Las Vegas Sun

November 16, 2018

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Old power meets new power in Nevada politics

No one has ever stood outside Dini's Lucky Club in Yerington and watched a man-made volcano erupt.

By the same token, not many gamblers have arrived at The Mirage in Las Vegas on a tractor.

Dini's Lucky Club and The Mirage, as different as they are in size and geographic location, reflect Nevada's past and future.

The Lucky Club, located on the main drag in a ranching community southeast of Reno, represents old-time Nevada. Its owner, Joe Dini, who has been Assembly speaker longer than anyone, has been known to serve breakfast to the ranch hands who crowd into the coffee shop each morning when it opens at 6:30 a.m.

The Mirage, whose 1989 opening sparked a construction boom on the Strip, is a symbol of Nevada's future. The chairman of Mirage Resorts Inc., Steve Wynn, spends less time waiting tables in coffee shops than he does hobnobbing with President Clinton and Republican challenger Bob Dole.

These two gaming executives, Dini and Wynn, are as different in style as their casinos are in glamour.

But they share an important similarity: Each is among the top 10 most influential Nevadans, according to respondents to a Las Vegas SUN survey.

Gov. Bob Miller topped the tally. A former Clark County district attorney who has developed statewide popularity, Miller garnered four times more first-place votes than all others combined.

Miller ranked first on all the ballots except four. Wynn, state Sen. Bill Raggio and former Gov. Mike O'Callaghan also got first-place votes.

The 1996 list, with Wynn placing second and Dini tenth, illustrates how Nevada's power structure may be undergoing permanent change.

Some observers believe the list is evidence that the North is losing political clout, while the South is gaining.

One reason for the change is population growth. Clark County has 65.5 percent of the state's population and is continuing to grow at a rate of roughly 5,000 people each month.

Each person on the SUN list is associated with Southern Nevada, except Dini and Raggio, a Reno Republican who serves as Senate majority leader and is also chairman of the committee that helps determine where state money is spent.

However, their careers may be on the wane. Both are in their late 60s and are contemplating retirement.

"There is a massive power shift to Southern Nevada," said Eric Herzik, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nevada, Reno. "Four years from now, Dini and Raggio won't be on the list."

Even Harvey Whittemore, a lobbyist who lives in Sparks, is a Southern Nevadan by trade. He and the other two lobbyists on the list, Billy Vassiliadis and Richard Bunker, represent the Nevada Resort Association, comprised mostly of Las Vegas resorts.

"If the Capitol moved to Las Vegas, Harvey would move to Las Vegas," Herzik said.

A list compiled in 1984 by the Reno Gazette-Journal dramatizes the power shift.

Steve Wynn, arguably the most influential casino executive since Howard Hughes in the '60s, was not among the top 10 in 1984.

Twelve years ago, the most powerful Nevadan, according to those who responded to the Gazette-Journal survey, was Paul Laxalt, a Carson City lawyer who became governor and U.S. senator.

Back then, Laxalt, whose friendship with President Ronald Reagan boosted his stature, was the dominant force in Nevada politics. In a story that accompanied the list, the Gazette-Journal said, "There are many who believe he's the most towering figure in Nevada history."

Today that seems outdated, as does much of the 1984 list.

Many from then have died -- Hank Greenspun, Jim Gibson, Jim Joyce, Grant Sawyer -- and some, such as Laxalt and advertising executive Sig Rogich, who built careers in Washington, D.C., moved on to other things, away from the governmental sphere whose center of influence is Carson City, the state capital.

As with the Gazette-Journal list, the SUN top 10 was decided upon not by reporters and editors, but by readers, who, it was hoped, would add insight and realism.

In the spring, the SUN, assuring anonymity, polled 40 influential Nevadans believed to have an understanding, through their professions, of which people actually call the shots.

Those whom the SUN surveyed -- not all of them replied -- represent a cross section of gender, political affiliation, race and age. Nevadans from the Northern, Southern and rural sections of the state participated.

The flaw in top 10 lists like those compiled by the Gazette-Journal and SUN is that the respondents work in related fields.

"These people vote for themselves," said Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones.

Also, respondents often overlook influential women and minorities, who have been excluded from the white male power structure that dominates politics in most states, including Nevada.

Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa came closer than any other woman to making the top 10. Dini nudged her out by a single vote.

"The power in Nevada is held so tightly in a few hands," Jones said. "It's time for this state to grow up."

The second 10 indicates that Jones and others may be making in-roads. She and Del Papa are in the second 10, as is a labor leader, John Wilhelm. However, the other eight are linked to gaming management or represent Southern Nevada's male power network, which often are the same.

In order, the second 10 are: Del Papa; Las Vegas gaming attorney Frank Schreck; Circus Circus Enterprises Vice President Mike Sloan; Clark County Aviation Director Bob Broadbent; Las Vegas gaming attorney Bob Faiss; retired businessman Kenny Guinn, a Republican candidate for governor in 1998; Gaming Control Board Chairman Bill Bible; Jones; Circus Circus Chief Operating Officer Mike Ensign, father of Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev.; and Wilhelm, Western regional director of the international Culinary Union.

Here's a look at the top 10:

No. 1: Bob Miller

Miller's rise began in 1989, when he moved up from lieutenant governor to finish the last two years of Gov. Richard Bryan's term. Bryan had been elected to the U.S. Senate.

By the time he leaves office in 1998, Miller will have served longer than any governor.

The 51-year-old Miller, a Democrat and the son of a Las Vegas gaming pioneer, says he's "flattered" to be at the top of the list.

According to Herzik, Miller should enjoy that feeling while he can. Herzik predicts Miller won't make anybody's list in two years.

The reason: Miller has nowhere to go politically in Nevada. As a Democrat, he will be in no position to challenge Bryan or Sen. Harry Reid, whom he counts as friends.

For now, however, Miller's influence extends beyond Nevada. He has become friends with Clinton, which has led to speculation Miller may seek a Cabinet post if Clinton wins re-election. That would keep him in the public spotlight, at least nationally.

In August, Miller becomes president of the National Governors Association. He and Grant Sawyer are the only Nevada governors to hold that post.

Closer to home, Miller's detractors say his agenda has been dictated by special interests, including the state teachers' union and the gaming industry. Gaming lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis, who also worked for the state teachers' association, ran Miller's 1994 re-election campaign.

Proponents say Miller has provided steady leadership, as evidenced during a state budget crisis in 1991, when he imposed a state hiring freeze rather than raise taxes.

No. 2: Steve Wynn

With 18,000 people working for him, including some who oversee a personal political operation that conducts polling, Wynn is the state's largest employer. He is also one of the biggest campaign contributors.

Some observers say the Mirage Resorts chairman has not been afraid to exert influence on politicians who go to him for support. For example, he persuaded the Las Vegas City Council to close a section of Carson Avenue so he could expand the Golden Nugget.

His friends note that he gives generously to community fund-raising drives that benefit schoolchildren and the needy. Wynn, who has a degenerative eye disorder, retinitis pigmentosa, also contributes to a university eye center in Utah.

Meanwhile, Wynn, 54, has become more active in national politics.

He helped raise almost $500,000 for Dole in 1995, but with recent polls showing Dole trailing by 20 points, Wynn has begun warming up to Clinton.

Late last month, he played golf with Clinton, and last week, he and his wife, Elaine, were among those paying at least $25,000 a couple to attend a Las Vegas luncheon with Clinton.

No. 3: Bill Raggio

A 69-year-old former Washoe County district attorney, Raggio is known for his wry sense of humor and his diligent defense of Washoe County.

As part of his schtick, Raggio tags every new, unsuspecting legislator for a $20 loan that he never pays back.

In his role as Senate Finance Committee chairman, Raggio, a Republican, is not so stingy with his Reno constituency. His detractors say it's no accident that Washoe County, with only 18.6 percent of the population, received 57 percent of the money in 1995 for projects on the UNR campus.

Many believe 1997 will be his last legislative session. If it is, his retirement will signal a shift in power to the South, Herzik says, because Clark County, which has more senators than any other area, will elect one of its own as majority leader.

No. 4: Harry Reid

The 56-year-old Searchlight native, serving in his second term, is regarded by his colleagues as a less-than-dynamic speaker but an honest straight-shooter. That reputation has helped elevate him to positions of authority within his party, including co-chairmanship of the Democratic Policy Committee.

Reid, who served two terms in the House before being elected to the Senate in 1986, is known as a defender of Nevada's interests, especially gaming.

He and Bryan recently tried to prevent Congress from creating a national gaming commission that would have the authority to pry into casino records, which the industry opposes.

They were unsuccessful in killing the legislation, but they helped forge a compromise that restricts the panel's subpoena powers.

Reid is a former lieutenant governor and Nevada Gaming Commission chairman.

No. 5: Richard Bunker

Bunker, a descendent of one of Las Vegas' oldest families, has been president of the Nevada Resort Association, the political arm of the gaming industry, since 1990.

Some legislators say Bunker, whose quiet but effective presence has been likened to a Stealth fighter, is more persuasive when he is paired with a forceful colleague, such as Whittemore or the late Jim Joyce.

A former State Gaming Control Board chairman, Bunker, 62, also serves on the board of the international Culinary Union's health and welfare fund.

Detractors who believe growth is getting out of hand in Las Vegas criticized Miller for appointing Bunker to the Colorado River Commission, where Bunker is expected to continue as an advocate for water that will allow for casino expansion.

No. 6: Billy Vassiliadis

A 40-year-old ad executive and lobbyist, Vassiliadis rose through the ranks by running political campaigns. His clients have included former Sheriff John Moran and Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus.

A protege of political consultants Kent Oram and Sig Rogich, Vassiliadis in 1993 bought Rogich's firm, R&R Advertising, which handles ad accounts for clients such as the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and lobbies for the gaming industry, a utility company and others.

Critics say Vassiliadis is too upfront about parlaying his political connections, especially his association with Miller, into advertising and lobbying contracts.

"He's linked too closely to Miller," Herzik said. "If (Miller) disappears, he disappears."

Others say Vassiliadis, who insists he has gotten out of political consulting, will remain a force because he is effective at reading the public mood and building consensus.

No. 7: Mike O'Callaghan

Although the former two-term governor has been out of office for 18 years, O'Callaghan, a decorated Korean War veteran, remains influential because of his role as a SUN columnist and publisher of the Henderson Home News and Boulder City News.

Critics say he uses the papers to promote his friends and hurt his enemies, but others believe his journalistic voice is an extension of the populist attitude he was known for as governor.

An example of that occurred in 1989 when he led a crusade against a 300 percent pension boost lawmakers voted for themselves. O'Callaghan's persistence resulted in the repeal of the pension hike.

No. 8: Richard Bryan

A 58-year-old former state legislator, attorney general and governor, Bryan, serving in his second term, is acknowledged even by his critics as one of the state's most effective campaigners.

"If two people are standing on a street corner," one said, "Dick Bryan will shake their hands and give them a speech."

Bryan has been praised for his ardent opposition to a federal plan to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

He has also carved out a niche as a consumer advocate, having taken on utilities, hospitals and banks.

No. 9: H. Whittemore

Early in his career, Harvey Whittemore benefited by working at the law firm headed by popular former Gov. Grant Sawyer.

Over time, the 43-year-old attorney and lobbyist earned a reputation for hard work that made him influential in his own right.

"I'd put him higher on the list," Herzik said.

After Joyce's death in 1993, he became the leading lobbyist in Carson City. Among his clients are casino, beer, tobacco and mining companies.

Critics say Whittemore's list of clients creates a conflict of interest.

"He represents the teachers' union and the gaming industry," one said. "Teachers want taxes to be higher because they want bigger salaries. Casinos don't want to pay more taxes. Who's side is Harvey on?"

No. 10: Joe Dini

A 67-year-old Democrat, Dini has dominated the Assembly since 1987. During the 1995 session, he served as co-speaker because the Assembly had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

His long tenure is attributed to his ability to make deals that appease Southern lawmakers but still take care of Northern constituents, including the preservation of a historic school in his district.

His effectiveness as a legislative trader has led some to call him the Phoenician.

"I would have thought he would have been higher on the list," Bryan said.

Herzik's take is different. He says the 1997 session will be Dini's -- and Northern Nevada's -- last moment in the spotlight, unless a persuasive personality emerges.

"The only reason (Northern Nevada) can hold onto power is that they've been able to elect the same people over and over," Herzik said. "In a couple of years, the top 10 list will be different."

Herzik says the 1996 list captures a moment-in-time that years from now may seem unusual, especially with Dini and Raggio, two Northerners, ranking so high.

"It's a snapshot," he said, "not a motion picture."