Las Vegas Sun

October 15, 2018

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MEMO FROM CARSON CITY:

Back in the day, spats were settled by militia

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Ron Paul supporters are in the midst of a hostile takeover of the state Republican Party. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is fed up with the filibuster. Congress is heading for another deadlock over raising the debt ceiling.

Look on the bright side: At least no one has brought out the actual artillery.

With all the angst about ramped-up political rhetoric and gridlock among elected officials, a little Nevada history lesson is in order.

At the official closing last week of Nevada State Prison, which had operated at the site for 150 years, Gov. Brian Sandoval told the story of when political stalemates could only be broken by Virginia City militiamen.

This story involves an Elko cattle rancher named Lewis Rice Bradley, known as “Old Broadhorns,” who became Nevada’s second governor in 1871.

According to the book “Nevada’s Governors,” Bradley “was not a man to back down under any stress or circumstance. And that was proven in what is referred to as the ‘State Prison War.’ ”

The lieutenant governor at the time, Frank Denver, had acted as warden of the State Prison. When the Legislature changed the law in 1873 to make it an appointed position under the governor, Denver was none too happy.

According to “Nevada’s Governors”: “Denver insisted the new law was unconstitutional and refused to hand over the office to a successor.

“There occurred a deadlock with Denver firmly entrenched behind the prison walls. Bradley countered by calling out the militia, then consisting mainly of Virginia City men, under Maj. General Van Bokelin. This company marched down to Carson, encamped with their artillery on the ‘Plaza’ (the Capitol grounds) and sent word to Denver to ‘surrender.’ Bradley had ordered that Denver be unseated ‘even at cost of human life.’ When Denver saw that the governor could not be bluffed, he capitulated and retired with what grace he could muster.”

Guy Rocha, the former state archivist and historian, said that, indeed, the days of actual political duels with pistols and U.S. senators caning each other in chambers is over.

“At least politicians are not killing each other over slights,” he said.

But the rhetoric is ramped up, professionalized, fueled by a constant media cycle.

“I think you start to see that in the 1990s, and it has escalated a lot more in the last decade,” Rocha said. “You began to see a lot more friction and edginess to the Legislature. There was more what I’d call demagoguery, more ideologues.”

Sandoval, who has made an amiable personality a cornerstone of his administration, recounted the State Prison War story standing in front of the decommissioned Carson City prison, where the last prisoner was removed in late March.

He said, “I sure wish Lt. Gov. (Brian) Krolicki was here.”

In a parallel, Sandoval and the Legislature shifted many in the lieutenant governor’s office to appointed positions under the governor last year.

No word if Krolicki was holed up at Economic Development headquarters waiting for the Nevada National Guard to oust him.

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