The Ira Hansen Controversy and Nevada’s History of Intolerance

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Many years ago, I introduced an African-American colleague to a white friend who had been a civil rights pioneer. My friend told stories that included the word nigger. I winced. Afterward, my colleague said, “The words don’t matter as much as the actions.”

I was reminded of that encounter when the controversy surrounding Republican Assemblyman Ira Hansen surfaced. A month ago, Hansen’s constituents in Sparks gave him more than 70 percent of the vote, and his colleagues elected him speaker. Then reporters started digging into Hansen’s writings for the Sparks Tribune and discovered several columns that included racist and sexist statements—and nothing about the remarks suggested Hansen didn’t mean what he said.

Naturally, in the wake of good old-fashioned reporting, Hansen claimed a media witch hunt. Meanwhile, fellow lawmakers and Governor Brian Sandoval condemned him. Under pressure, Hansen resigned as speaker-designee.

Unfortunately, Hansen’s history is also Nevada’s history: Yes, the embattled assemblyman has much to answer for, but so does the Silver State, as these examples of racial intolerance illustrate:

⇐ We recently finished celebrating our sesquicentennial and being “battle born” during the Civil War. Back then, one of the territory’s political battles pitted a judge, John North, against mining lawyer William Stewart, who in 1864 told the heavily immigrant Comstock Lode that North believed a “nigger” was as entitled to vote as “good Irish gentlemen,” adding, “I am one of those who believe that this country was made for white men.” North said most Nevadans were aghast, but he left the state and Stewart went on to five terms in the U.S. Senate. Clearly, they were less aghast than North believed.

⇐ “Progressive” has become a preferred euphemism for those scared to be called liberal—or unaware of history. Early 20th-century progressives often were racist, from Teddy Roosevelt (who believed in Anglo-Saxon superiority) to Woodrow Wilson (who ordered federal offices segregated). Back in 1912, Nevada’s leading progressive, Senator Francis Newlands, advocated repealing the 15th Amendment, which says the right to vote shall not be denied on account of race.

⇐ In the 1930s and ’40s, Las Vegans elected Ernie Cragin to three terms as mayor. Cragin’s movie theater barred black customers, and he encouraged redlining to force African-Americans to live in segregated West Las Vegas. In the 1950s, an NAACP official proclaimed this “the Mississippi of the West.” That’s not a compliment, even now.

⇐ Walter Baring served 10 terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and shifted from New Deal liberal to right-winger. In 1962, he declared his independence from the Democratic Party, calling himself a Jeffersonian states’ rights Democrat. More traditional Democrats hoped to defeat him. In 1964, he faced a primary challenge from attorney Ralph Denton, who supported the civil rights movement. Baring’s campaign distributed a flier about the “unconstitutional civil rights bill.” The flier warned that if the bill were passed, “there would be riots and unrest in this country. Congressman Baring stood for us, now let’s stand up for him.” After the riots and unrest never materialized, Nevada voters did indeed stand up for Baring: He defeated Denton by 1,500 votes and continued to oppose civil rights. And Nevadans re-elected him three more times.

⇐ As recently as 1982, Nevadans elected Republican Senator Chic Hecht, who said the United States should mind its own business regarding South Africa’s choice of government. White South Africans wanted apartheid; black South Africans wanted Nelson Mandela out of jail. Did Hecht’s stance hurt him? No.

Hansen’s supporters have pointed out that Senator Harry Reid once used the word negro. That’s true. So is this: As an attorney, Reid represented a black policeman who was denied a promotion and won the case. He’s also strongly supported voting-rights laws. And he encouraged an African-American junior senator from Illinois to run for president.

The point: Reid’s actions have spoken louder than his words. Conversely, Hansen has spoken and acted in a way that fits with too much of the ugliest part of Nevada’s history. Yet Hansen’s constituents voted for him, and his colleagues excused and endorsed him until being reminded that he had the ill grace to say in public what he has believed in private.

Nevada can live down its history. The others have to live with their consciences.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.