Shades of Trump

Remembering Bob Stupak’s failed mayoral campaign.

Photo by Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau

Photo by Darrin Bush/Las Vegas News Bureau

Donald Trump was supposed to be running for president as a publicity stunt and ego boost. He wasn’t serious. He couldn’t win.

Well, he wasn’t, he is, and he could. For those who are properly frightened about this prospect, Nevada had a candidate who provides interesting historical parallels.

Bob Stupak loved Las Vegas and gambling and fun. He once owned a money museum and claimed you could go there to see what a $100,000 bill looked like; it turned out he had made a copy. He built Vegas World and tried to win approval to put a replica of King Kong on the side. Eventually, he started building the Stratosphere, was known for dating singer and socialite Phyllis McGuire, engaged in some helpful philanthropy and became more of a community legend.

In 1987, Stupak ran for mayor of Las Vegas. He certainly wasn’t serious. He had no chance. Bill Briare was retiring after three terms and Councilman Ron Lurie was the seemingly anointed establishment candidate. That didn’t stop County Commissioner Thalia Dondero from running, or Tom Wiesner, a former county commissioner and Republican national committeeman.

But Stupak clicked with the electorate. He talked about how he was spending his own money and that he was running because he had already accomplished everything he could want to do, how he couldn’t be bought and how he would get rid of special interests in City Hall. His idea of the arts was the Sunday comic pages. He sent fruit baskets to people and offered “stock” in “Vegas World Corporation” that could be exchanged for a prize (my family got a transistor radio that fell apart after three Dodgers broadcasts, possibly in response to how bad the Dodgers were that year). He skipped the debate, saying he bought his own television time.

Stupak led in the primary, 33-26 percent over Lurie. They went on to the general election and community leaders were worried. Briare called him “a carnival man.” Dondero deemed it “scary.” Former Governor Grant Sawyer said this wouldn’t be the best way for Las Vegas “to put its best face on.”

On Election Night, Lurie won by about 3,000 votes. Stupak got drunk and appeared to threaten a television reporter. He and his supporters hinted at funny business in the registrar of voters’ office maybe even flipping the numbers, because they felt Stupak had actually won. Their claims weren’t far-fetched.

Stupak went on to found a weekly publication, the Bullet, that did some useful muckraking, and he and two of his children later ran for office several times in similarly quixotic campaigns, including one in which his daughter ran for the City Council and didn’t know where City Hall was located. Really.

If all of this sounds a bit like Trump, well, the Stratosphere Corp. went bankrupt and Stupak had unruly hair. He also challenged Trump to play the board game he was marketing—called Trump, of course—and, upon being rejected, created his own board game, called—you guessed it—Stupak.

Another similarity: Stupak admitted that he didn’t know much about government and even wanted Lurie to remain on the City Council so that he could rely on his expertise. Trump wants Sarah Palin in his cabinet.

The Las Vegas establishment wanted nothing to do with Stupak. By contrast, recently, Charles R. Black Jr., a longtime Republican lobbyist and political operator, explained why the party “establishment” would do better with Trump than with Ted Cruz, the senator from Texas who has managed to antagonize almost everyone he works with: “You can coach Donald. If he got nominated, he’d be scared to death. That’s the point [when] he would call people in the party and say, ‘I just want to talk to you.’” How reassuring, coming from someone who worked for one noted bigot (Jesse Helms) and hired another (Lee Atwater).

The mayor of Las Vegas is a job that undeniably involves public relations, and there’s a city manager to keep the wheels turning. The mayor of Las Vegas doesn’t control nuclear codes or deal with ISIS, and Stupak actually cared about the place he wanted to hold office and didn’t preach hatred. Those are key differences, and they should be enough.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.