Meeting in the middle
A gathering of those who used to govern is a reminder of today's poisonous politics
“There’s Kelly Peccole,” Richard Bryan exclaimed as he caught sight of a member of an old Reno family.
The former Nevada state legislator, state senator, attorney general, governor and U.S. senator had not lost his touch for remembering names and faces and places, even 12 years after he left politics and in areas distant from his hometown of Las Vegas. In remarks he made later, he referenced “Bruno Selmi’s Country Club” in Gerlach, a fixture of rural Nevada for six decades.
Bryan was in Reno for a ceremony at which he signed off his private papers to Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Nevada, Reno library, and numerous people from his time in politics were on hand. Significantly, they included both his fellow Democrats and Republicans. In fact, his 1986 Republican reelection opponent in the governor’s race, Patty Cafferata, was in attendance.
“We’ve always had a very cordial relationship,” Cafferata said. “We just had political differences.”
Back then, that second sentence did not interfere with the first sentence. As state treasurer, Cafferata sat with Bryan on the Nevada Board of Finance, and they worked fine together. It was a very different time.
Someone observed to Bryan that Congress has changed from when he was a U.S. Senator. “Oh, my gosh, yes,” he responded. “And change that I don’t think is in the best interests of the country.”
Bryan’s time in Congress was a transitional period in that institution. When he began serving on Jan. 3, 1989, there was still some of the collegiality in which Republicans and Democrats worked together. By the time he retired 12 years later, on Jan. 3, 2001, members could be branded as disloyal to the party if they were seen having lunch with members of the opposite party.
Bryan: “I was privileged to serve in a time when people had strong disagreements but were still able to reach an agreement and in which there were relationships outside of the partisan realm in which, after the day was over, people could visit socially, get together for family gatherings and find interests that they had in common, whether it was history or sports or whatever it was, and that seems to have been left aside.”
Also in attendance at Special Collections for Bryan’s ceremony was Cafferata’s mother, Barbara Vucanovich, a Republican and the state’s first woman U.S. House member, serving from 1983 to 1997. She said she would not want to go back to Washington, D.C., today.
“No, thank you,” Vucanovich said. “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.”
Even her daughter, who in her time was thought of as pretty partisan, is taken aback by what politics has become. Cafferata ran for the U.S. House in 1996, but has no interest in doing so again.
“No, because it is so partisan,” she said. “It is so personally ugly. It has become this era of personal destruction. I mean, that’s what all the campaigns are.”
Although politics was considered shallow back then, it seems like an Algonquin Round Table by comparison to today.
“You know, we ran on issues,” Cafferata said. “There were differences. You said what you thought, and you were done. But you didn’t virtually try to destroy somebody’s reputation, which is what’s happening now.”
Even the Nevada Legislature has slid into the hyper-partisanship that afflicts Congress.
“It has become so much more partisan than when I was there,” Cafferata said. “You know, you couldn’t tell the Republicans from the Democrats when I was there. We had a lot of moderate Republicans. We had a lot of conservative Democrats. I don’t think you have that today.”
Bryan, who began serving in the legislature in 1969, remembers a mutually respectful relationship at that level among legislators of different parties and regions.
“Oh, yes, it was [collegial],” he said. “In fact, I’ve often said coming up from Las Vegas as a Democrat, newly elected Democrat who’d been public defender, the people that I formed a bond with immediately were our counterparts in Washoe County, Republican legislators. And I served with a number of them on the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Roy Torvinen was the chairman. He’d been the [Reno] city attorney. Wonderful fellow. Bart Shouweiler, later became the U.S. Attorney, he was on that committee. And Harry Reid and I were kind of the newcomers from the south. I don’t recall much, if any, partisanship. There may been one or two issues. But, no. A different time.”
It was the Republican speaker of the Assembly, Howard McKissick, who gave the two first termers who worked closely together, Reid and Bryan, the nickname that stayed with them over the years—the gold dust twins. Everyone seemed to know they were going places.
Contrast that bipartisan environment with the 2003 Nevada Legislature, where Republican assemblymembers spent much of the session cloistered in their upstairs leadership offices in incessant closed caucuses, limiting contact with Democrats, strategizing on how to use their minority numbers to gridlock the process until they got their way—defeat of Republican Gov. Kenny Guinn’s business taxes. Three members of the GOP caucus who disagreed with these tactics were stigmatized and stopped meeting with their own caucus.
It’s not only the Republicans who went that way. Also in attendance at the Bryan ceremony at Special Collections was Thomas “Spike” Wilson, a Democratic state senator from 1970 to 1986. When he went back to the Legislature years later, he discovered that Democrats frequently interrupted legislative business to caucus and determine party policy.
“I don’t think we ever had a caucus when I was there,” he said after that visit.
Another factor in the culture of today’s politics is journalism that’s not very politically savvy and also seems to foster the poison. One member of a panel discussion that followed the Bryan ceremony at the UNR library was former state legislator and lieutenant governor Sue Wagner, a Republican. In January 1996 she announced that because Capitol Hill politics had become so extreme and uncivilized, she would not run for the U.S. House, a campaign she had long intended to run. The Reno Gazette-Journal responded with an editorial suggesting that she was a coward: “[T]he moderates slink off the stage without even putting up a fight.” If anything, it reinforced Wagner’s point (and prompted a flood of angry letters to the editor).