When Sue Wagner was born in Maine in 1940, the now-disdained term “New England liberal” did not exist. In fact, it would have been considered a contradiction in terms. Her native state was known for being rock-ribbed Republican and for being a bellwether, fostering a now seldom-used saying – “As goes Maine, so goes the nation.”
Wagner’s was a Republican family, not just in voting but in helping the GOP organization. By the time she became politically aware, the state’s officials – nearly all Republicans – included people like Margaret Chase Smith, who battled against Joe McCarthy. The family moved to Arizona, where Democrats – then – were more competitive and the state’s leaders included members of both parties like Ernest McFarland, Paul Fannin, Carl Hayden, and Barry Goldwater, who battled each other but also worked together. Goldwater was something new in politics, very, very conservative, and he became the Republican presidential nominee in 1964, losing big but also pulling the party to the right and laying the groundwork for Ronald Reagan.
Then Goldwater watched as his party evolved beyond anything he ever envisioned or wanted, an inflexible and arrogant entity that excluded those who could not pass various litmus tests. Goldwater himself became a target of the movement he once led, attacked by figures like Jerry Falwell. “We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party,” Goldwater told Robert Dole. “Can you believe it?
Five years after Goldwater’s presidential campaign, Wagner and her husband Pete moved to Reno. She dabbled in local politics and government, then ran for the Nevada Assembly in 1974, as a Republican, of course. It was not a good GOP year – it was the Watergate year – but she was elected and joined a lot of new reformers that year in the Nevada Legislature. In six years in the Assembly and then eight in the Senate, Wagner won enactment of legislation for open government, domestic battery program funding, campaign and ethics reforms, and (her favorite) genetic tests for infants. During her legislative years, she lost her scientist husband in a plane crash that was on a cloud seeding research flight.
By then, Wagner was enormously popular. Her name was regularly mentioned for higher office, in spite of the fact that she was not based in the state’s southern population center. In 1990 Wagner ran for lieutenant governor and was critically injured in another small plane crash while campaigning, but won her election and took office on schedule.
As lieutenant governor she would normally be poised to move on to the governorship or federal office. But the lingering effects of her crash injuries were taking a toll and she bowed out in 1994 for a hiatus to rest and recover and then re-enter politics.
Twice in recent weeks Wagner has been back in the news, and I heard some people wondering who she was. It occurred to me that it has been 20 years since she held elective office. She has been out of the glare of the spotlight in this state where there is terrific population turnover, so that’s part of the reason I recounted her career here – that, and as a reminder that she rose in a different political world, one of relative civility and productivity.
The two recent pieces of news were a December interview and story in the Reno Gazette Journal recounting her career, and her January decision to leave the Republican Party because of its extreme position in politics.
The Gazette Journal’s December story left the impression that her political career ended after the lieutenant governorship because of her physical condition. That was not the case. Here’s what the Gazette Journal story left out: When she left office, she said forcefully, “I’ll be back.” In 1996, after recuperating, that opportunity came. Nevada’s U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich retired and Wagner was expected to run.
But politics had changed. She took a hard look at the race, and a harder look at Congress. In January 1996 she announced she was passing up the race because Congress was dysfunctional and filled with meanspirited members. The political process generally had become extreme and uncivilized.
As if to prove her point, the Reno Gazette Journal then called her a coward, editorializing that “the moderates slink off the stage without even putting up a fight,” demonstrating that journalism sometimes has a role in today’s toxic politics. The editorial prompted a deluge of complaints to the newspaper.
THAT was the end of her political career, sending a message to any others who might be considering getting into politics.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.