Las Vegas Sun

October 24, 2021

Currently: 68° — Complete forecast

Former Gov. Kenny Guinn remembered as Nevada ‘statesman’

Guinn died after falling from roof of Las Vegas home

Kenny Guinn

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Gov. Kenny Guinn and his wife Dema steal a kiss during the first dance as the McGuire Sisters sing during the Governor’s Inaugural Ball at the MGM on Saturday, January 30, 1999.

Updated Thursday, July 22, 2010 | 6:47 p.m.

Kenny Guinn 1936 - 2010

Former Governor Kenny Guinn is seen as a Clark County School District Administrator in a photo circa 1967. Launch slideshow »

Kenny Guinn

If you were governor today, what would you do?

Former Gov. Kenny Guinn, who served during Nevada’s most explosive growth, leading with a pragmatic streak and fierce determination to do what was right rather than what more partisan elements in his party thought, has died.

Guinn guided Nevada from January 1999 through the end of his second term in 2006. He died this morning in Las Vegas after a fall from a roof after suffering a possible heart attack. He was 73.

Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy said Guinn was pronounced dead at 11:07 a.m. at University Medical Center. He said an examination is expected to be completed by the end of the day Friday. An official cause of death is pending and a final determination might not be known for several weeks, he said.

Guinn, a Republican, helped push through Nevada's popular Millennium Scholarship program, which made it easier for high school graduates in this state to attend Nevada colleges.

A native of Garland, Ark., Guinn served as superintendent of the Clark County School District from 1969 through 1978, when he was named an executive of Nevada Savings and Loan. In the late 1980s he was president and chairman of PriMerit Bank.

From 1988 through 1997, he held top positions at Southwest Gas, including roles as its chairman and CEO. He also served in 1994 and 1995 as interim president of UNLV.

Guinn won the first of his two terms for governor in November 1998, defeating former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones, a Democrat, with 52 percent of the vote. He then won reelection four years later, earning 68 percent of the vote in a landslide victory over Democrat Joe Neal.

During those years he saw expansive growth in the state's leading industry but also difficult episodes — the tourism downturn that followed the East Coast terrorist attacks of 2001 and a bitter fight over raising taxes during the 2003 Legislature.

After Guinn left office, he laughed about being labeled a RINO – Republican in Name Only. He pointed to conservative acts like cutting $350 million in spending when he first took office in 1999 and accomplishments like privatizing the states workers' compensation system. But he was equally proud of the Millennium Scholarship program now named after him and for the tax increase he advocated in 2003, which was then the largest in state history.

Click to enlarge photo

Kenny Guinn is seen in a 1978 photo when he was Administrative Vice President for Nevada Savings and Loan.

Stories of Guinn and his policy knowledge, particularly when it came to details of the budget, were legendary. He would be in his office on weekends crunching numbers. He would corner reporters to discuss looming unfunded liabilities in the pension system until they begged off.

Following his years in the governor's mansion, he was named to the board of MGM Mirage.

Guinn is survived by his wife, Dema, and two sons, Jeff and Steve.

'One of the best statesmen we ever had'

Political consultant Billy Vassiliadis spoke on behalf of the Guinn family this morning at UMC. Vassiliadis said Guinn was making repairs to his roof when he collapsed.

"Mrs. Guinn and the governor were probably the closest couple I've ever known," he said. "A lot of people use the words partner and best friend rather loosely, but for them it was a true partnership and friendship. She lost her best friend."

Vassiliadis said Dema found her husband this morning. She tried to resuscitate him and then called paramedics.

It was unclear what Guinn was doing on the roof, Vassiliadis said, speaking on behalf of the family. "There was a broken roof tile on the ground, so he might have been trying to fix that," he said. "He was 73 years old, still proud of his ability to fix things. He was as full of vim as ever. He prided himself on self-reliance."

He said Guinn was always committed to education, from chairing campaigns to raising money for school construction to supporting a controversial tax increase to fund education.

"Dema was telling me this morning that over the last couple of weeks he was obsessed with what's going to happen with the budget problems, the schools, the kids, teachers," Vassiliadis said. "His heart was all in every minute."

Greg Ferraro, a longtime friend and advisor for Guinn, called him "Nevada's prince."

"He answered the bell every time this state needed him," Ferraro said. "If it helped the state of Nevada, helped the community, he was always there to help lead the fight."

Metro Police said they responded to a call from Guinn's Las Vegas home at about 10:30 a.m. after the collapse.

Guinn often said he wanted his legacy to be creation of the Millennium Scholarship program for Nevada high school students.

"I believe every Nevada student who studies hard and makes good grades should be able to continue his or her education regardless of financial status," Guinn said during his 1999 State of State address, when he proposed the program.

Gov. Jim Gibbons ordered that all flags be flown at half-staff immediately at state buildings. "On behalf of all Nevadans, I extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends. Kenny Guinn was a proud Nevadan and his leadership of Nevada and many contributions to the Silver State will be remembered for many years to come."

MGM Resorts also lowered flags at its Las Vegas resorts. Company CEO Jim Murren said Guinn was "a great friend and invaluable resource for our company and community. Kenny led a life of enormous accomplishment as a trusted leader both in the private and public sectors.

Nevada Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio learned of Guinn's death after speaking with his son this morning.

"There wasn't anybody finer than him," Raggio said. Nevada has "lost probably one of the best governors we ever had. Somebody who really cared about the state and its people. He did what he thought was right. We lost probably one of the best statesmen we ever had in the state."

Click to enlarge photo

Mandalay Bay Resort Group executive Mike Sloan, left, is greeted by Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn as he makes his way to the podium before his Yucca Mountain veto speech Monday, April 8, 2002 at UNLV.

Guinn acted as interim president of UNLV in 1994 and 1995. He also served as a UNLV board member, chairman of the UNLV Foundation Board of Trustees and a trustee emeritus of the UNLV Foundation, which is the university's fundraising arm.

UNLV President Neal Smatresk said Guinn would be remembered as a champion of education in Nevada.

"Governor Guinn led UNLV through a phase of our history that initiated our transformation into a major research university," he said. "He also served on our Foundation Board and thus was critical to our growth. His pivotal role in creating the Millennium Scholarship afforded access to thousands of Nevada students to quality higher education, and I believe that we can best honor his memory by taking steps to preserve and build on those achievements."

In Carson City, Guinn was known for both his wonkish knowledge of budget and policy details and his personable style, embodied by his pop-ins at watering holes to drink a Bud Light.

In 1999, during his first legislative session, he broke the unwritten code of staying at arms length from the legislative building, said Lorne Malkowich, head of the Legislative Council Bureau.

Guinn would read something in the newspaper or see something on television and walk across the the campus from the Capitol to the legislative building, with his staff a few dozen yards behind struggling to catch up, Malkowich said.

He'd belly up to the bar at the high-class Adele's or the gritty Old Globe.

In conversations after he left office, he relished recalling the look of astonishment as fellow drinkers realized the governor of the state was sharing a beer with them.

"People would always approach and feel connected to him. He was the governor. But it was just 'Kenny,'" Vassiliadis, the political consultant and family friend, said. "He was talking to people, laughing with people."

Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton issued a statement saying Guinn's efforts brought notable improvements to Nevada.

"Kenny’s passing is proof that fate is neither just nor kind. However, when Kenny’s history is written, it will have to include that he left the world a better place than he found it, especially for those of us who knew and loved him," he said. "He was a great friend, family man and public servant. We embrace Dema and his two sons. He will be missed."

Washington leaders remember Guinn's devotion

Click to enlarge photo

From left, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Governor Kenny Guinn and Congresswoman Shelley Berkley look out over the Las Vegas valley from a Nevada Air National Guard helicopter during a tour Monday, Aug. 20, 2001. The tour was part of the Reid-sponsored Nevada Transportation Summit.

Rep. Shelley Berkley said in a statement she was "absolutely heartbroken."

“As a university regent, I helped to recruit Kenny Guinn as president of UNLV and worked alongside him in that role to improve the university and better serve our students. He was a dynamic force in Nevada politics and our state’s business circles for as many decades as I can remember, and he had an extraordinary influence on me. He was a good man and he will be deeply missed.”

Rep. Dina Titus issued a statement this afternoon saying she was saddened by the former governor's death.

"Nevada has lost a true public servant who devoted himself to the people of the Silver State," she said. "I was honored to serve in the state Legislature during Governor Guinn’s time in office. My thoughts and prayers are with Governor Guinn’s family and friends during this sad time."

Click to enlarge photo

From left, Governor Kenny Guinn, miner Jay Stone and Senator Harry Reid get ready to descend into the new water intake tunnel at Lake Mead with the help of Southern Nevada Water Authority public information officer Kristen Howey during the "Last Man Out" event Saturday, January 22, 2000.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid remembered Guinn in a brief speech on the Senate floor, describing him as “built like an athlete and handsome as a movie star.” His “magnetic personality” led him on the path from teacher to superintendent of one of the largest school districts in the country, Reid said.

“He was a very moderate Republican and he did an extremely good job as governor,” Reid said. “I feel so sad that Kenny is not with us anymore. I join all of Nevada in mourning the loss of a truly great man.”

Sen. John Ensign said Guinn had a tireless devotion to improving Nevada.

"It’s nearly impossible for me to put into words what this one man has meant to me and the people of Nevada. Kenny was greatly admired and respected across Nevada from the rurals of the east to the metropolitan abundance of the South. Kenny was to me a great role model and someone who I worked very closely with – in fact, he has been an inspiration to me through the years beginning with the time that he was the Superintendent of the Clark County School District and he signed my high school diploma."

Compassion, support for the common man

Las Vegas Sun Publisher and Editor Brian Greenspun said Guinn was a fighter for Nevada.

"We are all deeply saddened by this tragic loss of our dear friend, Kenny Guinn. Whether fighting for us as school superintendent or as governor or in the many public service jobs for which he volunteered, Kenny always showed compassion and caring for Nevada that epitomized good citizenship. Our state has always needed more Kenny Guinns and now we have lost the only one we had. This is a sad day for Nevada. Our hearts go out to Dema and the rest of the Guinn family. "

Former Nevada governor and U.S. Senator Richard Bryan, a Democrat, said Guinn will most be remembered in Nevada for his decades of public service.

"No one in the history of our state has rendered more elective and private sector service than Kenny Guinn," Bryan said. "He was a go-to guy."

Bryan recalled that Guinn chaired the commission that studied the 1980 MGM Grand fire that killed 84 people, leading to sweeping changes in fire safety.

"He served on all these commissions and ad hoc boards for decades," Bryan said. "He was always willing to serve."

Click to enlarge photo

Governor Kenny Guinn briefs the media after flying over the flooded areas of Overton Thursday, January 13, 2005.

Bryan said that "unlike many former governors he was a recognized and established business leader."

"He was extraordinarily helpful when I was governor in recruiting Citibank to Las Vegas, which has thousands of employees on Sahara," Bryan said. "He persuaded his colleagues in the banking industry that this would be very big for us."

Bryan also described Guinn as "a man's man."

"He was an athlete," Bryan said. "He was involved in Little League and he was devoted to his wife Dema and his family. He was the kind of guy that would be featured on the cover of Field & Stream."

Through her spokesman, former Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, R-Reno, who often clashed with Guinn over taxes and other measures, said she was saddened by Guinn's death.

"Ted and Sharron Angle are enormously saddened to learn about the sudden loss of Gov. Guinn," her spokesman Jerry Stacy said. "The news is extremely heartbreaking, and Ted and Sharron are keeping Gov. Guinn's wife Dema and their two sons in their prayers."

Former state forester Steve Robinson, who served as deputy chief of staff for Guinn during his final three years in office, said Guinn cared for the common man.

He said Guinn would go on calls for wildfires in rural parts of the state. Robinson said Guinn would bypass dignitaries, such as mayors and congressional leaders, and go to the "dirtiest, smelliest firefighter, sit down on the ground in the dirt with him and eat lunch."

Robinson said Guinn went to a dedication of the Sarah Winnemucca School in Winnemucca. Guinn sat on the floor with children who were having cookies and milk, and talked with them for 30 minutes. "I had to pry him away to talk to the school officials and parents," he said.

Support across party lines

Former Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat who was Guinn's predecessor, had a close relationship with Guinn.

Guinn had served as a co-chairman during one of Miller's gubernatorial campaigns and the two worked together when Miller was governor.

"He was a person who spent his entire life making Nevada a better place to live," Miller said. "He looked at issues in a very objective manner and used his budgeting experience to great advantage."

Miller recalled the impact Guinn made as chairman of a commission that ultimately led to formation of Metro Police from separate police departments in Las Vegas and Clark County. Not long after Miller became governor, he began turning to then-businessman Guinn for help.

"When I was governor and looked at ways to streamline the state budget process, it was Kenny Guinn who I turned to," Miller said.

When Guinn was interim president of UNLV while Miller was in office, he said Guinn was a staunch advocate for the university.

"I know how hard he fought on university issues," Miller said. "He was certainly pushing for new buildings at UNLV that were needed."

Of all the governors in recent Nevada history, Miller said that Guinn "was the most hand-on in terms of budget preparation."

Miller said that although Guinn had to make some tough decisions, including his backing of the 2003 state tax hike that was unpopular within the Republican Party, "he faced the challenges and met them head on."

Former Assembly Speaker Joe Dini, D-Yerington, recalled his first contact with Guinn, which he was superintendent of Clark County schools. Dini’s school district in Lyon County was in financial trouble, and Guinn volunteered to give up $10 per student from the Clark County School District to help Lyon County through its financial troubles.

"We worked closely together," Dini said. "We never had any fights. He was a problem solver. He had the courage to raise taxes. He saw the need and he did it."

Another Democrat, Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, remembered Guinn as a leader in education efforts and in strengthening Nevada's economy.

“Governor Guinn stewarded Nevada through some of its most difficult budget times, and he did so with authority, but also with compassion. Anyone who knew Kenny Guinn recognized that about him. He saw public service as his way of improving the lives of others, to give others the opportunities he had. He never lost sight of that.”

Harrah’s Senior Vice President and former Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones recalled running against Guinn for governor in 1998.

“When you are in a governor’s race, you are always pushing one another, but he was always such a gentleman. He didn’t go into politics because he wanted to be a politician. He went into politics because he wanted to do a right thing,” Jones said.

"I think he was one of the great governors of Nevada. I’ve never seen a man who cared more about principle than about politics. He stood for something, and he stood for the little guy," Jones said. "He would take on anyone if he thought it was the right thing to do. It’s important for all of us to reflect on the state of politics today and wish we had more Kenny Guinns."

Jones said she remembers during the 2003 Legislature when Guinn sought to implement a gross receipts tax. Jones said he had spent months educating leadership not only in politics, but in business, and how Nevada's finances were going to be in trouble if the state’s budget wasn't fixed.

“Today we are in a disaster because we didn’t do what Kenny Guinn had spent months researching and tried to pass. I remember he’d go into meetings with his clip board saying ‘We’re going to have huge deficits if we don’t pass this’ and today we have a $2.5 billion deficit,” Jones said.

Former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, a Democrat from Henderson, called Guinn the consummate gentleman. "He was the type of public servant we would all like to be. He didn't play partisan politics. He had a great love for the state and that's what drove him.

Click to enlarge photo

Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn delivers a news conference in his Capitol office June 29, 2006.

"I remember a lot of times sitting in the den at the mansion and that's the way we worked things out -- such as saving the Millennium Scholarship." Despite the difference in parties, Perkins said, "I call him my friend. He really cared about people and the services for people in the state. The guy was truly a robust man. It will be a great loss for the state."

Perkins said Guinn's wife, Dema, "had such an influence over him and how he governed. She was a true partner in the office and how the state was governed."

Guinn won over friends and opponents alike, not only through gregarious charm, but also a steely tenacity, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said. He had a detailed understanding of the state’s budget and other complex issues, and was never afraid to stop a lawmaker in the hallway to explain it.

“He would spend an hour and a half explaining the budget to you on a napkin,” Buckley said. “He cared about the state and he cared about the people he met. It wasn’t phony. It was real and you could feel it.”

She remembered him as a man who took her tired 3-year-old son by the hand at a posh fundraising reception and led him to get a blanket to calm him down.

The same man commanded enough respect to calm sleepless lawmakers at the frazzled end of legislative session, often being the only one able to silence agitators long enough to bring closure to last minute fights.

During one such last-minute clash in 2005, Guinn put a finger to the chest of the troublesome treasurer and told him to back out of a policy war that had pushed lawmakers into a middle-of-the-night special session.

“He combined warmth with tenacity,” Buckley said. “And he had the strength of his convictions. But he accomplished things also just with grace.”

Sun reporters Amanda Finnegan, Liz Benston, Emily Richmond, Cy Ryan, David McGrath Schwartz, Anjeanette Damon, Kyle Hansen, Cara McCoy and Jackie Valley contributed to this report.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy