The news that Bill Raggio died on a cruise to Australia wasn’t necessarily the biggest surprise: he was 85 (rumor has it he lopped a few years off of his age) and had health problems. But it was a surprise in a couple of ways: he had been part of Nevada’s fabric for so long that he seemed immortal, and he died far from the scene of battle.
Raggio served in the state senate from 1973 until he resigned just before the 2011 session. Before that, he had been a legendary district attorney in Washoe County, renowned as a prosecutor. He had run for the U.S. Senate in 1970 and lost, and wound up in a less august legislative body that he dominated like no legislator had before and none seems likely to do it again.
The next few days will be filled with the praise and sorrow that usually accompanies the death of someone important—as Raggio undeniably was and is to Nevada’s history. But you need only read the comments sections below the obituaries appearing online in Nevada’s newspapers to grasp an odd fact about Raggio: he belonged to Nevada’s past even when he was part of its present.
Nevada’s history isn’t exactly festooned with liberalism: its prominent Democrats have, almost without exception, been at the center or even the right of the national party, and its prominent Republicans have been center, slightly to the right, or falling off.
For much of his career, Raggio was a conservative Republican by any definition of the term. But he could bend without breaking to serve his constituents. He understood the art of the deal, which may have been best described by Lyndon Johnson (someone whose views Raggio didn’t share, but they were both backroom operators par excellence) when he said that his greatest accomplishment as U.S. Senate majority leader was convincing liberals that half a loaf was better than none.
This made Raggio valuable at the legislature. During his nearly 40 years in Carson City, Raggio was majority leader for about half of that time, but Democrats controlled the Assembly in all but two sessions. Republicans controlled the governor’s mansion just over half the time he was there. Compromise wasn’t a dirty word; it was a necessity, and he worked with governors and other legislators who understood that. Thanks to his seniority, which term limits were about to eliminate when he retired, and to northern Nevadans gaining and holding so much power, Raggio often made fellow lawmakers dance to his tune.
This made Raggio, not compromise, a dirty word to many southern Nevadans. The best line about that came from a Las Vegan who said that if he lived in Reno, Raggio would be his hero, but since he lived in Las Vegas, Raggio was the devil. Indeed, Raggio delivered for his home folks; if you doubt that, note that UNR continues to outstrip UNLV in the higher education budget and ask yourselves why.
In the end, though, he became a RINO—a Republican In Name Only—to a significant number of his fellow Republicans. He was willing to raise taxes if he thought it was good for the state and especially his constituents, who benefited accordingly. He was being voted out as his party’s leader by a group of right-wingers, almost entirely from southern Nevada, when he chose to leave.
Why? Partly because, in 2010, he endorsed Harry Reid for reelection to the Senate. Had Raggio suddenly become a Democrat? Of course not. But Reid’s opponent was Sharron Angle, who had challenged Raggio in the 2008 primary; he fended her off by only 53-47 after a nasty race that ended without her supporting him.
More important, Raggio understood power. He had it and knew how to use it, and knew that the U.S. Senate majority leader—whoever he is—had influence that could benefit Nevada. Not that he would have supported Reid against any other candidate. But Raggio put what he saw (correctly) as the good of the state ahead of partisan politics.
The leader who wasn’t conservative enough for other Republicans was the district attorney who burned down a brothel in another county, the prosecutor and state senator who regularly promoted or espoused right-wing organizations and causes, the leader who couldn’t stand some of his Democratic colleagues and the feeling was mutual. But he still could work with others to get things done, and his Republican colleagues in 2011 decided they would rather work with nobody to get nothing done. That wasn’t his style and that is why, on his death, those who understand regret that the past is indeed past.