After a life in Nevada politics, former GOP kingmaker Marilyn Gubler now runs a desert ranch, where there’s no question who sits in the big saddle
Marilyn Gubler recalls the first time she hauled her horse trailer over the winding, two-lane road into Sandy Valley, a hidden expanse of working ranches, pickup trucks, and conservative rural values that straddles the Nevada-California line. Gnarled Joshua trees. Jagged mountain vistas. Wide-open spaces. It was 1997, and she realized right away that she’d found a little patch of cowboy heaven, a community where the only bar is called the Idle Spurs Tavern, where people attend church on Sunday, and not all the roads are paved.
Gubler is a Southern Nevada native whose parents helped transform Las Vegas into a major tourist destination. She’s Stanford-educated, politically connected, yet proud of that little “twang” in her DNA — and Sandy Valley was just about the finest sight she’d ever seen. “That first day, I knew this was it,” Gubler, now 75, recalls. “The whole place reminded me of the Western spirit of my childhood.” (In 1944, the year she was born, Las Vegas counted barely 10,000 residents; during her childhood, cattle thundered down her street, and she and her girlfriends occasionally rode their horses to school.)
Here on her 160-acre Sandy Valley Ranch, Gubler is a long way from her heyday as a Nevada GOP kingmaker, tough-minded political consultant, and role model for ambitious women. After politics, she dabbled in real estate, opened an espresso bar and a gym, but really found her fulfilling next act here. The ranch is a passion project that began as a working dude-ranch and corporate retreat, attracting tourists who wanted to experience a version of the Cowboy Life. That’s still going on; the ranch hosts corporate events for up to 300 people (for companies such as Microsoft, Nike France, and Louis Vuitton), as well as small groups of travelers. But in recent years, Gubler has expanded the ranch’s cultural IQ to establish one of the state’s most popular sites for Mexican rodeo events, known as charreria.
Marilyn Gubler developed a passion for Mexican rodeo, called charreria, and hosts about 10 of them a year at her ranch. She even had a special corral built for the events.
The Latino cowboys still scratch their heads over this well-heeled white ranch owner with a passion for their culture, a woman who’s become known around the ranch as the Boss Lady. “I see things I don’t like,” Gubler says, “and I have to fix them.”
Gubler’s daughter, Laura Dahl, a former fashion designer, bestowed the term. “My mother has always been this strong woman who held her own in situations with really powerful men,” she says. “Both in her political career and on the ranch, she’s dealt with some pretty big male egos, and has always been able to handle it with such finesse. She’s clearly the boss.”
She was born Marilyn Kelch back when small-town Las Vegas, with its handful of casinos, was suffering a bit of an identity crisis. Often, the mail intended for the future Sin City was dispatched to Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Kelch family house, not far from Downtown, sat across a small patch of desert from that of casino magnate Benny Binion. Marilyn attended her high-school prom with the soon-to-be entrepreneurial titan Robert Bigelow, a neighbor.
At the height of the Depression, her parents, Maxwell and Laura Belle Kelch, had driven their vehicle and trailer to Southern Nevada with $1,000 they’d borrowed from Laura’s father. The son of a Los Angeles lawyer, Maxwell grew up in Hollywood and became a licensed ham radio operator as a teenager. With a master’s degree in physics, he had early success as a sound engineer, working on sessions for such singers as Bing Crosby.
But he had always wanted to run his own radio station. He and Laura Belle surveyed Southwestern towns and found that Las Vegas didn’t have one. In 1936 they launched the radio station KENO. “Everyone in town went out and bought a radio,” Gubler says.
Kelch was a towering man who stood 6-foot-4, Gubler recalled. Her mother, at barely 5-foot-2, was a Cincinnati-born watercolor artist who had to stand on a raised hearth to kiss him. But she was the original Boss Lady, a go-getter who steered the couple’s lifelong community advocacy. She hosted a radio show called Listen Ladies, which provided tips on such things as getting the most out of war-ration books.
As president of the Chamber of Commerce, Kelch later helped launch an ambitious civic strategy that directed local businesses to bankroll advertising campaigns to lure visitors to the growing postwar resort city. As UNLV history professor Michael Green told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 1999, “If we trace the ancestry of efforts to publicize Las Vegas as a tourist attraction, then Max Kelch is the founding father.” Meanwhile, Laura Belle promoted the opening of new libraries and helped found the Las Vegas Art Museum.
Gubler inherited her parents’ love for “free-spirited” Las Vegas. She’d had a taste of the cosmopolitan life at Stanford while getting her master’s degree in education, yet settled in Southern Nevada to work as a schoolteacher. “San Francisco was so stuffy,” she recalls. “Any idea you had, people would say, ‘Oh, we tried that 20 years ago.’ But Las Vegas had a can-do attitude. People would say, ‘What the heck, let’s try it.’”
In 1979, Gubler made her first political foray when she was recruited as both a county and state delegate to support Ronald Reagan’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. “It was a blast,” she recalled. “You felt like you were really doing something meaningful — seeing how all the thoughts you had on how to live your life were built into a political platform.” That platform promoted hard work, small government, and the idea that Washington didn’t call all the shots: “It was the freedom to choose who you wanted to be.”
When she was asked to serve as Clark County GOP chairwoman, Gubler faced a critical choice. She was then married to lawyer John Gubler and raising two small children. She was active in the Junior League. In other words, busy. But a role in politics offered her a chance to do something radical: thicken her skin. “I needed to develop a hide like a rhino,” she said, “to learn how to be attacked and still hold your ground.” She quit the Junior League and launched into the fray, later becoming the first female chairman of the state Republican party.
In 1984, she needed that hide: She was forced out of her post by Paul Laxalt, then the powerful U.S. Senator from Nevada. They disagreed over the party’s Senate candidate at the time, she says.
Gubler took that bitter dose of political medicine, but she also fought back. That day, as Laxalt sponsored a celebration at his Washington office, Gubler threw an “I Got the Boot” party at her home, inviting the local press and Nevada politicians, Republicans and Democrats. “He got zero press that day,” she recalls, “while we partied until 3 a.m.” She soon transitioned into a career as a campaign consultant.
During those years, she owned the five-acre Roadrunner Ranch near Blue Diamond Road — “in the middle of nowhere at the time” — where she entertained her political buddies. Those were wild years, and Gubler liked the raw buzz that politics provided. The guys in the gray suits and everybody else came out to Gubler’s place to ride horses, soak in the hot tub, and kick up a little dust.
“People let their hair down,” she says, laughing. “They did stuff they didn’t want a whole lot of people finding out about.”
Politically, she consulted for candidates from both sides of the aisle: Assemblywoman Sandra Tiffany, a Republican, but also State Senator Dina Titus, a stalwart Democrat. In 1990, she helped elect Bob Seale as state treasurer, despite a claim by his opponent that he wasn’t emotionally fit for the job after being seriously injured in a plane crash that killed his wife.
Even during the grueling campaigns, Gubler rarely lost her sense of humor. At one of Seale’s fundraisers, she made a not-so-sly joke about the number of office-holders who had recently been charged with crimes: a banner with Seale’s picture read, “Not Indicted Yet!”
Allison Newlon Moser, a former Southern Nevada civic leader and friend, said she was dazzled when she first met Gubler, a smart, no-nonsense woman on the move among men — as at ease talking to a corporate CEO as she was with some itinerant cowboy.
“If Marilyn ran your campaign, you were going to win,” Moser says. Gubler did her homework; she knew how to vet her candidates, to decide which political horses to place her bet on. “First,” Moser recalls, “she’d try to talk them out of running by telling them how thankless the job was. If they persisted, she’d send them home to write a detailed position paper that would convince her to vote for them.” That scared many away. “But if they stuck it out, she worked with them.”
One client, state Assembly candidate Dennis Allard, believed that circulating glossy photos of him decked out in cowboy boots and hat would win him the election without having to walk precincts. Gubler insisted, urging him to get out and walk because he was steadily running behind in the polls.
Allard won, and at his celebration party told his consultant, “I’ve got to tell you a secret: I never walked.” To which Gubler shot back, “Well, I’ve got a secret for you: You were never behind in the polls.”
Eventually, she ran out of steam in a political realm grown too divisive. “I grew weary of the stress of opening the morning paper with bated breath, seeing who was going to attack me or my candidate with unsubstantiated claims. It got old after a while.”
But it was fun until then, and that imparted a useful lesson to her son Matthew, now an actor — he’s long played Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds. “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life. Thanks to my mom’s example, whether it’s through the ranch, her dedication to various charities, or raising me and my sister, she has always been the hardest-working person who seems to have never worked a day in her life.”
Gubler eventually sold the Roadrunner Ranch and was looking for a new chapter. And one day, her lawyer invited her to bring her horses an hour outside Vegas for a look-see and a ride.
The Boss Lady is wearing spurs as she tours her ranch, which you can find by following a sign down the road that says, “Up Yonder.” On this spring Sunday, she’s a mix of city and country. Along with her white cowboy hat and scarf, she’s wearing funky bat-shaped glasses her son gave her as a gag gift.
She passes horses, cattle, pigs, goats, and chickens, a real-life Victoria Barkley in her own Big Valley. The mountains stretch in the distance, making the scene feel generations old. “Everything you see? There was nothing when she came here,” says Gubler’s husband, Tommy DiGiacomo, waving his hand as he walks by her side. “This all came from Marilyn’s imagination. And it’s still growing.”
As she did in politics, Gubler still bets on the dark horse, and her dozen employees call her property the “Second Chance Ranch.” Gubler has shown she’s willing to take on a promising cowboy despite a questionable past.
The couple approaches a group of Latino cowboys running a horse around the lienzo charro, the corral for Mexican rodeo events that Gubler had specially built. She claps her hands as a cowboy shows off his lasso tricks, jumping through the stiffened rope he twirls around his head.
Gubler fell in love with Mexican rodeo a few years ago and now hosts as many as 10 events a year, drawing crowds ranging from 300 to 1,000 people. She particularly fell for an all-female event known as the Escaramuza, in which women riding side-saddle and dressed in colorful Adelita dresses perform a variety of riding techniques. “It’s all about gorgeous costumes and women of all ages dressing up and getting into the saddle,” she says. “The event is all about family.”
Luis Gonzales, Gubler’s new ranch manager, says many of the Mexican cowboys didn’t know what to make of the petite, white-haired cowgirl. “At first, they only saw a woman with a lot of money,” he says. “They didn’t see her. Now she’s accepted as one of them.”
Gonzales himself advised Gubler that the cultural rodeos were not money-makers, and should probably be discontinued. “I mean, I’m Mexican, and I couldn’t see why she was doing it,” he says. “I told her it was better for business to just close it down.”
But Gubler wouldn’t have it. She reveres the events for their rich heritage, for the sheer beauty of the skill and posturing, in seeing another culture’s ballet-like approach to traditional American rodeo.
“She loves the culture and the horses, and she keeps it all going,” Gonzales says. “She has more energy than people who are 40 years younger.”
Gubler and DiGiacomo split their time between a Summerlin home and Sandy Valley. He says he consults a daily planner just to keep pace with the energetic woman who’s several years older.
“Sometimes, I’ll say ‘What? You didn’t tell me about that,’ and she’ll look at me straight in the eye and say, ‘Yes, I did.’”
That’s the Boss Lady talking right there.