Richard Bunker had what it took to be high-profile — power, good looks, an articulate way of speaking — but he let his work do the talking.
“Where he was you knew that he was doing his best, without a lot of fanfare,” former Sen. Harry Reid said Monday.
For more than four decades Bunker shaped Southern Nevada as a leader in both its public and private sectors. He died Sunday morning at age 85, three weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, according to his son, Morgan Bunker.
A fourth-generation Southern Nevadan, Bunker was known for avoiding the spotlight despite heading Clark County, the Colorado River Commission and the Nevada Resort Association at different points in his career.
“Richard quietly made things happen,” said Jan Jones Blackhurst, an executive at the Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment Corp. “He was a behind-the-scenes guy. He wasn’t one of those guys standing up and giving an oration on where we want to go. He just got us there.”
Bunker was already revered in Nevada politics by the time he began lobbying for the Nevada Resort Association as its president in 1990. Billy Vassiliadis, 62, a lobbyist and CEO of R&R Partners, remembered him as bringing gravitas and a lighthearted attitude to the halls of the Nevada Legislature.
“He had this kind of strong exterior, but meanwhile he could just as funny and mischievous,” Vassiliadis said. “He really had such a well-rounded approach to life.”
Bunker stunned many in 1997 when he convinced the casino executives to support a landmark bill that included a room tax hike that would fund public school construction, Vassiliadis said.
“That was Bunker in a nutshell,” Vassiliadis said. “Whether it was issues of water, or schools, or roads, those things that he considered to be Southern Nevada services — vital to improving quality of life and the economic robustness of this community — he was front and center.”
Two decades earlier Bunker was at odds with the men who controlled gaming in Las Vegas — the mob.
After Gov. Robert List appointed him chairman of the state’s Gaming Control Board in 1979, Bunker helped soothe the board’s contentious relationship with the Nevada Gaming Commission. Bunker and Harry Reid, who at the time chaired the gaming commission, helped pull control of the casino industry from the hands of organized crime.
“I think he was really instrumental in setting a tone of gaming being something that Nevada could be proud of,” Reid said. “We made progress, and I hope that it was of a lasting nature.”
Bunker was tireless and laser-focused in his work, Reid said.
“He was never running a sprint. He was always in for the long haul. He was a marathoner,” Reid said. “If he was on an issue you could bet he wouldn’t get off of it until he got a result, one way or the other.”
A mentor to Mulroy
Reid and others say integral to Bunker’s legacy is discovering Pat Mulroy, who served an expanding desert metropolis for more than 25 years as general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and Southern Nevada Water Authority.
When he was Clark County manager, Bunker hired Mulroy to his staff. In 1989 he pushed her to apply for the water district’s general manager position, despite her doubts whether she could do the job.
“Richard was always the individual that would give you the confidence to do something when you didn’t necessarily have it,” said Mulroy, 56.
The two often worked together once Bunker became the chair of the Colorado River Commission of Nevada in 1997, and Mulroy said they remained close after her former boss retired in 2010.
“When things got difficult, when I got frustrated or needed advice, I turned to Richard,” she said.
Longtime gaming industry executive Mike Sloan, a resident of Las Vegas since 1952, said he also sought advice from Bunker often.
“He tried to help other people,” said Sloan, senior vice president of government relations for Ferttita Entertainment. “I think that’s probably what I would say characterized the Richard Bunker that I know, that he was always there,”