To the editor:
I was both shocked and saddened to hear of the tragic death this past month of former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn. Being a native Nevadan and growing up in Las Vegas, I have both respected and admired Mr. Guinn all the way back to my high school days.
I watched Kenny Guinn rise from superintendent for the Clark County School District, all the way to the governor’s mansion for two terms in Carson City.
Despite the sorted history of Nevada political mine fields, where many have ventured across and not survived, I believe Mr. Guinn was someone who kept his integrity and honor from the beginning of his political and professional life until the very end. Quite frankly, I think Kenny Guinn was one of the best leaders Nevada has ever known.
Personally, in the earlier part of this decade, I witnessed one of the toughest leadership decisions I have ever seen, and it came from the hands of Gov. Guinn.
I had traveled to appear before the Nevada Pardons Board to speak on behalf of a friend I had met while doing some volunteer work at the Indian Springs prison. My intention was to stand before the board in hopes of winning a pardon for my friend. I wasn’t aware that the Pardons Board consisted of Gov. Guinn, our state attorney general and all of the Nevada Supreme Court justices. For me, it was not only pretty intimidating but also humbling to speak before many of the people I had grown up admiring.
It was also a sobering experience to sit through several hours of testimony and see people that, because of some incredibly foolish choices, had not only destroyed much of their own lives but had destroyed the lives of their victims, their victims’ families and their own families, as well.
Needless to say, there were just a whole lot of people in pain that day.
But the moment that stood out to me above all the others had to do with a young man in his late 30s. He had committed a convenience store robbery turned murder when he was just 15 years old. For the past 22 years, he had spent his life behind bars serving out his sentence.
In the courtroom that day sat his family. First came his father, who had suffered a stroke and was now unable to speak. Then his sister, a small child at the time of the crime, who knew very little of her big brother outside the walls of prison. Finally his mother wheeled in, looking as if she had also suffered a stroke, barely able to speak, uttering into the microphone in an low, almost incoherent voice, pleading with the board for mercy so she could see her son set free before she died.
The Pardons Board heard the request and the discussion went back and forth. Some argued that this man had been a model prisoner, while others felt as if he hadn’t served enough time to equal the life he took away. Then the vote came.
What happened next seemed like something out of a movie. The board vote was equally divided right down the middle. Four votes for pardon. Four votes against.
As fate would have it, the deciding vote fell to Gov. Guinn. His choice alone would determine the future of this man. Gov. Guinn paused as if he understood the gravity of the moment. Those few seconds before he spoke felt like an eternity. The large room grew utterly silent.
The look on Gov. Guinn’s face showed the personal anguish of having to bear this decision alone.
I thought to myself, “I would never want to be in this kind of leadership position, where the weight of it all falls without support upon my shoulders.”
Then Gov. Guinn uttered one word, “No.”
What occurred next was nothing short of gut-wrenching. The family began to loudly wail and sob uncontrollably. I think everyone in that courtroom felt the ache and grief of their personal pain.
Whether or not you agree with Gov. Guinn’s vote that day, I have to tell you that I walked away thinking that I had just witnessed one of the gutsiest leadership decisions that I could personally recall. I still feel that way today.
Gov. Guinn could have caved in and made the easier choice. But something told me this was a man with real integrity who could not go against his own conscience. He could not say “yes” if he felt the right decision was “no.”
To me, that’s the mark of a true leader. They are rare birds that do not appear often. Such is the legacy of Gov. Guinn.
We’re going to miss you, Kenny.
The writer is an adjunct professor at the Fuller School of Global Leadership.