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Turnover puts Nevada on slow learning curve

When former U.S. Sen. Howard Cannon died in Las Vegas in 2002, he had been out of office for 19 years, after serving as a Nevada senator for a quarter of a century and as Las Vegas city attorney for four terms.

I was then a television reporter and when I pitched the idea of an obituary on Cannon in the morning news meeting, I found myself swimming upstream.

Cannon had chaired the Senate Rules Committee and, later, the Senate Commerce Committee. He had overseen the historic task of confirming the first two unelected vice presidents of the United States in Rules. In Commerce, he had – albeit reluctantly – sponsored bills deregulating the nation’s airlines and, later and more willingly, the trucking industry.

And few people in our newsroom knew who he was. “I’ve never heard of him,” one of our news anchors said. It’s one of the pitfalls of a state with high population turnover. Institutional memory is sacrificed.

We saw another instance of this last week when former U.S. House member James Santini died. He was the last sole House member from Nevada, which meant he ran statewide and was as visible as a governor or U.S. senator. Today, Nevada has four House members and it’s doubtful that residents of District 4 know much about the representative of District 2, or vice versa.

Santini was deeply rooted in Nevada. He grew up in Reno and his family tree included Walter Clark, the president of the University of Nevada (when there was only one campus, in Reno) and renowned author Walter Van Tilburg Clark.

After graduating from what is now called UNR, Santini took a law degree from Hastings and then returned to Reno, at one point serving with a group of lawyers who provided advice to the local League of Women Voters chapter. But soon, he moved to the state’s rising metropolis of Las Vegas, where as a Democrat he became successively a deputy district attorney, public defender, justice of the peace, and state district judge. Then in the Watergate year of 1974 when few Democrats lost, he won the state’s U.S. House seat.

In the House, he followed the traditional state route of tailoring his appeal to the small counties, which were regarded as the “real” Nevada. He cultivated the mining industry and called himself Mr. Minerals. It was apparent that he was developing problems within his own political base. When he was slated by Democratic leaders to chair the Nevada delegation at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Santini was beaten by the votes of rank and file members, who chose women’s rights leader Maya Miller instead.

After four terms in the House, Santini made his party problems worse when he tried to move up to the Senate by entering a Democratic primary against Cannon and was defeated. Four years later he switched to the Republicans and ran for the Senate again, losing again, to Harry Reid.

Reid was more in tune with what the state was becoming than with what it used to be. Nevada had become one of the most urban states in the nation, nearly everyone living in two metropolitan areas, and as a result was becoming a strongly environmentalist state. While Mr. Minerals was strong in the small counties, Reid campaigned by attacking the Nevada Mining Association – and beat Santini easily.

It’s interesting that what Santini will be best remembered for is something he did for the urban center of Clark County and for the environment. He sponsored the Santini-Burton Act, under which public lands in southern Nevada were sold off and the money used to protect Lake Tahoe. The Act was later expanded into the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act. (The second Bush administration twice tried to raid the fund created by the Act for other purposes, prompting Santini – long out of office – to call it “a rape of the fund.”) Had Santini given greater effort to such initiatives, his career might have turned out differently.

Upon Santini’s death, it was not particularly surprising that the Washington Post obituary was better in some ways than some of the Nevada obits. Turbulence in the state’s population is not just growth, but people coming, then leaving, then sometimes coming back. Shared experiences and institutional memory are lost. The political price Santini paid for his fealty to small county issues is a lesson many state politicians, new to Nevada, never learned – as the Bundy standoff made clear.

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.

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