Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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jon ralston:

The goodness of Kenny Guinn

I have told the story before, but now seems an appropriate time to relate my favorite Kenny Guinn vignette:

It was late in the second excruciating special session of 2003. Gov. Guinn had proposed a billion-dollar tax increase he argued was necessary to keep the state afloat, a painful choice for an exemplar of the GOP establishment. Fifteen Assembly Republicans, led by Bob Beers, had refused to go along, creating a bitter, elongated stalemate that would define Carson City politics thereafter.

Late one night, Guinn and his bodyguard/driver ran into Beers at Gleneagles, a capital watering hole. The governor refused to shake the hand of his prime antagonist.

Beers: “Come on, Governor. You were my Pop Warner football coach. You signed my high school diploma.”

Guinn: “I never should have done that. (Pause) OK, Beers, you’re such a math whiz, what’s 11 times 11.”

Beers (not missing a beat): “121. OK, Governor, I have one for you: What’s 11.3 percent of a $3.75 billion budget?”

Guinn glared at Beers, glanced at his bodyguard, then back at Beers, then looked at his bodyguard and said: “Shoot him.”

That scene neatly captures so much of who Kenny Guinn was, and so much of it was so contradictory.

Guinn, who passed away Thursday, was The Anointed One, a man chosen by the state’s elite to be governor but who cared more about the state’s less fortunate than most of them, a man who cared enough, in fact, to risk the evaporation of the reservoir of goodwill he spent decades filling up as essentially Las Vegas’ de facto, beneficent emperor.

Guinn was a man who could not understand the mentality of Beers and the others of his own party who opposed him almost viscerally, who said he had no clothes, at least not of the GOP variety. Almost beyond reason, they could not understand, as Senate Minority Leader Bill Raggio put it Thursday, that “compromise is not a four-letter word.”

Guinn came to be governor, as I wrote in my book about his ascension to the job, out of a sense of entitlement, that he had toiled in the community for decades and was the right man at the right time. But that meritocratic elitism was leavened by a manifest goodness — Guinn was perhaps the most caring, compassionate conservative the state has known, a man who was almost Clintonesque in feeling the pain of the mentally ill, of underpaid teachers, of struggling seniors. Unlike Bush 41, for Kenny Guinn it wasn’t just a message — he truly cared.

“He had no guile, no manipulation,” said his close friend and political confidant Billy Vassiliadis. “He was who he was.”

There is tendency to posthumously gloss over faults to celebrate someone’s life. But with Kenny Guinn, his greatest fault was his greatest strength. He was apolitical, which was both refreshing and infuriating. He thought people would listen because he worked so hard and knew so much, but he had no patience for those who simply disagreed to further their own careers. He called legislators irrelevant, so they showed him they were not in 2003.

Guinn was pained by the vitriol from critics during and after the 2003 horror show. Friends showed they were not friends by leveling lacerating attacks on him because he had committed apostasy by daring to propose taxes instead of gutting services.

But none of it changed him. He came from nothing and never forgot that.

He was not an Adele’s man, where expensive wine was sipped and deals were made; he was an Old Globe guy, preferring a beer with the real folks. He could be friends with fire-breathers such as Chuck Muth or fellow pragmatists such as Bob Miller. He had ear-crunching syntax and created new words, but you always knew what he meant.

Guinn probably couldn’t log on to a computer, but he could fit the whole human services budget on a napkin. He surrounded himself with plenty of hardball players, but Guinn, ever the conciliator, never took the bat off his shoulder. And he never understood, this man of reason, that you can’t reason with the unreasonable.

Guinn would have been repulsed by today’s talk-radio louts who revile anyone who doesn’t hew to their superficial orthodoxy, or the twits who spew venom and whose brains can’t reach outside 140 characters, or the Internet posters who hide behind their handles to level anonymous broadsides.

He was a terrible candidate and politician, but he was a prince of a man who still cared deeply about the state after he left office. Friends say he especially fretted about Nevada’s rising unemployment and what the future holds for the state’s education system.

Guinn was always gracious about coming on “Face to Face,” even though his friends and supporters thought I was in his face too much. But the governor was never offended and he seemed to like the give and take. As he used to tell me, “You know what I was trying to do.”

And I did. Guinn came on the program in March and discussed a variety of topics, showing he was informed as anyone about the state’s budget situation. He was serious but funny, knowledgeable but plain-spoken. Same as he ever was.

As my producer, Dana Gentry, walked him out, Guinn looked at her and said, perhaps wryly, perhaps not: “That will be the last time.”

Sadly, he was right.

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