Kenny Guinn 1936-2010

Gov. Kenny Guinn talks with Nevada tribal leader Arlen Melendez.

Gov. Kenny Guinn talks with Nevada tribal leader Arlen Melendez.

The state’s leaders were shocked last week as word spread that former governor Kenny Guinn had died. Because of Guinn’s vigor and good health, the news was unexpected. He died after falling from the roof of his Las Vegas home.

Son of poor workers who came West to be fruit and vegetable pickers, Guinn took degrees in physical education and then taught at Stanford. In 1964, he moved to Las Vegas, not to teach but to be an administrative intern, eventually becoming Clark County superintendent of schools for nine years, followed by turns as president of Nevada Savings, Southwest Gas and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 1998, after controversial moves by lobbyists to clear the way for his candidacy by freezing out other candidates, Guinn was elected Nevada’s 28th governor in a campaign run by legislator Pete Ernaut, later his first chief of staff.

Guinn was a throw-back in politics—a leader willing to work with his opponents at a time of politics so polarized that to work with the other party is treated as disloyalty. Newcomers to the Republican Party were heard to describe him as a RINO—a “Republican in name only”—but veteran members of the party had real affection for him. “He had a knack for bringing people together,” said GOP leader William Raggio.

He was best known for his education programs, and those tended to overshadow other significant Guinn initiatives. He was the first governor to recommend that Nevada do something for addicted gamblers, a proposal the Legislature embraced. He beefed up mental health programs that for years had been treated as dispensable.

Guinn’s most important initiative was also his most controversial, a 2003 proposal for substantial tax increases totaling more than $900 million. The Legislature approved $830 million of that. Though he believed the cliché about not throwing money at a problem was valid, Guinn also believed there was no way to solve Nevada’s staggering problems—he described the state as “fragile”—without carefully spent dollars. There was, he said, no way to diversify the state’s economy except by solving quality of life problems that put the state at the wrong end of innumerable national rankings and scared businesses away from relocating to the state.

“That was a very important part of the message that I was sending, that—look, what kind of a Nevada do we want to live in starting tomorrow and next year and for the future 10, 15 years that we can plan for? ” he said. “We have to change. … I’ve moved millions of dollars from the prison system to put into health care because we’ve been the 50th state on health care for our seniors and our children, the frailest and the oldest and the most dependent.”

One of his actions later raised questions. When a carefully orchestrated “crisis” over alleged unavailability of medical malpractice insurance was capped with a strike by doctors at a Las Vegas trauma center, Guinn called the Legislature into special session to deal with it. Later studies, including one by the U.S. General Accounting Office, found no crisis existed or was exaggerated.

Surprisingly, policymaking was not Guinn’s strength. He was first a skilled administrator who could get the most out of the people who worked for him. “He monitored where each of us were at on our reports, kept us working,” said former casino executive Phil Bryan, who served on a commission Guinn chaired. “I learned from him.”

In a time when political figures are always “on,” talking in code and constantly spinning things their own way, Guinn had an unusual reputation for an unpretentious style and for sharing credit. “I never felt he was gaming me,” said Guy Louis Rocha, one of his agency chiefs.

Guinn and his wife, Dema, were married for 54 years. Bryan said he once heard Guinn asked about his religion. Guinn replied, “I don’t know, maybe it’s my wife.” Bryan added, “God, how he loved his wife.”