State Sen. Bill Raggio, the lion of Northern Nevada politics for half a century, jolted the state political establishment Wednesday when he said he will resign from the Legislature on Jan. 15 because of health concerns.
The Reno Republican’s announcement quickly set off a battle royal in political circles to influence the Washoe County Commission, which will appoint his successor.
Some favor a replacement who shares Raggio’s moderate philosophies, meaning someone who might vote for tax increases, while others want a more conservative pick like many of the current Senate Republicans who oppose tax increases.
Sen. Barbara Cegavske, the No. 2 ranking Republican in the Senate and a fierce opponent of tax increases, said the Republican caucus might prepare its own list of candidates for the County Commission to consider.
She said the list should not include recently defeated candidates — which would rule out Sharron Angle, who lost to Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in the November elections.
Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, a Republican who just won re-election to a third term, has indicated he might be interested in Raggio’s seat. Cashell is a former Democratic lieutenant governor and a moderate who has worked closely with Raggio for decades.
The Legislature goes into session Feb. 7 facing $1 billion less in tax revenues than two years ago. Some legislators maintain that the revenue shortfall is really $3 billion and that a balanced budget cannot be achieved without tax increases.
Raggio, the longest-serving state senator in Nevada history, was first elected to the upper house in 1972. Earlier he spent 18 years as the Washoe County district attorney.
He explained his reasons for retiring:
"I am doing this because I don’t have the mobility to run up and down the halls. I have breathing limitations, but I don’t want to dwell on that. I feel great. I am very happy with my decision. It is time for new people to take over."
Gov. Brian Sandoval was effusive in his praise for Raggio.
"If the state of Nevada had a Mount Rushmore for public servants, Bill Raggio’s image would be etched on its face," Sandoval said in a statement. "Senator Raggio has been a friend and a mentor since I began my public career."
Raggio’s most recent public appearance was on Monday when he attended Sandoval’s inauguration in sub-freezing temperatures outside the Capitol. Sandoval’s father, Ron, had been a deputy sergeant of arms in the Senate for several years when Raggio was majority leader.
His replacement must be a Republican like Raggio and must live in his Senate district. The County Commission might name his successor during its Jan. 18 or Jan. 25 meeting.
Raggio had two years remaining in his four-year term. Under the term limits constitutional amendment, he could not have run for another term.
He insisted that his decision to retire was based entirely on health problems, not on the decision by Senate Republicans in November to replace him as minority leader.
"I wanted to continue to serve, but my mobility has not improved," Raggio said.
Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, was named minority leader after a vote in which several far more conservative Republicans were elected.
They ousted Raggio because of his endorsement of Reid in the U.S. Senate race and his support of tax increases in the 2003 and 2009 legislative sessions.
Raggio noted at the time that the public must have agreed with him because Reid won the election. He also mentioned that he had defeated Angle in a bitter campaign for his Senate seat in 2008, but she never called to congratulate him on his victory.
Reid issued a statement praising Raggio.
"Respected by both Democrats and Republicans alike, Senator Raggio has always been a fierce advocate for Nevada and his constituents throughout his long career in the Nevada state Senate," Reid said. "I thank him for the support he offered me over the years and for his work on behalf of our state. Bill is a true statesman and his voice will be sorely missed."
McGinness said he found out about Raggio’s resignation through the news media.
"I wish him the best," he said. "I have really looked forward to him providing his experience and knowledge of the system, especially during a redistricting session."
The Legislature must approve new boundaries for House of Representatives, legislative and other districts following the release of detailed 2010 Census figures in February.
Through Raggio’s leadership in the 2001 session — the last redistricting session — Republicans were able to draw boundaries for the then-new 3rd Congressional District in a way that gave Republicans a good chance to win.
In recent years, Raggio has been a strong advocate for changes in public education to improve Nevada student performance. He was the key architect of legislation that requires high school seniors to pass math, reading and other proficiency tests before they can receive a full-fledged diploma.
"We didn’t agree with him always, but he was a champion of public schools," said Lynn Warne, president of the Nevada State Education Association. "He felt providing a good education was a quality-of-life issue for Nevada. We are going to miss him."
No person in state history has served longer than Raggio’s 38 years in the Senate, including a record 10 sessions as Senate majority leader and as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He had been the Republican leader in the Senate since 1982.
"That means I am an old fart," Raggio quipped. "Nobody is irreplaceable. You will find that out."
Raggio said he would not interfere in the County Commission’s decision to appoint his replacement. But if asked, he would give commissioners names of potential replacements. He said he wants his successor to be someone who shares his political philosophy and will work with Democrats. He declined to speculate on who would be appointed.
"It is up to the commission," he said.
Four of the five Washoe County commissioners are Republicans, including former Assemblyman Dave Humke.
Besides Cashell, former Assemblyman and U.S. Attorney Greg Brower is being mentioned by sources as a possible replacement. Other possible replacements are Mike Dillon, a Reno homebuilder who is the grandson of former Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev., and Washoe County Commissioner John Breternitz.
Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, said the Senate Republican caucus is unlikely to recommend candidates who have recently lost elections, which would rule out both Angle and former Assemblyman Ty Cobb, R-Reno. Cegavske is the assistant Senate minority leader.
Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, issued a statement in which he called Raggio "a Nevada hero."
"I want to thank him for his five decades of public service," Horsford said. "His commitment to education and his depth of experience will be greatly missed in the 2011 legislative session. I hope the Washoe County Commission honors his request and appoints a successor who shares Senator Raggio’s values."
Assembly Speaker-elect John Oceguera, D-Las Vegas, also praised Raggio.
"(He) was sometimes a fierce opponent, but his service was distinguished by a true love of Nevada and a commitment which rose above party politics to do the right thing for our state," Oceguera said.
Sandoval called Raggio "the father figure in the Legislature for almost four decades."
"Senator Raggio and I spoke as soon as he made his announcement," Sandoval said. "I wish Bill and his wife, Dale, the very best as they begin this new phase of their lives, and I look forward to a continued friendship in the years ahead."
Raggio said he intends to continue working as a lawyer for the Jones Vargas law firm in Reno. He said he will follow what happens in the Legislature and in the Sandoval administration, and will offer advice if he is asked.
He has made no secret since the summer that he believed it would take tax increases to balance the state budget in 2011. At the time, he said state spending already had been cut to the bone and the state faced a potential $2.4 billion revenue shortfall.
"They have difficult decisions ahead," Raggio said Wednesday. "It is easy to say you are not going to do anything (with taxes), but you have to deal with reality and the need for essential services. You cannot shift the cost to somewhere else (local governments).
"It is going to be a tough session. You will see sectional battles and partisan battles. I have hope for the new governor. He has to be flexible and accommodate other peoples’ views. He cannot bind himself to a partisan issue. I am optimistic."
Review-Journal writer Ben Spillman contributed to this report. Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.Raggio resignation letter