they face. “Sawyer faced a civil rights crisis, and he faced it squarely and honestly,” says Elliott. “He faced the fact gaming was in trouble, and realized we had to have strong enforcement.”
Sawyer gets credit for saving Lake Tahoe from being developed to death, for rescuing Clark County schools from a financial crash. Long after leaving the state house, he was among the first to raise an alarm when the nuclear power industry decided Nevada would make a fine garbage dump.
Sawyer was born in Twin Falls, Idaho, Dec. 14, 1918, the son of two osteopaths; his father later became a medical doctor and served as president of the Nevada State Medical Association. His parents divorced, bitterly, when he was 3 and Sawyer grew up on a bleak farm with a stepfather who was a hard-shell Baptist. One of his two brothers became a medical doctor, the other a Baptist minister. Sawyer won a scholarship to Linfield College, a strict Baptist school where dancing was not allowed. He got kicked out for organizing a dance.
He transferred to the University of Nevada, in Reno, and promptly experienced the compulsory culture shock of the Nevada newcomer. “I went to a fraternity dance and arrived as they were carrying a body out. It turned out to be a faculty adviser; he was drunk, passed out. I was amazed at the difference in atmosphere from Linfield, and I was delighted,” he told Elliott in the extensive interviews recorded for his autobiography.
Sawyer’s academic performance was excellent in courses that interested him and mediocre in the rest. But he got into George Washington Law School and became one of perhaps 50 “McCarran Boys,” Nevada kids who paid their living expenses, while in law school, through patronage jobs provided by Nevada Sen. Patrick A. McCarran. The string attached was that the graduate was expected to return to Nevada and help McCarran control the state. Sawyer dropped out to serve in World War II and in the postwar military governments of the Philippines and Korea. But he finished law school, then settled in Elko.
By then Sawyer was married to Bette, whom he met him on a blind date in Reno. Their only child, Gail, would be born in Elko in 1949. Gail and Bette now live in Las Vegas.
Sawyer was elected district attorney in Elko and became active in Democratic Party politics. In 1956, he ran for a seat on the Board of Regents and lost. But he was appointed when three new seats were created.
After McCarran’s death in 1954, most of his power passed to E.L. Cord, an auto manufacturer who had settled in Nevada, to McCarran’s close associate Norman Biltz, and to a few of their friends. For the sake of his indebtedness to McCarran, Sawyer suffered his domineering politics. But he felt no such loyalty to McCarran’s successors, and in 1958 ran for governor, even though the incumbent, Charles Russell, had been anointed by McCarran.
Sawyer’s own supporters were largely outsiders; none was a highly experienced politician. Dick Ham, who became one of his right-hand men in Clark County, was a Boulder City grocer; the other, Las Vegas lawyer Ralph Denton, had been a “McCarran Boy” but not a high-profile politico. In the Reno area, attorney Tom Cooke headed the effort. A rich liberal rancher named Graham Hollister personally drove Sawyer around the state.
“We in the anti-Cord group thought of ourselves as progressives,” Sawyer said in his oral history. “Ours was a more liberal social agenda than either Democratic or Republican politics had advocated in this state up to our time.”
His platform included pro-labor and gaming control planks, both controversial, but Sawyer was fortunate enough to face a Cord-backed candidate in the Democratic primary — Attorney General Harvey Dickerson — as well as the general election. That let him change the subject. “I began attacking E.L. Cord and his machine, suggesting that they spoke only for a small group of wealthy, influential, bipartisan people who wanted the state to themselves,” Sawyer recalled.
It worked, and he not only won the primary but the general, defeating the popular Russell by 16,000 votes.
Sawyer came to office in a time when many of Nevada’s legal casinos were still run by former gangsters and Nevada was an easy target for exposes. “Sawyer did not feel he could drive out everybody who was already here, but he did feel he could keep worse ones from coming in,” says Mike Green, a history professor at Community College of Southern Nevada. He immediately persuaded the Legislature to create agencies specifically charged with enforcing gaming law, the Nevada Gaming Commission and the Nevada Gaming Control Board, and established a tradition that their members would be nonpartisan appointments, many of them from law enforcement backgrounds. Then, because so much of the negative publicity about Nevada casinos involved their catering to gangsters, members of the new boards suggested publishing a list of persons so disreputable that casinos were not allowed to serve them.
“In theory I thought they had a good idea, but perhaps one that was unconstitutional,” Sawyer said later. But he agreed to try it, and admitted surprise when federal courts upheld the state’s right to do it. Officially, it is known as “The List of Excluded Persons,” but media dubbed it “The Black Book.”
Foley, the new attorney general, criticized the new agencies for conducting surveillance of casinos to make sure they were honoring “The Black Book.” Sawyer publicly backed his men, urging them to “Hang tough,” a phrase that became his administration’s motto.
Sawyer never claimed sole credit for the environmental steps that kept Lake Tahoe from being developed to death, partially crediting both his immediate predecessor, Russell, and his successor, Paul Laxalt. But it was Sawyer and Gov. Pat Brown of California who set up the bi-state commission that restricted growth in the entire basin.
“But when it came to other environmental issues, he was totally oblivious … parochial,” laughed biographer Elliott. “Piping water to Nevada from the Columbia River, water that he considered to be going to waste because it was running into the ocean, that’s an idea as insane as the one somebody had back in the 1950s to dam the Grand Canyon.” He regarded it as a failure that he was never able to wrest control of most public lands in Nevada away from the federal government.
Sawyer was a civil rights advocate at a time when he had absolutely nothing to gain from it, note historians. The minority vote had no viable options except supporting him, but there were plenty of white Southern Democrats he risked alienating.
“He just believed in it,” said Las Vegas attorney Bob Faiss, a former Las Vegas editor who became Sawyer’s executive assistant. “The people surrounding him believed in it; Dick Ham, for instance, had marched to open up the theaters in Washington, D.C. ” Sawyer, said Faiss, was the first governor to demand minorities be considered for state jobs. “Up until then you would go into any state office and see nothing but white faces.”
He drove through a law requiring color-blind hiring in state offices, but couldn’t get the state civil rights law he wanted. He did get a weak civil rights commission which was able to bring about some changes simply by publicizing injustices, and in 1963, with the help of Clark County Assemblywoman Flora Dungan, fought off an attempt to abolish it.
In 1963, when frustrated blacks threatened to march on the Strip against Jim Crow hiring practices, Sawyer and others worked out a compromise by which casinos opened up nonmenial jobs.
From such efforts, Sawyer acquired moral authority. In 1965, rioting broke out in Watts and Las Vegas police notified Sawyer of a report that black militants were heading for Las Vegas to incite a riot. “It was almost as if a riot would be forced on the city by the mobilization to prevent one,” recalled Faiss in the eulogy at Sawyer’s funeral.
“Grant Sawyer felt he had to do something, so he drove into the black neighborhoods … to talk with residents throughout the night. The next morning he publicly announced that no citizen of Las Vegas was threatening harm to anyone else, and there would be no violence. And there wasn’t.”
Sawyer affected a deep, theatrical voice developed in childhood voice training and in his hobby of amateur acting. He had learned to tap dance as a child and would break into dance steps. He usually insisted on driving the governor’s official car himself. “He was a terrible driver. He got tickets,” Faiss recalled.
Sawyer had the courage to take on even the dangerous J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI. Hoover was a hero to most Americans, but savvy politicians knew he assembled ruinous dossiers about public figures, much of the information of dubious authenticity, and would leak it to the media if angered.
Initially, Sawyer had tried to cooperate with the FBI in cleaning up Nevada gaming, directing his gaming regulators to ask for FBI background checks before issuing gaming licenses. “We were advising them of everything we knew, and we were getting nothing in return … We would read in the newspaper about something that the FBI knew about but had not discussed with us,” he said in “Hang Tough.” Yet Hoover would “take the bows for any information we gave him, as if it were newly discovered on his part.”
In 1963, Carl Cohen, a 10 percent owner of the Sands, found microphones in his office. Other wiretaps began to turn up. Sawyer wrote Bobby Kennedy, who was ostensibly Hoover’s boss, but received no satisfactory answers.
So Sawyer publicly criticized Hoover for the wiretaps, which he believed were illegally planted without court orders.
Hoover retaliated, inserting himself into Sawyer’s 1966 campaign for a third term. He wrote a letter, which was published on the front page of the Las Vegas Sun, urging Nevadans not to vote for Sawyer. It implied a Sawyer link to organized crime.
Elliott said, “I think his utter disdain for J. Edgar Hoover, his dislike of Bobby Kennedy, may have created a false impression that he stood for the status quo. I don’t think he did. Remember, he had taken big heat over the Black Book.
“He simply felt Hoover, in his zeal to put people in jail, ran all over people’s civil rights. … He found the government violating people’s rights more frightening than any gangster.”
Even so, his position enabled his opponent, Lt. Gov. Paul Laxalt, to portray himself as somebody who could outdo Sawyer in legitimizing the casino industry.
Other factors worked against his re-election. Sawyer violated tradition by seeking a third term. “He didn’t want to run but there was nobody else to do it,” explained Bette Sawyer in a 1998 TV interview. Polls indicated Sawyer was the only Democrat who might beat the popular Laxalt, who was lieutenant governor during Sawyer’s second term, so party leaders talked him into running. But Sawyer was wounded in the primary by one of his own appointees. Attorney General Charles Springer ran against him and made dubious but damaging accusations about Sawyer’s ethics. Laxalt defeated Sawyer 71,807 to 65,870.
Sawyer was less than 50 years old when he finished his term in the last elective office he would ever hold.
Sawyer formed a partnership with Las Vegas lawyer Sam Lionel, and Justice Jon Collins later resigned the Nevada Supreme Court to join the firm that became Lionel, Sawyer & Collins.
The new governor changed gaming laws to permit corporate ownership of casinos — something Sawyer had always opposed because he felt it would be impossible to do background checks on individual stockholders.
Elliott remembered Sawyer joking in later years: “Irony of ironies,” chuckled Sawyer, “Paul Laxalt made me rich.”
Sawyer suffered a stroke in 1993, and the complications of that stroke killed him in three years. And on Feb. 24, 1996, it seemed as if all Nevada came to Las Vegas’ Palm Mortuary to bury him and to praise.

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