Las Vegas Sun

January 20, 2018

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Jon Ralston:

Bill Raggio left an indelible mark on Nevada

I have covered many elected officials in 25 years. I have liked many, admired some, loved very, very few.

I loved Bill Raggio.

How? Let me count the ways: He was brilliant — a word often thrown around about someone posthumously, but true about Carson City’s master of the game and a man who could have been a towering presence on Capitol Hill. He was hilarious — I have often felt that a sense of humor is one of the greater gifts, and Raggio was wry, quick and clever. He was compassionate — in a world where having any feeling but a partisan reflex is considered apostasy, Raggio cared about his state very deeply. He was pragmatic — yet, as hard as this is for goofy or nasty wingnuts to understand, that did not mean unprincipled. And, best of all, Raggio was passionate – the Carson Sphinx didn’t often show it, but he cared about many, many issues, from higher education to collective bargaining for state employees to, yes, the biennial Northern Nevada pork feed.

The Legislature, bereft of his presence in 2011, already misses Bill Raggio. But after his death Thursday, Nevada is worse for the loss of a true statesman and the political world is dimmer for the passing of an incandescent leader.

I have already written about Raggio’s impact on the state and on me — here — but since early Friday when I learned of his death at age 85 — perhaps inevitable but still stunning — a flood of memories and thoughts rushed through my mind.

I remembered how Raggio and I spent many sessions dining at a little-known Italian restaurant (with apologies to the seminal Adele’s) called Silvana’s, where Raggio and the eponymous owner would greet each other before we were served wonderful food and wine. His company was always nothing less than engaging as we dissected the events of the day/week, joked about certain legislative buffoonery (we agreed on so much) or chatted about our families and lives.

I recalled the many times I was granted an audience in the inner sanctum where I would be forced to sit and listen to Raggio opine on the big and small pictures, rarely giving me any useful information, only being able to latch onto the hints he gave or the gleam in his eye when he told me what he “thought” might happen.

I fondly remember the many times he chastised me for writing a “fair share” column, telling me I was inflaming sectional passions. I knew what he really meant: Stop writing that or people might figure out how much money I’m really diverting to the North.

Raggio had many nicknames — I dubbed him Sir Bill, some called him Ragu, others labeled him The Godfather. The latter was so appropriate — you almost expected to hear the movie’s iconic music when you entered his office. I can only imagine how some legislators and lobbyists felt when Raggio summoned them: “You come to me, on the day of this important vote, and you don’t even think to call me Godfather….”

Raggio was quite proud of the biography published last year by Michael Archer called “A Man of His Word.” But, he once confided, the proper name of his life’s story was: “Never Leave Fingerprints.”

Indeed, he was masterful at making things happen but never being seen making them happen. At some point in any public career, reputation outpaces performance, the aura of power obscures the loss of ability. Not so with Raggio. He was still far and way the most respected and feared lawmaker in the building until he left.

Everyone remembers the most sensational story about Raggio — the infamous burning of Joe Conforte’s brothel a half-century ago when he was a swashbuckling Washoe County district attorney. But an even better, even more Nevada story is what happened afterward (Conforte arranging for Raggio to meet an underage girl), which is detailed quite differently in both men’s books. (My suggestion: Read “The Girls of Nevada,” a seminal Nevada tome.)

In his later days, Raggio frequently lamented the propensity for Republicans to bow to the Temple of Norquist, pledging fealty to a no-tax pledge when circumstances could always change. In a world of one-note politicians, Raggio was operatic, often giving floor speeches that were the equivalent of arias. Indeed, one lobbyist, marveling at a Raggio performance, looked at me and said, “Like Pavarotti at the Met.”

Raggio also railed against those who only cared about re-election, a common affliction in Carson City, fearing they would never help move the state forward. As ex-Sen. Paul Laxalt said Friday, “Throughout my political career, I adhered to a policy of not allowing political differences to transform into personal differences. That was the essence of Bill Raggio. Sadly, that quality is sorely missing in today’s toxic political environment.”

I believe one of the more painful decisions of Raggio’s career was to endorse Harry Reid for re-election in 2010. Yes, he was furious that Sharron Angle had challenged him in a primary, but it was much more than personal. He thought she would be a disaster for the state, so he endorsed whom he considered the lesser off two evils.

There was nothing in it for him — he knew the blowback would be vicious, although I doubt he knew he would lose his leadership position because of his craven colleagues, some of whom I would bet a fortune voted for Reid but were afraid to say so.

A man of his word? Yes. A man of principle? Indeed. A man for all seasons, especially every other winter and spring in Carson City? Absolutely.

Raggio, like all of us, was hardly perfect. He could be stubborn and willful, especially in his final sessions. He had his foibles. But he was still Bill Raggio.

And, yes, regrets, he had a few. But like his friend, Frank Sinatra, and unlike anyone else in Nevada politics, Bill Raggio did it his way.

And that, more than anything, is why I loved him.

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