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Former Nevada Rep. James Bilbray dies

Updated September 24, 2021 - 4:35 pm

Former Nevada Democratic Congressman James Bilbray has died at 83, officials said Sunday.

“Today, Nevada lost a giant,” Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote on Twitter. “Jim Bilbray was a good friend, who I respected and loved. Through his years of public service to the Silver State, I know his legacy will live on. The First Lady and I join his friends, family and loved ones grieving during this difficult time.”

Nevada’s senators also took to Twitter to extend their condolences.

“Devastated to hear of the passing of Jim Bilbray,” U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto wrote. “Jim was a dear childhood friend of my father’s and was always a warm presence in our lives. He was a tireless advocate for Nevada and a proud father and grandfather. The entire Cortez family will miss him greatly.”

Fellow U.S. Sen. Jacky Rosen tweeted: “Rep. Jim Bilbray was a Nevada treasure. His tireless commitment and devotion to public service was unmatched, and we will forever honor his legacy. My heart goes out to his family and friends during this difficult time.”

‘Tireless champion for UNLV’

Bilbray was born in Las Vegas on May 19, 1938. He graduated from Las Vegas High School and later became the student body president at UNLV, although he received his bachelor’s degree at American University in Washington, D.C. He later founded and was the first president of the UNLV Alumni Association, according to his biography on the website of the law firm Kaempfer Crowell, where he was of counsel.

UNLV President Keith Whitfield offered his condolences on Twitter.

“Jim was a tireless champion for UNLV and Southern Nevada, serving as our first @UNLVAlumni president,” he wrote. “He embodied the true spirit of being a Rebel! Our hearts go out to his wife, family, and loved ones.”

Bilbray also served in the Nevada Army National Guard and Army Reserve.

Bilbray received his law degree from the Washington College of Law in 1964 and was admitted to the Nevada State Bar the following year.

His served as a regent of the Nevada university system from 1968 to 1972. That year, he ran for Congress for the first time, winning a competitive Democratic primary but losing in the general election. In 1980, Bilbray was elected to the Nevada state Senate, where he served until 1986, when he was elected to Congress from Nevada’s 1st District, replacing Harry Reid, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate.

Bilbray served four terms in Congress, but was defeated for re-election in a close race in 1994 by veterinarian John Ensign, who was swept into office as part of the Newt Gingrich-Contract with America wave.

Bilbray also served on the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors and on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which decided the fate of potentially unneeded military bases around the country.

Two of Bilbray’s daughters followed him into politics: Erin Bilbray ran for Congress in the 3rd Congressional District in 2014 but lost in a heavily Republican year despite endorsements from high-profile figures including then-Vice President Joe Biden. Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod was elected to the Nevada Assembly in 2016 and has served three terms. A cousin, Brian Bilbray, was a Republican congressman from California.

‘I love Vegas’

Bilbray has an elementary school in northwest Las Vegas named in his honor, and his daughter Bridget Bilbray-Phillips was its first principal.

“It’s neat because the kids really like me being out there,” he told the Review-Journal in 2011. “I’ve seen the growth, seen the kids grow, and now we go out to dinner and we’ll have kids say, ‘You’re Mr. Bilbray.’”

Congresswoman Dina Titus, who now represents the district where Bilbray served, posted a photo of them together from this year, where she recognized his efforts to preserve habitats including Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

“I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my friend, former Congressman James Bilbray. He was a respected public servant and dedicated conservationist,” Titus wrote on Twitter. “Earlier this year, I honored his work by dedicating a plaque at the entrance of the Red Rock Canyon visitor center.”

Assemblywoman Brittney Miller, D-Las Vegas, also shared on Twitter: “We’ve lost a state treasure w/the passing of Congressman James Bilbray, a highly respected & beloved constituent of our Assembly District 5. Sending prayers for his amazing wife and 3 daughters, including my friend/colleague Assemblywoman (Shannon Bilbray-Axlerod), and all those mourning him.”

According to his obituary, Bilbray was preceded in death by a son, Kevin.

He was married to his wife, Michaelene, for more than 60 years. He said in 2011 that his roots in Nevada would be permanent.

“I was born here, I was raised here and I’ll die here,” he said. “I love Vegas, and I’ll always stay here.”

A funeral mass for Bilbray will be held at 11 a.m. Sept. 30 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, 5830 Mesa Park Drive.

Contact Jonah Dylan at jdylan@reviewjournal.com. Follow @TheJonahDylan on Twitter. Review-Journal Politics and Government Editor Steve Sebelius contributed to this story.

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