Las Vegas Sun

November 14, 2018

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Former governor Grant Sawyer, 77, dies

Grant Sawyer, who as a two-term Nevada governor championed civil rights and took decisive action to purge the gaming industry of mob influence, has died. He was 77.

Sawyer, the state's 21st governor, a Democrat, died late Monday at a Las Vegas rehabilitation center from complications of a stroke suffered in July 1993. His wife, Bette, and daughter, Gail, were at his side.

A 27-year resident of Las Vegas and a Nevadan since young adulthood, Sawyer served as governor from 1958 to 1966. He was an advocate for education, the environment and economic diversification.

Services are pending.

"Grant Sawyer had the foresight and intelligence needed to reorganize government and meet the challenges of the 1950s and '60s," said former two-term Gov. Mike O'Callaghan.

"He was always a step ahead of other people when facing and solving racial and economic problems. He picked his staff and cabinet carefully and then supported the decisions they made. It was a pleasure to work in his administration."

O'Callaghan, executive editor of the SUN, was Sawyer's first director of human resources -- then called the Department of Health and Welfare. Under Sawyer's guidance, O'Callaghan took seven departments and made them into one.

Among his many accomplishments, Sawyer:

* Created the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and pushed through the state's civil rights law.

* Established in 1959 a state regulatory system for gaming, the framework of which is used today for the Nevada Gaming Commission.

* Co-founded Lionel Sawyer & Collins, the state's largest law firm.

"Gov. Sawyer brought Nevada into the modern era," said Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., who was informed of Sawyer's death at McCarran International Airport moments before taking a flight to Reno this morning.

"Before his time, Nevada was known as the 'Mississippi of the West,'" Bryan said. "Just as President Kennedy served as a role model for a young generation of Americans wanting to get involved in change, Grant Sawyer served as that role model to Nevadans. He defined the modern governership in Nevada."

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who arrived in Washington from Las Vegas early today, said Sawyer "always made himself available to those of us with political aspirations."

"From his busy law office he would look out at the huge panorama of the city and talk about anything that had to do with politics -- campaigns, problems, recruiting other candidates. ..."

Reid said Sawyer's speaking voice was envied by office-seekers of his era.

"He had a great speaking voice -- nice, deep and rich," Reid said. "He could have been a TV or radio announcer or newscaster."

Sawyer had a life-long passion for politics and, in his memoir, "Hang Tough," he wrote:

"I was always running for something -- from student election campaigns in junior high school through my unsuccessful try for a third term as Nevada's governor. ... If there is a political gene, I carry it."

Although Sawyer did not seek office after 1967, he kept a hand in local, state and national politics, holding key positions in the campaigns of Democratic presidential candidates and attending national party conventions as a delegate.

In announcing his death today, Robert Faiss, Sawyer's law partner and executive assistant when he was governor, said: "This is a sad day for anyone who cares about Nevada because Grant Sawyer was so much a part of our history."

Attorney Ralph Denton of Boulder City, Sawyer's former campaign director and friend of 49 years, said: "The people of Nevada have lost a great leader and a hero our youth could admire."

Sawyer's liberal political philosophy, though mainstream by today's standards, was considered radical for the years he served in the Governor's Mansion.

He fought to pass a civil rights bill at a time when blacks and other minorities were not allowed as guests in Las Vegas resorts.

In his book, Sawyer downplays his accomplishment and credits the state's black leaders of the time for their persistence in getting the measure passed.

"Even though I was highly motivated to extend civil rights to Nevada's black citizens, without constant urging from people who were directly involved in the movement I might not have been as committed as I was to advancing the cause," Sawyer wrote.

"Their initiative, energy and resolve enabled us to introduce and pass civil rights legislation before Congress or Jack Kennedy had taken any position on the issue -- putting Nevada in the forefront of a social reform issue on which it had long trailed the nation."

And Sawyer didn't care how big a person was in the public's eyes when it came to standing up against what he perceived as a wrong. A case in point was popular entertainer Frank Sinatra.

When it was learned that Sam Giancana, a reputed mobster of the 1950s, had stayed at a Northern Nevada hotel where Sinatra held a gaming license, Sawyer told gaming regulators to show no favoritism toward the beloved crooner.

As a result, Sinatra surrendered gaming licenses for that resort and one in Las Vegas to avoid a showdown with regulators.

In his memoir, Sawyer remembered Sinatra as "a very abusive guy under any circumstances."

"My experience with him has been that he sets his own rules. ... He has violated laws with impunity and bought his way out of most problems if he could. ... Sinatra has spent a lot of years trying to get even (with me)."

In the late 1980s Sawyer took up the fight to halt a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. To that end, he served as chairman of the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects from 1985-95.

"Although he had been out of office for 29 years, he continued his love affair with Nevada and Nevadans by fighting to keep the nation's nuclear waste from being dumped on them," O'Callaghan said.

Born Dec. 14, 1918, in Twin Falls, Idaho, to Dr. Harry Sawyer and Bula (nee Cameron), Sawyer was the youngest of three boys. His parents divorced when he was 3. Sawyer's father was a Fallon physician and state senator from Churchill County.

Sawyer went to public school in Twin Falls and attended Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., for two years before transferring to the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was elected president of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.

Sawyer graduated from UNR in 1941 and attended George Washington School of Law in Washington, D.C.

His education was interrupted by military service in World War II. Sawyer enlisted as a private in the Army infantry and quickly rose to technical sergeant before being selected for officer's training school.

Sawyer graduated in 1944 at the rank of second lieutenant and saw action in the Philippines, where he helped set up an administration for the new Philippines Republic.

After the war, Sawyer married Bette Noren Hoge of Reno in 1946. They had one daughter, Gail, who today is a Las Vegas businesswoman.

In 1946, Sawyer attended from George Washington University and a year later graduated from Georgetown University.

The Sawyers settled in Elko in 1948, where he was active in numerous civil organizations.

Sawyer was elected district attorney in 1950, a position he held for eight years. During that time, he served as president of the Elko County Bar Association and the state District Attorneys Association.

Sawyer was named chairman of the state Democratic Central Committee in 1955 and first served as a delegate to the national convention in 1956. Sawyer also served on the University of Nevada Board of Regents from 1957-58.

At age 39, Sawyer was given the Democratic nomination for governor and in 1958 became the youngest man ever elected to the post. He also won by the largest margin of victory recorded to that point -- 50,864 votes to 34,025 over then-Gov. Charles Russell, who was seeking a third term.

During his first term, Sawyer served on the National Governors Conference state planning committee, where he worked to formulate federal and state cooperation in developing natural resources.

In November 1962, Sawyer won re-election with 67 percent of the vote, defeating Republican challenger Oran Gragson, with 64,784 votes to 32,145.

In October 1966, 11 months prior to his third gubernatorial race, Sawyer admitted he was an underdog, and told reporters there "is a very good chance" he would lose to then-Lt. Gov. Paul Laxalt, the Republican candidate.

Following a tough campaign, Sawyer lost to future U.S. Sen. Laxalt by 71,807 votes to 65,870.

During that campaign, then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover aligned himself with Laxalt and feuded with Sawyer, which historians say contributed heavily to Sawyer's defeat.

Several years earlier, Sawyer had strongly criticized Hoover for deploying scores of federal agents and tax investigators to Las Vegas in what was viewed as an attempt to harass Nevada's legal gaming industry.

In February 1967, Sawyer announced he would form a law partnership with Las Vegas attorney Samuel Lionel. The announcement brought an end to speculation about where Sawyer would reside after leaving office and dispelled rumors that he would seek employment in the Johnson administration.

Today, the firm employs 70 attorneys and has offices in Las Vegas and Reno. Sawyer headed the firm's international gaming law practices.

Among the many gaming industry clients Sawyer represented over the years: Caesars Palace, the Tropicana, Dunes, Riviera, Circus Circus and Hilton hotel-casinos and Del Webb.

He also was active in the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In May 1967, Sawyer was named general counsel and consultant to the Education Commission of the States. A year later he helped write the minority anti-Vietnam War plank at the Democratic Convention in Chicago.

In December 1971, Sawyer was named general counsel for the Heart Fund Campaign in Nevada. Ironically, he would undergo open-heart surgery nine years later. Sawyer was a heavy cigarette smoker.

In 1974, Sawyer rejected strong pleas from state Democratic Party leaders to seek Nevada's U.S. Senate seat.

Sawyer was hospitalized in December 1979 and spent a weekend in the coronary care unit. He was hospitalized again in June 1987 for what was believed to be a case of the flu.

A year later, Sawyer served as chairman of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis' executive committee in Nevada.

Sawyer was a charter inductee into the Gaming Hall of Fame of the World Gaming Congress in 1989.

In 1991, Sawyer was elected to the board of directors of the National Judicial College in Reno and a year later was inducted into the state's gaming hall of fame.

Buildings that bear his name include the Sawyer State Office Building and Sawyer Middle School in Las Vegas and the Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies at UNR.

He also has received special awards from the Clark County Bar Association and the Clark County Pro Bono Project. He was a member of the National Advisory Council of the ACLU.

"Hang Tough," published in 1993 by the UNR Oral History Program, was culled from 32 hours of taped conversations with Sawyer.

In his memoir, Sawyer said today's political leaders have it much tougher than he did because they are under a much more intense light of public scrutiny.

"Although I used to feel sorry for myself when the press and special interests were after me, things are much worse for elected officials now," he wrote. "I don't envy any of these folks who wake up every morning to open a newspaper and read what is being said about them today."

In addition to his wife and daughter, Sawyer is survived by a brother, Harry Sawyer Jr. of Burlingame, Calif., four nephews and a niece.