Raggio was one of a kind

There will, quite literally, never be another Bill Raggio.

Whether because term limits prohibit today’s lawmakers from building a 38-year tenure in the state Senate, or because today’s hyper-partisanship discourages the cross-aisle cooperation so necessary to legislative progress, Raggio was a different man, from a different era.

When I got the news early Friday that Raggio had died during an Australian vacation, I was momentarily surprised. Yes, I knew he was long in years, but a part of me was convinced the Iron Man of the Senate would live forever.

And what a life he had: From burning down brothels to tangling with the infamous John Birch Society in the mid-1960s to leading his Republican Party in the state Senate for more than 30 years, Raggio was an incomparable figure.

It wasn’t just his intelligence, steely work ethic or knowledge of the legislative process that made him its king. It was his eye for people, his ability to form relationships, regardless of party.

Raggio had a knack for finding out what each lawmaker in the building needed, and of using that to get what he wanted. Raggio was the reason Northern Nevada didn’t wither, even though most people in the state live in Clark County.

In the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, there’s a bust of Raggio under a sign identifying him as the father of the airport authority. But Raggio nurtured much more than that in nearly 60 years in public life, starting as an assistant district attorney in Washoe County in 1952. In fact, the only thing Raggio wanted but never got was the U.S. Senate seat he sought unsuccessfully in 1970.

And Raggio’s sense of humor was legendary: He’d often approach new lawmakers and ask them for $20; if they gave it over, he’d pocket the cash and walk away. Fellow diners expecting a gentle clink of wine glasses during a toast were often surprised by Raggio’s wickedly strong Raggio. He’d often pretend to confuse me with former state Sen. Bob Beers, a mistake (actually) made by more than one person in Carson City.

Fittingly, Nevada’s longest-serving senator had more respect for the institution than anyone else. Raggio was quick to chastise anybody — Republican or Democrat — whom he felt had disrespected the rules or traditions of the Senate. He encouraged new lawmakers to keep open minds until they’d vetted the evidence. And he steadfastly refused to sign the popular anti-tax pledge that my friend Chuck Muth of Citizens United proffers to all would-be politicians.

But Raggio also saw his Republican Party transform around him. In 2003, when a group of Assembly Republicans refused to vote for a tax plan, Raggio didn’t hesitate to excavate a pejorative from earlier in his storied career: He called them “John Birchers.” By 2008, he was battling ex-Assemblywoman Sharron Angle in a primary fight for the district he’d held comfortably since 1972.

When Raggio exercised his legendary independence — and a good deal of personal pique — and endorsed Democrat Harry Reid over Angle in the 2010 U.S. Senate race, his party finally left him. He was ousted from his leadership position by Fallon Republican Mike McGinness, and he tendered his resignation from the Legislature for good.

“I think the present leadership of the Republican Party is a little too radical and has been taken over by what I think is a radical element,” Raggio said in an interview after he quit, using a true conservative’s worst pejorative. “The party has to reshape itself or it won’t win general elections down the road.”

Mark his words for November.

Back in January 2011, Raggio told me in an interview that the state would go on without him. “Nobody is irreplaceable. You will find that out,” he said.

I hope Raggio will forgive me one last time if I simply don’t agree.


Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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