Nevada Yesterdays is written by UNLV history professor, Michael Green, and is supported by Nevada Humanities.
Last time we started the story of Paul Laxalt. There’s a lot more to tell.
After being elected lieutenant governor in 1962, he feuded with Governor Grant Sawyer. That shouldn’t have been surprising—two young, photogenic, smart politicians with completely opposing ideologies. Laxalt also decided to run for the Senate in 1964 against Democratic incumbent Howard Cannon. Laxalt seemed unlikely to win. Nevada was a Democratic state. In Nevada and nationally, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was going to bury his Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona—who Laxalt publicly supported. In the last few weeks before the election, a couple of major Nevada newspapers not only backed Cannon, but basically banished Laxalt from its pages.
But Laxalt again used television brilliantly. He was a great campaigner. Cannon was accused of involvement in a scandal. And when the dust cleared on election night, Laxalt had lost by 48 votes statewide. He demanded a recount and this time lost by 84. The Senate would have to wait.
Laxalt soon turned around and ran for governor against Sawyer, who was seeking a third term. That was a problem for Sawyer. So were divisions in the Democratic Party. So was the job of being governor: as I have reason to know, you gain some supporters, but you also make a lot of people mad because a big part of your job is saying no. Sawyer also took on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover over what he saw as federal violations of the Bill of Rights; today, more people would agree with that stance, but back then Hoover had a sterling reputation. Laxalt won by about 6,000 votes out of more than 137,000 cast.
Nobody would doubt Laxalt was conservative, but we also have to define our terms. State and federal governments and issues aren’t the same. Laxalt wanted to reduce taxes and spending where he could, and did. But he also was an activist governor who helped expand—yes, expand—government in the state.
He supported creation of community colleges and a medical school, and thus expanded the higher education system.
He also saw the need to protect Lake Tahoe. Not only is it beautiful, but Laxalt spent a great deal of time there and loved it. Sawyer and his California counterpart, Pat Brown, had worked together on this issue and others. Laxalt worked with his Brown’s successor, a fellow named Ronald Reagan. More on that later.
Laxalt also wanted to change how casinos were licensed. When he took office, everyone who owned part of a casino operation had to be licensed, no matter how small the percentage. There was no way for a corporation with its thousands of stockholders to be involved in Nevada. Laxalt pushed to change the law and succeeded. He believed it would clear out organized crime. Well, it didn’t, but it helped.
So did the arrival of Howard Hughes. Laxalt did what he could to make it easier for Hughes to get licensed and make his mark in Nevada. By buying so many hotel-casinos, Hughes gave Nevada a new aura of respectability.
As with corporate gaming, that would be important to the state’s future growth and development.
After one term, Laxalt decided not to seek reelection as governor. He felt burned out and wanted to do something to make some money. His political career was far from over, as we will see next time.
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