Paul Laxalt, former Nevada governor, senator, dies at 96

Paul Dominique Laxalt, a former Nevada governor, United States senator, lieutenant governor and district attorney, and one of former President Ronald Reagan’s closest friends in politics, died at a healthcare facility in Northern Virginia on Monday. He was 96.

His loving wife Carol was by his side at the time of his passing.

Nevada governor candidate Adam Paul Laxalt is a grandson of Paul Laxalt.

“My grandfather was the rare man in the arena that never lost sight of who he was or where he came from. It is said that our lives are best remembered not by our achievements but by how we treated others,” Adam Laxalt said in a statement Monday.

“In the course of my life, thousands of people have taken the time to tell me that they knew my grandfather. Without exception, they have used words like decent, genuine, honest, humble and kind. He was indeed all of those things. To those closest to me, my grandfather was both a light and a compass: a testament to what a man should be. To me, my grandfather was the ultimate role model, and much of what I know about being an American, a citizen and a leader, I learned from him.”

“He was the embodiment of the American dream, a pillar of the greatest generation, and he represented all that is best in American politics,” Adam Laxalt continued.

“The son of Basque immigrants and a son of Nevada, he became Nevada’s governor, a United States senator and among the closest confidantes of one of the most consequential presidents in American history — Ronald Reagan. He rose to the world stage, but somehow he carried it all lightly. He changed Washington, but Washington never seemed to change him. I will be forever grateful for our time together, and I will miss him terribly.”

Paul Laxalt was born on Aug. 2, 1922 at St. Mary’s Hospital in Reno, Nevada, the son of Dominique and Therese Laxalt, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains, which straddle France and Spain.

Political career

Paul Laxalt’s first attempt for public office came in 1950 when he ran for district attorney of Ormsby County in which Nevada’s state capital – Carson City – was located. Laxalt handily defeated the incumbent district attorney. He served in the office from 1951-1955. Laxalt’s first run for statewide office came in 1962 when he ran for lieutenant governor against former Congressman Berkeley L. Bunker. He ended up defeating Bunker by a comfortable margin. Laxalt served one term as lieutenant governor — from 1963 to 1967.

In 1964, while serving as lieutenant governor, Laxalt ran for the U.S. Senate against Democrat incumbent Howard Cannon and lost a controversial election by 48 votes. Although he was apprehensive about running in another grueling statewide campaign, Laxalt decided to challenge two-term governor Grant Sawyer.

Although the election was more than a year away – November 1966 – Laxalt launched his campaign in the middle of 1965, an indication of how formidable he knew the challenge would be. Sawyer, also burdened by the fact he was a two-term incumbent, fell by an unexpectedly wide margin. Laxalt served one term as governor, from January 1967 to January 1971.

With the financial support of Howard Hughes, Laxalt helped establish the state’s first community colleges and the first medical school. Along with Ronald Reagan, governor of neighboring California, Laxalt helped create the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which was designed to protect majestic Lake Tahoe. He also expanded the park system and promoted prison reform in Nevada.

After leaving the governor’s mansion, Laxalt and his family opened The Ormsby House, a hotel/casino in Carson City. In 1974, when U.S. Senator Alan Bible, a 20-year incumbent, announced his retirement, Republican political insiders pressed Laxalt to re-enter politics and seek the open seat. He eventually agreed and wound up running against the sitting Democrat Lieutenant Governor, Harry Reid.

It was a hard-fought contest from the outset. The Watergate scandal was a burden for Republican candidates throughout the country, and after President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon, Laxalt’s prospects, like Republican prospects everywhere, suddenly took a drastic turn for the worse. Still, he managed to eke out a victory – by less than 1,000 votes.

Friend of President Reagan

Laxalt had become close friends with Ronald Reagan while the two served as governors of their respective states. They worked on issues of mutual interest to Nevada and California, principally those dealing with the preservation of Lake Tahoe.

Laxalt was national chairman of three Reagan presidential campaigns, and he placed Reagan’s name into nomination at the Republican National Conventions in 1976, 1980 and 1984. During the 1980 Republican National Convention, Laxalt’s name was floated as a potential vice presidential nominee for the Reagan ticket, but George H.W. Bush was chosen instead.

Laxalt retired from the Senate in 1987 and was replaced by the man he had defeated in 1974, Harry Reid, who would go on to become the Senate Majority Leader. Laxalt made a brief run for the Republican presidential nomination during 1987. Political commentators at the time concluded that he had waited too long to enter the race. He was eventually named a co-chairman of Bush’s successful presidential campaign. Eight years later, he served in a similar capacity in Bob Dole’s presidential bid.

Later life

Laxalt was a partner in a New York-based law firm and a successor law firm, Laxalt, Washington, Perito & Dubuc. He later formed a small government consulting firm known as the Paul Laxalt Group.

Paul Laxalt was honored in various ways both during and after his public service career. The Paul Laxalt Mineral Engineering Center, a building located on the campus of the University of Nevada-Reno, was completed in 1983. The Paul Laxalt State Building in Carson City was formerly the U.S. Post Office (built in 1891) and the first federal building erected in Nevada. It is located in the center of the Carson City’s Historic District.

Laxalt was married to Jackalyn Ross, the daughter of a prominent federal judge. The couple had five daughters (Gail, Sheila, Michelle, Kevin and Kathleen) and one son (John Paul). At the time of his death, Laxalt had numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Laxalt married his second wife, Carol, on Dec. 31, 1975. Carol had one daughter (Denise) from a previous marriage who Laxalt later adopted. After he retired from the Senate, Paul and Carol Laxalt continued to reside in Northern Virginia.

Funeral and memorial service arrangements are pending.

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