‘Who said anything about being governor?’

Bob Miller talks about life in and out of politics—and about the possibility of another Governor Miller


Photo by Anthony Mair

Sitting in the nondescript conference room of the nondescript Summerlin office building where he operates his public-affairs consulting business, Nevada’s longest-serving governor is talking about how he can’t believe he’s Nevada’s longest-serving governor. Wasn’t part of the career plan, he says. Not for a second.

First thought: Aw-shucks Bob Miller is playing the modesty card. Then Miller, 68, proceeds to recount the early 1980s conversation he had with then-Governor Richard Bryan, who was trying to persuade the young Clark County district attorney to become his right-hand man in Carson City. “Dick Bryan wanted me to run for attorney general, and I declined. I decided to run for D.A. again, and he said, ‘Well, that’s gonna be a problem because no D.A. has ever been re-elected, and you’ll never be governor.’ This was well into my career, and I said, ‘Governor? Who said anything about being governor?’”

Second thought: Aw-shucks Bob Miller is speaking with complete sincerity. It’s no doubt the one character trait that most helped the son of a gambling man ascend in 1989 to the state’s highest office, where he remained for a decade. That improbable journey is detailed in his recently released—and aptly titled—memoir, Son of a Gambling Man: My Journey From a Casino Family to the Governor’s Mansion (St. Martin’s Press, $27).

If someone had told 21-year-old Bob Miller that he’d someday be the governor of Nevada, write a book about his life and that a president of the United States [Bill Clinton] would pen the forward, what would’ve been your response?

That they need some mental health help, because that would be absolutely inconceivable, ridiculous. When I was appointed justice of the peace, I was about 30 years old, and if you’re in public office, people say flattering things, like, “You should be governor someday.” And I would just laugh at them: “What are you talking about?” … What happened is as big a surprise to me as anybody else.

Term limits forced you out of office. Did you ever consider remaining in the game and maybe going for a job in Washington, D.C.?

I was courted to run for the U.S. Senate, and certainly gave it serious consideration because of the people who were encouraging me—President Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Vice President Gore, Tipper Gore, Senator [Harry] Reid and others—but ultimately decided that really wasn’t my desire. I preferred to be here in Nevada. … And I never intended to be in public life my entire life.

Juxtapose the Southern Nevada of your youth with the Southern Nevada of today’s youth. Do you miss the “good ol’ days”?

Anybody who lived in a small community that got larger certainly has to look back and appreciate the aspects of a smaller community—the personal contacts, the ability to get to places easier, the cohesion and commonality that everybody seems to have. But on the other hand, you didn’t have as many recreational opportunities, you didn’t have the same kind of mega-production shows, you didn’t have as many restaurants or movie theaters, you didn’t have The Smith Center. So there was a big upside to growth.

What prompted you to write this book, and why now?

The prompt was from my family, especially my three children. They felt that there was a story to be told. My wife and I both felt that the story really was in the nature of the metamorphosis in my own family, from one of [Las Vegas’] gaming founders who, like all of his contemporaries, had come from illegal gaming into a legal world, all the way through to me. And the same kind of dynamic change occurred in Las Vegas.

You also mention in the book that your father was adamant that his children were to never gamble—you weren’t even allowed a deck of cards in the house. Did you ever resent that or find it hypocritical?

No, not really. His word was the final word in our family. And I knew that he worked tough hours, long hours. Although I didn’t focus on the totality of the circumstances, I was certainly aware when the chairman of the board of the Riviera was murdered—my dad was just beginning [to work] there—that it was a difficult business. I just looked at it as, ‘Here’s where I am, and I’m going to go to college, I’m going to go to law school’—that was always a given. [But] I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do after that.

Obviously, your dad’s past didn’t keep you from winning more than your share of elections. How do you explain your political success?

Luck. I’m probably not the perfect person to describe my political success. But I looked at particular positions where I thought I could do a good job and wanted to do a good job and put myself forward in that capacity. At the same time, I tried to remain just Bob, and was always flattered when people would call me Governor Bob as opposed to anything more formal. I never considered that any public position I had placed me in any position of esteem.

Would your political path have been more or less difficult if you hadn’t been Ross Miller’s son?

Well, my father worked very hard all his life to have a different life for me. If it wasn’t for him, I never would’ve had any of these opportunities. He’s the one who made sure I had the chance to go to college and to go to law school. I admired the determination he had that I would have a different life than him. And also, because of the background he had, his word was his bond, and I tried to emulate that component of his personality. So he is as responsible as anybody for me being where I am, even though he died before I held any public office.

As governor, you put yourself at the forefront of such divisive issues as class-size reduction in public schools, mining-industry tax hikes and funding for mental health programs—issues that your successors have faced. Does that bother you?

Certainly, class-size reduction. I hoped that there would have been an expansion of that concept as opposed to reduction. I believe our education system in Nevada would be in far better position if we had devoted the resources to do that. But I try not to second-guess anybody else who’s had the position of governor, because I know how difficult it is. You’ve got enough people criticizing you; you don’t need one of your predecessors doing it.

What’s your biggest concern as it pertains to the state in general and Las Vegas in particular?

My biggest concern has always been having a quality educational system, having opportunities for everybody to have the best education for their children possible. That goes from preschool all the way through the university system. We still have a long way to go. We’ve tried to balance the concept of being a tax-friendly state with providing the services that make us a quality state to live in, and we need to continue to work on improving the quality of life here.

Finish this sentence: Instituting a state income tax for Nevada residents would …

Violate the constitution.

Do you think it’s worth a look at a constitutional amendment?

No, I think we should be considering something more broad-based than what we presently have. I know that Governor Bryan and former Governor [Kenny] Guinn, when he was alive, we all said that before the last election. But I don’t think income taxes are the way to go.

As you view the action in Carson City, what irritates you?

The late Bill Raggio was my friendly adversary, and before he passed away, he said that compromise is not a dirty word. I always respected and appreciated Bill. We didn’t always agree—we had different opinions, we fought like crazy. But we knew, from beginning to end, that we were going to find some middle ground. The tragedy is that I’m not sure that that’s the case any longer, not only in Nevada, but nationally.

Term limits are a hot topic these days up in Carson City, as some believe the lack of continuity in the Legislature creates gridlock. Where do you stand?

I don’t object to having a term limit for governor and some of the constitutional offices. But I don’t think term limits are advantageous in our Legislature or especially in our [U.S.] Congress, because the smaller areas—whether it’s us as a state dealing with Congress or smaller jurisdictional components of Nevada—can best be represented by somebody having some longevity.

Term limits are there because people feel that they can’t remove politicians who’ve been there for a long time. Well, that’s what the votes are for.

Your son, Ross, has been Nevada’s secretary of state since 2007. If he were to decide to run for governor, what’s the first piece of advice you’d give him?

[Pause.] He knows what it’s like. He’s lived around me and seen the upsides and the downsides, and he very much goes into everything with his eyes wide open. So I try not to interfere one way or the other. I’m flattered that he occasionally uses me as a sounding board.
I told him at the beginning that I wouldn’t encourage or discourage him from seeking public office. I’m pleased that a person like him would choose public service, because he is a person who cares, he is a person who works very hard, he’s honest and he does what he thinks is right. And those are the kind of people I like to see in public office.

If you had a chance to be governor for a day one last time, what’s your first order of business?

To extend the number of days that I was allowed to be governor [laughs], so that I could actually accomplish something.

It’s been nearly 15 years since you left the governor’s mansion. Seem like it’s been that long?

Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. When I look at the calendar I realize it’s been that long, but my recollection doesn’t seem to jibe with the calendar. I’ve kept busy doing myriad things, which is consistent with being governor—when you’re governor, you have many different things on your plate. … I’m not a person to sit by idly. I don’t even envision myself retiring—although maybe I won’t have the opportunities to do anything except retire. It’s not in my immediate plans, anyhow.

What do you miss most about the job, and on the flip side, what’s the one political chore you’re happy is forever in your rearview mirror?

What I really enjoyed the most was the opportunity to interact with people. I was very careful to make sure that the security detail—which wasn’t always there anyhow, but when they were there—to stay away from me so that people realized they could come up and talk to me. Especially people who move here from other jurisdictions where it’s not common to have access to your governor. That’s not the person I am or the persona I wanted to present.

I don’t miss the negative components of campaigning, which seemed to characterize all of my elections and seem to be common in [all] elections nowadays.

What’s a regular day in your life? Do you do the grocery shopping, pull weeds in the yard, take the grandkids to Little League practice?

I do a little bit of all of the above. My grandkids are actually with me right now, by coincidence. I try to spend time with them, although all the grandkids live elsewhere. My son Ross’ children live in Reno, and my daughter Corrine had twins in January, and they live in Brooklyn. My wife [Sandy] does the majority of the grocery shopping, but it’s not unheard of for me to do it—and it wasn’t unheard of for me to go to the grocery store when I was governor.

We enjoy movies, we enjoy being at home relaxing and I frustrate myself on the golf course periodically. But I basically work a standard workweek.

As Nevada’s governor, you’re essentially required to protect and defend gaming interests, yet you seem to have a reverence for the industry that rises above that obligation—even though you’ve never been a gambler yourself. Why is that?

It’s the primary industry in our state. I grew up around it. I knew some of the people like my dad—his contemporaries, the early founders. I’ve grown to know and respect the people who have succeeded them. I’ve seen the transition. I think it’s a fascinating industry. Initially when I was in public office, it was not held in the highest regard and people would scorn the concept of gaming or Nevada in general. But that’s come full cycle, and almost every place has gaming now, and they all recognize it as an enterprise or an industry that’s a clean industry that helps economies.

As you got older, did you end up defying your father and pressing your luck in a casino?

No, I’m not much of a gambler. I do my gambling on elections. Occasionally I’ll play the slot machines or video poker … but I don’t use gaming as a recreation. I understand the concept that these hotels weren’t built by people winning all the money in casinos.

What would your dad have thought to know that his son was the governor?

He didn’t smile a lot, but he might’ve broken out into a big grin. It would’ve been beyond his imagination, I suspect. Before he died, we were discussing the concept that I might be able to get a justice of the peace appointment. It occurred after he died, but he died with the knowledge that possibly I was going to be appointed justice of the peace, and I think that would’ve been so pleasing to him as a culmination of the effort he put forward to make sure I had an appropriate education. But going beyond that to the other things that occurred, I don’t think he could’ve envisioned that any more than he could’ve envisioned what Las Vegas looks like today.

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith recently criticized the way in which you portrayed your father’s past in the book, admitting you had every right to structure the memoir the way you wanted, but claiming you weren’t as forthcoming as you could’ve been. What was your reaction to his criticism?

I didn’t shy away from anything. Anybody who reads that book can clearly see that I laid things out on the table. I started the book with a traumatic situation with one of my dad’s associates. I didn’t hide from anything. So I’m not going to characterize his column more than that.

We talked to Governor Bryan earlier this year, and he said when he was in office, everyone was under strict orders not to touch the governor’s cupcakes. What was your go-to vice in office?

I’ve always had a sweet tooth, so there was always some candy around the house. Independent of that, in a different context, I jealously protected some time to just be me, which usually revolved around playing basketball whenever the opportunity presented itself. [But] that time that I set aside to give myself some stress relief was always the time that everybody else wanted me to do something else. [Laughs.]

Is basketball still your sport of choice?

It would be, except my hip left the world several years ago. The doctor told me I played too much basketball, and I told him that that couldn’t be the cause of [my hip problems] because I never left the ground. But when my hip left the world, so did my basketball shoes.

What’s been the most enjoyable part of the last 14 years of civilian life?

Having more time with my family—especially now that I have grandkids. We get together as a family usually sometime in the summer. My youngest [daughter, Megan] is 12 years younger than her sister and 14 years younger than her brother, because we flunked Planned Parenthood. And she’s just starting law school, so she was around a lot when her brother and sister were off to college and getting married.

How challenging was it to be governor at a time when you were also trying to raise your family?

Sandy and I worked very hard at trying to maintain some semblance of a normal family life for our children. We used to kiddingly call it tag-team custody. We would try to make sure one of us was going to be home each night at the mansion in Carson, even though the other might be in Vegas or Elko or wherever. It was a challenge. I used to drive the schools crazy, because I would constantly call to get Ross’ basketball and other activities schedules and Corrine’s music or softball or whatever she was doing, so that I could block them out well in advance so that I wasn’t canceling something to go to their events. It took a lot of effort, but because of that I was able to go to a lot of their normal activities.

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