James Santini 1937-2015
The last of Nevada’s sole U.S. House members has died.
James Santini served four terms as Nevada's only House member from 1975 to 1983.
Born and raised in Reno, Santini's family tree included University of Nevada president Walter Clark and author Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Santini was one of a generation of students at the Reno campus who dominated the state's politics for decades, including Frank Fahrenkopf, Richard Bryan, Roger Bremner, Jim Joyce, and Sig Rogich. But Santini's political career suffered a fatal blow at the hands of a rising son of southern Nevada, Harry Reid.
After graduating from Hastings School of Law in 1962 and serving his then-mandatory hitch in the military, Santini moved to fast-growing Clark County where he became successively a deputy district attorney, public defender, justice of the peace, and state district judge.
In 1974, he got into partisan politics by running as a Democrat for the U.S. House. A state constitutional ban on judges running for office during their judicial terms was overruled by the Nevada Supreme Court, who said the ban applied only to state offices and judgeships.
Swept into office along with most Democrats in that Watergate year, Santini joined the first termers who staged the 1975 House revolt, removing long serving committee chairs and weakening the seniority system to prevent newcomers seeking good committee assignments from being in debt to veterans. “I'm beholden before I ever cast a vote,” Santini said, explaining his votes to break up the old system.
During his House service, he carved out a role as the mining industry's champion, styling himself as “Mr. Minerals” but undercutting his appeal in his increasingly urban state. He was reelected three times in what was then a statewide race. Impatient to move up to the Senate, in 1982 he entered a Democratic primary against the state's incumbent senior Senator, Howard Cannon, angering many Democrats. He lost.
Four years later he yielded to an entreaty from GOP Sen. Paul Laxalt to switch parties and ran for Senate again. This time he managed to anger both Democrats and Republicans, who resented GOP Rep. Barbara Vucanovich being passed over for a Democrat. Santini lost again, to Democrat Harry Reid.
Santini never returned to Nevada to live, lobbying for the tourism and mining industries and practicing law in Alexandria, Virginia.
He left a major legacy to his native state—the Santini/Burton Act, under which money from sales of federal land in Southern Nevada is used for preservation and protection of the Lake Tahoe basin. The mechanism was later expanded into the Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act.
Santini was protective of the Act long after he left the House, criticizing Bush administration attempts to use the money first for a new line of nuclear weapons (“Trains for Nevada but not the nation,” RN&R, Feb. 17, 2005) and then to apply against the federal deficit (“Beating the bushes for money,” Nov. 16, 2006) “It's a rape of the fund, is what it is,” Santini said. “This is money derived from Nevada and it should be put to use in Nevada, not siphoned off into some general fund sinkhole or to some other agency.”