The Last Moderate

In an age of partisanship, Kenny Guinn practiced old-fashioned Nevada pragmatism

Former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, who died on July 22 at the age of 73, was the last of his breed.

If the state ever had a moderate, establishment, Eisenhower Republican who charted a middle course, it was Guinn. When he came into office in 1999, Republicans had lived in the governor’s mansion just eight of the previous 40 years. Guinn won partly by being non-ideological. He ran only after carefully lining up broad business and party support; he became, as Jon Ralston’s book on Guinn’s campaign called him, The Anointed One (Huntington Press, 2000).

Guinn reflected the past he knew as a longtime Nevada Republican, school superintendent, bank and utility executive and UNLV’s interim president. Nevadans have long claimed to vote for the person, not the party. Democrats and Republicans used to cross the aisle in voting and legislating, and were ideologically much closer than they are now.

When Guinn became Clark County’s school superintendent in 1969, the governor was Republican Paul Laxalt, who supported a community college, the medical school and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Guinn left the school district in 1978, the year of the election of his old friend Robert List, a Republican who worked with a Democratic legislature to revamp Nevada’s tax system, emphasizing sales taxes and gaming revenues over property taxes in an effort to avoid a repeat here of California’s Proposition 13.

As governor, Guinn too worked with Democrats and Republicans, creating the Millennium Scholarship and trying to change Nevada’s fiscal structure. After his re-election in 2002, he proposed Nevada’s largest tax hike ever. He wound up suing the Legislature to win its passage when 15 Assembly Republicans blocked his efforts.

By Guinn’s second term, it became more difficult to govern Nevada from the center. His successor, fellow Republican Jim Gibbons, jettisoned centrism altogether. But this, too, reflected Guinn’s legacy: He had represented a vision that more conservative Republicans might oppose, but he had shown a new generation of Nevadans that Republicans—at least, a Republican named Guinn—could govern the state.

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