Cathleen Allison / AP
Published Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 | 10:02 a.m.
Updated Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 | 12:19 p.m.
Former state Sen. Bill Raggio, the longest-serving state senator in Nevada history who over his decades in legislative leadership shaped state government to be “lean but not mean,” died Thursday of a respiratory illness while traveling in Australia. He was 85.
For most of his career, Raggio, a Reno Republican, was the unequaled master of the legislative process, an adviser to governors and protector of Northern Nevada interests against the growing population and power of Las Vegas.
Raggio served 38 years in the state Senate, retiring abruptly before the 2011 Legislature. His retirement ended an era of long-serving Nevada lawmakers who built relationships over many sessions.
“I tell people we’ve been fortunate to work in the era of great statesmen,” said Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau. “With term limits, an era is ending. We’ll never again have that kind of leader.”
Raggio, first elected to the state Senate in 1972 and leader of Republicans in 1977, was a master of the legislative process to the frustration of Democrats and anti-tax Republicans.
During the 2009 session, he appeared to be in a weakened position in the state Senate. Republicans were in the minority for the first time in over a decade and the Republican governor, Jim Gibbons, was adamantly opposed to any tax increase. Raggio, however, maneuvered, ultimately allowing him to dictate the terms of what would be the final budget agreement — it included a modest, temporary tax increase to fill some holes in a recession-riddled state government. He then got a majority of his Republican colleagues in the Senate to support it.
When Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford tried to force Raggio to alter the terms of his deal — seeking higher taxes and that they be permanent — Raggio didn’t blink. It was Democrats who caved, signing on to Raggio’s deal.
While his willingness to compromise on tax increases gave him negotiating power, it also made Raggio a target of more conservative Republicans. He nearly lost his seat to former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle in 2008.
He would compare his fights with the no-taxes wing of the Republican Party during the 2000s — he called them libertarians, not Republicans — to his fights with the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was active in Republican politics and a Washoe County district attorney.
When Republican voters nominated Angle for U.S. Senate in 2010, Raggio crossed party lines and endorsed Harry Reid, arguing that the Democratic senate majority leader would better represent the state than Angle. (A strict adherent to old-fashioned manners, it rankled Raggio that Angle had never called to congratulate him for his win in the 2008 state Senate race.)
Following the Reid endorsement, state Senate Republicans ousted Raggio from his post as their leader. Although he didn't admit it publicly, he took his ouster personally. Still mentally sharp but slowed by a persistent problem with his heel, Raggio resigned his seat shortly before the session began.
Raggio was charming and had a quick wit he could deploy to win over opponents.
Former U.S. Senator and Gov. Richard Bryan remembers a trip to China with Raggio and other Nevada lawmakers in the 1970s, soon after President Richard Nixon had opened relations with the country.
As the group was touring the Great Wall, Bryan turned a corner to see large “Bryan for Attorney General” poster hanging on the ancient landmark. Raggio and other lawmakers were beside themselves with laughter.
When he wasn’t disarming his adversaries with charm, Raggio relied on grit and a steely intellect. He studied the strengths and weaknesses of allies and foes and knew how to play both.
“Anything good or bad I know about politics, I’ve learned from the senator,” said Reno Mayor Bob Cashell, a former lieutenant governor and longtime friend of Raggio.
Asked if he had ever found himself on the opposite side of an issue from Raggio, Cashell answered simply: “I knew better than that.”
Raggio’s career was storied even before he entered the Legislature.
When he was district attorney in the 1950s, he took on brothel owner Joe Conforte. Raggio made life difficult enough that Conforte sought to blackmail him with an underage consort. The plan backfired and Conforte was ultimately convicted of extortion.
With Conforte behind bars, Raggio and other county officials famously burned down Conforte's Triangle River Ranch brothel.
He was usually vague in interviews about his role in that episode. But in 2009, when a lawmaker proposed taxing brothels, he was asked about it.
“Tax them?” he said. “I burn the brothels down.”
Raggio and his wife, Dale, were on a trip to Australia when he fell ill. He died Thursday evening in a hospital in Sydney.
The Raggios were visiting Dale’s family in Australia and planned to go on a cruise with friends.
“He was very weak but he was going,” Cashell said. “People tried to talk him out of it, but he was going.”
Despite his health issues, Raggio was adamant about remaining active and outspoken. At social functions, he would often lament the division in his political party and the state Senate.
Funeral arrangements are pending. Flags at the Legislature are at half staff and will remain that way through Raggio’s funeral.
Anjeanette Damon contributed to this story.