I lost a friend not long ago, and so did Nevada.
I knew Jim Bilbray for more than seventy years. He was born in Las Vegas. We first got to know each other in the Boy Scouts. Our fathers were old hands at Democratic Party politics—my father Oscar wound up as justice of the peace, and Jim Bilbray, Senior, as county assessor. Jim the younger graduated from Las Vegas High School a year behind me, and attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas when it was still the Southern Regional Division of the University of Nevada. He served as treasurer and then as student body president. You couldn’t complete your degree there, so Jim went off to American University in Washington to finish up, then got his law degree and came back home.
Jim dedicated himself to several things when he got back. First of all, his family and his church. He and Mikey married when he was in college. They had three daughters and a son, and five grandchildren, and he doted on them. They also tended to follow in his footsteps. Daughters Erin and Shannon went into politics. Daughter Bridget wound up an educator, including being principal of James H. Bilbray Elementary School. Sadly, Jim and Mikey lost a son, Kevin. Their Catholic faith helped them deal with the loss.
He dedicated himself to his local alma mater. He helped form the UNLV Alumni Association and served as its first president. Recently, a monument to him was unveiled at UNLV’s alumni building. He also spent a term on the board of regents, fighting for southern Nevada. During his tenure, Nevada Southern University became UNLV.
He also dedicated himself to public service. Beyond his time in the Army National Guard and reserves, Jim served as Clark County deputy district attorney and chief legal counsel for the juvenile court. After his term as regent, he sought the Democratic nomination for Congress. In 1972, Nevada still had only one member of the House. At the time, it was Walter Baring, who called himself a Jeffersonian States Rights Democrat and was convinced of communist conspiracies. That appealed to a lot of people, but so did his talent for constituent service. His right-hand man, Charlie Bell, had a falling-out with him and helped Jim win the Democratic primary. But Baring supporters didn’t forgive Jim for defeating their man. He lost the general election.
So he practiced law, but ran for the state senate in 1980. He was serving his second term when the still fairly new second House seat became available. He won a tough primary and the general election in 1986, and then three more terms. His proudest legislative achievements included helping to preserve Red Rock Canyon and then double the size of the conservation area. He lost in the 1994 Republican wave. And he came back home.
He had plenty of time for his family and his church, but he wasn’t done with service. He served on the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, created to shut down outdated military bases when members of Congress didn’t want to do it. He was on the California-Nevada high-speed train commission. He spent a decade on the United States Postal Service board of governors. Jim Bilbray jammed a lot of living and service into his eighty-three years. I’m happy that included time for us to be friends.