The Irony Watch

The week that former Nevada Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich died, Sen. Dean Heller did a lot of tap-dancing. The irony should not go unnoted.

Bipartisan Dean voted to allow debate on the immigration bill the U.S. Senate’s “Gang of Eight” produced. He also said, “While this is a promising piece of legislation, there are certain areas of the bill that must be addressed.” He promised amendments to the promising bill but said nothing about what they would be. Whatever they are, no doubt they will be designed to increase the 35 percent of the Hispanic vote that he got in 2012.

He also said in a recent discussion of rural Nevada issues that he opposed the background check bill because “I really wanted the onus of this legislation to fall upon those that they were trying to limit, those who have committed felonies and had adjudicated mental health issues and not on law abiding citizens.” Yet he previous said he opposed it because it would end up creating a national registry, which it wouldn’t do.

And he said that Congress needs to “produce a budget. I think it’s the core responsibility in Congress.” And why is it a “core responsibility?” So that “small business owners know what their tax structure is going to look like.” Well, heaven knows, there’s no better reason to pass a budget.

All of which got me thinking more about Vucanovich, who represented northern Nevada in the House from 1983 to 1997. She was the first woman from Nevada in Congress (except for the two years after her retirement, there has been at least one woman from Nevada in the House since the state got a second House seat in 1982—a cheering statistic). She was the first Nevadan to rise to the House leadership, serving as secretary of the GOP conference after her party took over the lower chamber in 1995.

Vucanovich represented the “Republican” part of the state. She had a couple of tough elections against Democrats from the Reno-Sparks area. Her first was against Mary Gojack, a former assemblywoman who was liberal with a capital L, and later Pete Sferrazza, the mayor of Reno. But she won handily each time.

It’s interesting to ponder that in 1992, when Ross Perot, the interesting billionaire from Texas, and some other Perotbots were on the ballot, she had one of her smallest margins of victory over Sferrazza. She won about 48 percent of the vote. Dan Hansen, the candidate for the Independent American party, which he founded and his family generally runs, got 13,285—about 5 percent of the vote.

Independent American party members tend to be a bit, shall we say, right-wing. About 5 percent of northern and rural Nevadans found them more acceptable than Vucanovich. What if all of them had decided to “teach her a lesson” and vote against her because she was too liberal for them? Sferrazza would have won, which would have been counterproductive to their beliefs, but when has that stopped silliness before?

What was Vucanovich’s response? She wrote in her autobiography that “some in the press claimed” her lower vote total “was an indication of vulnerability. I attributed it to the fact that there were five people on the ballot …. I think some of that voter dissatisfaction with the political establishment spilled over into my race and made it closer than it probably would have been without Perot on the ballot.”

Then she went back to Washington and kept doing what she always had done. She fought federal spending, except where it benefited her district—as members of Congress have done since … well, since 1789, when the first Congress met. And she cruised to reelection in 1994.

Much of Vucanovich’s old district voted to elect Heller to the House in 2006. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall that Vucanovich ever refused to take a position, or claimed that a bill said what it did not say. In other words, she didn’t trim her sails. Whether or not you agreed with her, you had to admire her commitment to principle, even when it began to look like it might hurt her politically. She stayed the way she was. Indeed, she couldn’t be any other way.