The Russell Legacy

Carson City District Judge James Todd Russell is an important part of your life. And for a Russell to be shaping Nevada is nothing new.

Russell determined how the Congressional District 2 race would be run—with parties picking candidates rather than a free-for-all ballot—and is dealing with redistricting Nevada’s House seats and Legislature. He acted on reapportionment when the Legislature didn’t because partisanship and anti-tax pledges matter more to some of our elected officials than doing their jobs. (Russell hasn’t escaped unbruised: There’s been grumbling that his association with Republican Mark Amodei, a former law partner, influenced his decision on the District 2 race.)

We often pine for a past when lawmakers truly served us and put us above special interests. Here’s some news: They never did. Juice and connections have always mattered. Nevertheless, once upon a time the Legislature really was less partisan. As he makes these rulings, Russell could be forgiven for feeling nostalgic: He grew up in Nevada’s capital, the son of former Nevada Gov. Charles Russell. And the story of Charles Russell tells us what’s right and wrong about the past and present.

Born in Lovelock, Charles Russell became a teacher when that was respectable, the Ely Record’s editor when journalism was reputable, and a legislator when that was honorable. In 1946, Nevadans elected him to the House. A Republican, he had one patronage job to offer someone back home. He gave it to a Democrat because he was the first person who asked.

When Russell lost his re-election bid, Sen. Pat McCarran—a Democrat—got him a job on the Marshall Plan in Europe. Then Russell came home, ran for governor in 1950 and won, with help from McCarran. He backed the Republican, as did his favorite Las Vegas newspaper, the Democratic Las Vegas Review-Journal. Why? McCarran despised the Democratic incumbent, Vail Pittman, and liked Russell—it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t.

That is, until he became governor. Russell offended McCarran by appointing those he thought best for a job rather than taking orders—he even reformed state government to have a real civil service system. He guided the Legislature through reforms creating countywide school districts to replace more than 200 small, independent districts that failed to meet student and teacher needs.

With Democrats united behind Pittman in 1954, Russell appeared finished until revelations of mob involvement in a Strip hotel, the Thunderbird, that Pittman’s supporters reportedly covered up. Russell won. In the next legislative session, the Gaming Control Board was created to improve regulation. Two years later, casino operators tried to gut its powers. They got the bill through the Legislature, but Russell vetoed it. In doing so, he helped save gaming regulation from the gaming industry’s opposition to it.

During Russell’s two terms, the state Senate was overwhelmingly Republican and the Assembly Democratic. They fought, and the lack of proper reapportionment gave rural, right-leaning counties disproportionate power they used to block many programs needed in bigger cities. But Russell and the Legislature still got some things done. He could overcome his party’s aversion to government regulation, and Democrats could overcome their desire to revisit the New Deal.

Russell lost his bid for a third term to a rural liberal, Grant Sawyer. Sawyer liked Russell but believed in a more activist government. Sawyer’s best friend was Ralph Denton—the Democrat to whom Russell gave that patronage job in 1947. Denton felt conflicted and went to Russell personally. Russell told him he should support Sawyer, and that he expected him to do so. They remained friends; Nevadans from across the aisles used to be able to do that.

Not that James Russell has all that in mind as he weighs today’s challenges. But that’s the Nevada he knew, grew up in, and—as he cleans up after the Legislature—probably misses. So should we.

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