Bill Bilyeu served two terms in the Nevada Assembly, representing northeast Nevada. He has since moved to Reno where he practices law (he represented university regent Howard Rosenberg and a southern Nevada professor, both of whom were targets of efforts to remove them). Bilyeu is the last person to serve as a fully empowered Republican speaker of the assembly (this is phrased cautiously because of the anomaly of 1995, when an evenly divided house had speakers from each party). He left elective office after his turbulent term as speaker. He has little interest in getting back into politics, but he keeps his hand in doing things like commenting on KUNR about the first Kerry/Bush debate.
You’ve seen power move from the legislative halls into the hallways. Why do you think that happened?
The system has evolved so that now it’s money-driven. I think that the first time I ran for political office, an assembly seat, it cost me something like maybe $8,000 to get elected, and I had a hotly contested race. And that money came mostly from myself and from friends. Now, what’s an assembly race cost? A hundred, two hundred thousand dollars? That’s obscene. It’s obscene to me when you have people running for office and spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. Well, who puts up that money? Special interests, for the most part. …We’ve also seen a weakening of the power of political parties and that has been in the name of reform, the concept, a number of years ago, with smoke-filled backrooms, power brokers, and things like that. Well, all we have done is change the power brokers. It’s no longer the political parties. The political parties really don’t have that much control over their members. There is no longer really that much political patronage to be had. So it’s an evolution.
When you talk about legislators getting money from the special interests, why does it make that much difference? California Speaker Jesse Unruh used to say you should be able to drink their booze, screw their women, take their money, and then vote against them. Why can’t legislators in Nevada vote against big givers? They’re just lousy little legislative seats.
I didn’t do all those categories [laughs], OK? But I would occasionally, as a matter of fact—I was very wont while I was down there to buy a lobbyist a drink as opposed to accepting their drinks. …The fact of the matter is that people run for elected office and then they want to stay in power. I think politics ought to be an avocation instead of a vocation. In fact, I would advocate the old Greek system where, when it came to John Doe’s turn to go, then John Doe had to go no matter what.
There was a certain pride in bipartisanship at one time, [pride] that you worked together. Now, it seems to be a term that is used for show, but actually working with the other side is sometimes considered consorting with the enemy. How did we get here? Why are we so polarized?
I don’t know. It’s the nature of what politics has evolved to. I don’t know the answer to that question other than I kind of subscribe to the theory that periodically mankind goes through periods of madness and anger and hate and things like that. It’s prevalent throughout our society today. I see people who are angry, and I can’t figure out why they’re angry. We live probably in the best society extant in the world today. Granted, we have people who are in poverty and who are not as well off as other people, yet when I travel in Third World countries, our poor are so much better off than their so-called middle class in terms of amenities, in terms of health, in terms of housing, in terms of just things like water and sewer, things like that. I don’t know the answer, Dennis