Barbara Vucanovich 1921-2013

On election night 1996, U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich congratulated her successor, Jim Gibbons.

On election night 1996, U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich congratulated her successor, Jim Gibbons.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Seven-term U.S. House member Barbara Vucanovich has died.

In 1982, after achieving the population threshold, Nevada had two seats in the U.S. House up for election for the first time. Vucanovich was elected to the northern district over Democrat Mary Gojack and Libertarian Teresa Vuceta.

She was also the state's first woman House member, though she resolutely clung to the title Congressman, which prompted reporters to use U.S. Rep. She served seven terms in the safe Republican district. Though a major Democrat occasionally ran against her, she was never seriously threatened fo reelection.

Her plunge into elective politics came after already spending many years behind the scenes of Republican politics, including tenure as the manager of U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt's Reno office. Elected as a rigid and doctrinaire conservative, she softened her approach to Democrats after serving in the House for a couple of years. “And so you learn that you at least have to listen to how their—what they're saying, and then see if you can't accommodate them as well as yourself,” she said. At one point, she even praised her colleague who held Nevada's other House seat—Democrat Harry Reid.

In 1986, she—and numerous state Republicans—were shocked when, after Laxalt announced his retirement from the Senate, he then failed to support Vucanovich as his replacement, instead recruiting Democrat James Santini. Santini switched parties and lost to Reid.

In fighting the 55 miles per hour federal speed limit in Congress, which was deeply hated in the intermountain West, Vucanovich said that in the expanses of the West, “If you drive at 55 miles per hour, jackrabbits and coyotes will pass you.”

After he led the nation to war in Kuwait, Vucanovich nominated the first President Bush for the Nobel peace prize, saying that the “pursuit of peace” had guided his foreign policy.

In 1995 New York Times columnist William Safire quoted her saying that gambling “is kind of wasting your money”—but her conservatism still prompted her to support legislation keeping gambling regulation a state matter.

Vucanovich retired from the House in 1997 and never saw anything happening in D.C. to make her think she had made the wrong decision. Asked this year if she'd like to return to the House, she said, “No, thank you. There's just no cooperation. Nobody wants to get anything done. But it's sad because it's more of a battle than it is representing people and governing properly. They're not doing that.”

She seemed uncomfortable with what was happening to the Republican Party.

Vucanovich was the mother of former state treasurer Patty Cafferata and the grandmother of community activist Elisa Cafferata.