Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2015

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Brash move took longtime GOP leader Bill Raggio ‘by surprise’

Careful conservative McGinness threw caution to wind by deposing longtime ally Raggio — and earned ‘Brutus’ label



New state Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness, shown in 2007 with former Sen. Mark Amodei, seized Sen. Bill Raggio’s long-held post.

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Bill Raggio

Bill Raggio

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Trying to pinpoint a dramatic and telling moment in Sen. Mike McGinness’ lengthy legislative career — a remarkable maneuver, key orchestration of a difficult policy issue, anything that hints he has the skill and political ambition to be the Republican state Senate leader — is difficult.

That’s not to say McGinness’ career lacks distinction.

But McGinness, known as a level-headed, pragmatic conservative with a dry wit and quiet demeanor, seemed an unlikely figure to oust the Senate Republicans’ iconic leader of nearly three decades, Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno.

Yet in a deft play, McGinness this month quickly swept up a majority of votes in a Republican caucus primed to replace Raggio as the Senate minority leader.

“I think I took him by surprise,” McGinness said. “Maybe I misjudged him. But I was surprised he didn’t hear it coming from someplace else.

“I had talked to some people about whether I should do this. The easiest thing would have been not to do it.”

McGinness’ ouster of Raggio, to this point, may be the defining moment of his political career. The longest serving Senate Republican after Raggio had the seniority and the will to grab a position no other ranking member of the caucus expressed an interest in.

But the true test of the veteran lawmaker’s skill will be the upcoming legislative session, which is expected to feature one murderous struggle after another on taxes, reapportionment, public employee benefits and other simmering issues.

Exactly how McGinness will lead the Republican minority, newly relevant with an additional member and a popular Republican in the Governor’s Mansion, through those skirmishes is a significant variable in predicting what the upcoming session will bring. Especially considering McGinness will remain in the shadow of Raggio, who is expected to maintain a powerful negotiating position because of his deal-making ability and sway over more centrist Republicans.

McGinness is “a thoughtful, almost to the point of cautious leader,” veteran lobbyist Pete Ernaut said. “He’s going to be an even hand and not prone to leaping to one extreme or another.”

Unlike Raggio, McGinness’ political strength doesn’t come from Nevada’s traditional power structure of gaming and business lobbyists. Instead, he’s the product of the at-times arcane world of county party politics who has cultivated a rural base of grass-roots Republicans.

During legislative sessions — he has been a lawmaker for 22 years — he is rarely found at the after-hour cocktail parties and Carson City night life scene populated by Las Vegas legislators.

Instead, he’s back home in Fallon, where he was born and raised, working at the tiny radio station that he manages with his high-school sweetheart turned wife, Dee Pearce. (The station, built by his wife’s family in the 1950s, boasts a collection of vinyl that spans decades and includes titles from some of the greatest rock ’n’ roll and country artists.)

As station manager, McGinness became a community leader. He served as president of the local chamber of commerce and became an integral part of the Churchill County Republican Party.

He got his start politically on the Churchill County School Board, where as chairman he presided during a divisive community debate over a state mandate to teach sex education.

“This is a very conservative community,” he said. “I had people coming to my door at 10 o’clock at night, with their kids.”

He emerged from that episode firmly opposed to state education mandates and with an enhanced ability to listen to both sides and make a decision. It’s a practice he has tried to use at the Legislature, with varying degrees of success.

In 2003, McGinness chaired the Senate Taxation Committee, helming the debate over former-Gov. Kenny Guinn’s proposed tax increase. McGinness was instrumental in killing the centerpiece of Guinn’s proposal, the gross receipts tax. His committee passed a much smaller tax package, which ultimately was rejected by the Legislature.

But in the bloody days of the two special sessions that followed the tax stalemate, McGinness’ committee was never able to piece together a compromise package. The task eventually fell to the Committee of the Whole (the entire Senate), chaired by Raggio.

Closing the deal has been Raggio’s franchise. He is a master negotiator. And he hasn’t been afraid of twisting arms when it comes time to herd his recalcitrant caucus behind a bill.

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Senate Minority Leader Mike McGinness is shown in November 2010 outside the small Fallon radio station he manages with his wife, Dee Pearce.

Some of that arm-twisting may have left bad blood between McGinness and Raggio despite their continued respect for each other.

In 2003, McGinness eventually supported the tax increase. In 2009, he refused to support a tax hike, citing concerns about the economic effects, despite “considerable pressure” from Raggio to change his mind.

“I know he does feel we left him out on that limb,” McGinness said of Raggio’s support of last year’s tax increases. “But … he knew at the beginning I wasn’t going to vote for taxes.”

McGinness described the conversation in which he informed Raggio that he was poised to take the leadership position as one of the most difficult of his life.

“I went to Sen. Raggio the day before (the official caucus vote) because I thought the honorable thing to do was to tell him I was going to do this,” McGinness said. “It was not a fun time. It was kind of like taking your dad’s keys away and telling him he can’t drive anymore.

“Sen. Raggio has been very supportive of me over the years and all of my campaigns. So it was very difficult.”

But McGinness, reflecting the county party politics that shaped him, agreed with Republicans on rural county central committees that Raggio’s support for Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s re-election should disqualify him from continuing as leader of Senate Republicans.

McGinness also thought Raggio would become a lightning rod for party angst in the upcoming tax debate.

“I thought it was the right thing for the caucus and for the party,” he said of his decision to seek the leadership post.

McGinness has been called the Brutus of the caucus by some political operatives and Raggio allies. He did, after all, oust Raggio before the final session of a storied career that will end in 2012 because of term limits.

“I can’t believe they are doing this to him,” said one lobbyist the morning of the caucus vote. “It’s just disrespectful.”

Raggio, himself, took the news personally, McGinness said.

“He told me this is very personal,” McGinness said. “I said, ‘No, it’s politics.’ But he just said it was like a slap in the face.”

To Republican voters in Churchill County and elsewhere, McGinness is a near hero.

“Grass-roots Republicans sent a message and Mike McGinness received that message and took the necessary steps to make that happen,” said James Smack, chairman of the Churchill County Republicans. “For that, I applaud Sen. McGinness.”

It remains to be seen, however, how McGinness will manage the infernos sure to erupt in next year’s legislative session and how Republicans will view his ability to deliver in those situations.

McGinness’ conservatism likely matches his caucus’s politics more than Raggio’s. But he’s not an intractable ideologue.

McGinness favors abortion rights and was a key swing vote in the passage of the domestic partners law in 2009. And he heads into this session without the rigid stance against taxes that he brought to the last session.

McGinness said he’s not convinced Gov.-elect Brian Sandoval can deliver a budget based on 2007 revenue levels without substantially harming essential services.

He said he’s willing to consider lifting the sunset on some of the 2009 tax increases to ensure enough revenue flows into state coffers over the next two years. And if that’s the case, McGinness could quickly find himself at odds with the caucus that helped him force out Raggio.

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