The Ironies of Harvey Whittemore

Once upon a time, it seemed, the state of Nevada danced to Harvey Whittemore’s tune.  Times have changed. For the unfamiliar, Whittemore was an uber-lobbyist and developer who planned Coyote Springs in southern Lincoln County as a bedroom community for Las Vegas. Never mind water and transportation. Growth was going crazy, and it made sense. 

Now he and his partners are suing one another. Much worse for Whittemore, a federal grand jury has subpoenaed Whittemore’s family and friends about their campaign contributions—whether they acted illegally by going over the limit and being reimbursed by Whittemore.

The ironies abound.

Whittemore’s politics have tended to be center or left-of-center.  Most of his contributions were to Democrats (especially Sen. Harry Reid, as the R-Jhas reminded us in, it appears, every story about Whittemore). Yet he lobbied for many companies and industries that have been Republican. In Nevada, both sides have generally opposed the kinds of taxes and spending that would diversify the economy—including the recent economic diversification proposal from Gov. Brian Sandoval and numerous stakeholders who still don’t seem to grasp that you don’t make money without spending money. 

So, at least some of the policies that Whittemore promoted ultimately contributed to Nevada’s continued economic downturn, from which it is escaping more slowly than most other states. And that downturn, in turn, contributed to his own economic problems.

The news reports refer to Whittemore’s “friends,” and he has many.  Those who know him will tell you that he is a nice, funny guy (we have spoken via phone, and I will attest that he also knows how to laugh at himself).

Yet a significant number of people probably won’t feel much sympathy for him in his time of troubles because, as a legislative lobbyist … well, there’s this glass partition between the legislative chamber and those watching the deliberations.  Someone asked a tour guide at the Legislature why it was there. The guide called it the “Whittemore Wall,” explaining it was there “to prevent Harvey Whittemore from taking over the legislative process by force of his voice and person.” The guide paused and added, “It didn’t work.”

That could be a good thing. As a good lobbyist, Whittemore knew a lot about who and what he lobbied for, and knew what to say to win support. But in the last two decades, more lobbyists in Carson City, some insiders mutter, have preferred bullying to persuasion. Whittemore’s approach—and the approach taken by some of his colleagues—didn’t win over everybody.

Whittemore’s company is called Wingfield Nevada and he developed Wingfield Springs, a master-planned community in Sparks.  In some ways, Whittemore chose those names wisely.

George Wingfield was known as the “owner and operator of Nevada” in his day. In 1907, he broke a unionizing effort at his Goldfield mines and established himself as a political force to be reckoned with. His lobbyists and the officials he supported enjoyed considerable power in Carson City and Washington, D.C.  When his old business partner, Sen. George Nixon, died in 1912, Gov. Tasker Oddie offered Wingfield his job … and Wingfield turned it down because he had too many things to do in Nevada. He owned most of the state’s major banks, mines and a leading Reno hotel. He helped elect candidates he liked and chopped off the careers of those he disliked.

In 1932, Wingfield’s banking empire went under because of financial strains caused by the Great Depression. His mining operations eventually restored some of his wealth, but he never again dominated Nevada politics. His friends stood by him. His enemies didn’t exactly shed tears. It sounds familiar.