Free at last

When William Raggio, who died last week after an exceptionally useful career as a state senator, was forced out of the Senate Republican floor leader’s post, it liberated him.

He was driven out by fanatic members who have come to typify that great political party. They were upset that he had supported U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s reelection over extremist RINO Sharron Angle, a sometime Republican (see Upfront, Page 8) who used the party as a vehicle to advance her agenda.

Republican leaders around the state watched aghast as the GOP senators sent 37 years of experience packing.

Raggio came to the Senate in 1973 when Republicans in the Nevada Senate were people like Carl Dodge, Cliff Young and Coe Swobe, who saw legislating as a shared task among all members. It was a new role for Raggio, formerly a tough prosecutor with disdain for Democrats.

“The first thing that happens to you is you realize that you have to develop a consensus to get anything done,” he said.

That approach served him well, and over the years his achievements included educational accountability, creation of the regional planning process in Washoe County and establishment of the Washoe County Airport Authority.

But his kind of lawmaking was passing. He said it was “not that we’ve changed, it’s just the times that have changed.” In truth, it was both. As he evolved into a moderate legislator, his party kept sending legislators to Carson City who considered his working with the enemy to be treachery. They believed that if it took developing consensus with Democrats to get something done—which would require conceding some ground to Democrats— then it was better to get nothing done. Dealing with the GOP intransigents took a toll on Raggio.

There were times when he thought his colleagues were going mad, as when the minority of 15 members of the 2003 Assembly, exploiting the supermajority requirements on taxes, retreated from the legislative halls to their offices upstairs to wait until they got their way, pushing that year’s business into two special sessions. In a time when citizens were abandoning partisan politics in droves, his GOP senators were becoming more partisan, incessantly interrupting legislative floor sessions to go into closed caucuses to establish party positions and then enforce party discipline, a throwback to the early 20th century.

Under Raggio, Senate Republicans usually had a majority. They lost it in his last legislature, in 2008. But the Democrats still needed some Republican votes. The only thing that stood between them and enacting their whole program was Raggio. He deftly used the votes of himself and a couple of other GOP moderates to limit Democratic action and impose conservative pension and prevailing wage changes and other Republican conditions on a fumbling new Democratic leader as the price of their support, something the GOP recalcitrants could not do, once again demonstrating his legislative skills. He did what the Republican fanatics could not do—restrain the Democrats.

When he was finally forced out as GOP leader in 2010 by the dogmatists at a time when his health was uncertain, it let him stop babysitting and leave the Senate Republicans to their own devices by resigning.

In the end, the Republicans who ejected him from their floor leader’s post freed him.

And imprisoned themselves.