CARSON CITY — The most unsettling observation of "A Man of His Word," the biography of former state Sen. Bill Raggio, is how politics in Nevada over the past 40 years has dissipated from friendly partisanship into all-out warfare.
When Raggio, now 85, started as a state senator in 1973, many Democrats and Republicans were friends who usually accomplished legislative goals through compromise.
By the time he resigned in January after his Republican colleagues ousted him as their party leader for the sin of endorsing Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, compromise was a dirty word.
"Legislation is still the art of compromise and over the years that has been my mantra," emphasized Raggio in the 613-page biography written by Reno author Michael Archer, who has worked as a Senate attache and in other jobs during the past five legislative sessions.
Maybe so, but Marine veteran Archer colorfully said in a recent interview that Raggio "let the spoon go on the hand grenade" when he announced in the fall of 2010 that he opposed Republican Sharron Angle and endorsed Reid for U.S. Senate. Angle lost the election by 40,000 votes. Raggio’s political career was soon over.
Working with the loyal opposition isn’t the reality in Nevada today in the mind of Raggio, who has particularly harsh words in his biography not only for politicians but also for former Las Vegas Review-Journal Editor Thomas Mitchell.
He accuses Mitchell of displaying a "lack of civility" toward former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she visited the newspaper in 2010 to plug a ballot question calling for appointed judges.
"I’m a conservative, a Reagan conservative," said Raggio, who toward the end of his career regularly was dubbed a RINO — Republican In Name Only — by foes. "I disagree with those folks out there who call themselves Republican, but are in fact Libertarian, and who don’t want to hear facts, and turn a blind eye to what is necessary."
Mitchell takes strong exception, however, to Raggio’s charge that he did not treat O’Connor with respect.
He suspects Raggio’s comments might have been prompted by a column he later wrote against the former justice’s position in support of a ballot question calling for appointed district and Supreme Court justices in Nevada.
"We treat everyone with respect" during editorial board meetings, Mitchell said. "We just disagreed with her basic principle that judges should be appointed."
Residents can draw their own conclusion. The 73-minute interview with O’Connor from Sept. 22, 2010, can be viewed on the Review-Journal’s website.
RAGGIO REVIEWED CHAPTERS
"A Man of his Word" isn’t an authorized biography, although Archer gave chapters to Raggio as he finished them over a three-year period. Archer said Raggio changed nothing more than obvious mistakes
Archer also borrowed heavily from bulky scrapbooks that had been kept by Raggio’s mother dating back to his teenage years. And he interviewed 60 people and included their critical comments.
"He made it clear he didn’t want any control," Archer said of Raggio. "I talked to people from both sides, both parties."
Archer remembers a scrapbook clipping that described the piano recital a young Raggio gave at Dayton High School in 1940.
"I asked him if he remembered what he played. Without hesitation he said. ‘The Isle of Capri was the song I played.’ After 65 years he still could remember it."
Besides Raggio’s Senate years, the biography outlines his 18 years with the Washoe County district attorney’s office and his run-ins with Mustang Ranch brothel owner Joe Conforte that led to Conforte’s imprisonment.
Archer, the author of "A Patch of Ground: Khe Sanh Remembered," said he grew to admire Raggio as much for being a good human being as being a politician after he learned of his integrity, honesty and kindness.
"The guy is so anonymously compassionate," Archer said.
Raggio has a history of sending cards, flowers, making calls and saying prayers for others and being the first to offer help to those in need.
He is on the mend from medical problems that limit his mobility, but he still spends a couple of hours a day at his law office in Reno, Archer said.
‘MAN OF HIS WORD’ ORIGINS
Archer never planned on calling the book "A Man of His Word" until "that phrase kept coming up."
"People I interviewed would say his handshake was his word, that … you can take his word to the bank, that he was a man of his word. I must have heard that exact phrase 15 or 20 times. He didn’t like it at first."
Archer, a retired Social Security Administration employee, did not know Raggio until 2003, when he took a job working for the Senate Finance Committee during the legislative session.
Later Raggio, who like Archer was in the Marines, asked for a copy of "A Patch of Ground," the story of the long and bloody battle between Americans and the North Vietnamese Army at Khe Sanh in 1968. Those who remember the Vietnam War era realize Khe Sanh was the most horrific battle of that war. Archer left friends behind.
Raggio read the book over the weekend. They became friends, and Raggio eventually let Archer write his biography.
Since the book was published in the spring, it has sold 1,500 copies.
Archer said e-books will be available soon. He also anticipates a paperback version. Too many people have told him the book is too large to carry on a plane. The book can be bought at larger bookstores, gift shops at McCarran International Airport, on Amazon.com and at billraggio.com.
Archer said he won’t make much if any money off the book. In this era, one must be Tom Clancy to earn a living strictly as a book writer, he added.
Archer does a good job in the book of objectively outlining the circumstances that led to Senate Republicans ousting Raggio as party leader and replacing him with Mike McGinness, R-Fallon. At the time, Raggio was the Senate minority leader. He had been the majority leader a record 10 legislative sessions.
Insiders will like the fact Archer’s book names names. He mentions how Raggio as caucus chairman funneled campaign funds to the very Republicans who later voted to dump him.
END OF NORTHERN nevada’s sway
Raggio’s retirement ends an era when Northern Nevada politicians could gain clout by their sheer ability to win election after election in safe districts. Term limits now are in effect, and no one can serve more than 12 years in the state Senate or Assembly. Political power has shifted to Southern Nevada, home of more than 70 percent of the population and state legislators. Both Senate caucuses in 2013 probably will be led by Southern Nevadans, Democrat Mo Denis and Republican Mike Roberson.
Archer said Raggio learned his legislative skills from people such as longtime Senate Majority Leader Jim Gibson, D-Henderson, and by being the first to arrive in the morning and last to leave at night.
In the biography, Legislative Counsel Bureau Director Lorne Malkiewich offers another reason for his success: Raggio’s legal training helped him because lawyers don’t let cases or controversies define them as persons.
"Once the trial is over, these individuals will often have more respect for one another because of the acknowledgment of each other’s ability in doing the job well," Malkiewich said during the 1989 session when Raggio and the late Democratic Assemblyman Marvin Sedway were at loggerheads on issues.
Archer said Raggio is a "voracious reader" and has an innate curiosity about everything. That served him well in learning the ins and outs of legislation.
"I don’t think we will see his kind again," Archer said. "In politics, I don’t think you need to know your stuff anymore. I think you can fake it."
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.BILL RAGGIO
Born: Oct. 30, 1926, in Reno
Military: Navy and Marines, second lieutenant, 1944-46
Education: University of Nevada, Reno, bachelor’s degree; University of California, Berkeley, law degree.
Spouses: The late Dorothy "Dotty" Brigman, whom he married in 1948 and who died in 1998; and Dale Checket, whom he married in 2003.
Children: Leslie Ann Righetti, Tracy Lynn Fernandes and Mark William Raggio, who died in 2004.
Political career: District attorney, Washoe County, 1958-70; Nevada state senator, 1973-2011
Hobbies: Hunting, fishing and golf