Not your average Joe
It was in the days before Caller ID when I picked up the phone and was stunned to hear Joe Dini’s voice on the other end. “I hear you’re going to win back District 27 for us,” he said. “We need more people like you who care about kids and families.”
At the time, I had mentioned the idea of running for the state Assembly to just a handful of people, but Speaker Dini had already heard. His information pipeline was invisible but effective. He was just calling to seal the deal so we could get to work.
As a Dini Democrat, I was happy to accept his friendship and mentorship. Freshmen legislators in those days were taught to take their time, learn the process, develop the relationships, and proceed carefully and cautiously in their first session. Joe advised us to think before speaking, to “keep your powder dry” and not lay all our cards on the table immediately.
Speaker Dini would often linger in the lunchroom with freshmen of both parties, telling stories and handing out advice that might have seemed trite and maybe even condescending from anyone but him. “Freshmen should be seen and not heard,” was a favorite line of his, cautioning us to think carefully before asking a question in committee and to be respectful of the chairman of the committee, legislative colleagues, and especially the citizen witness.
In those talks around the lunch table in the caucus room, he often lamented the increasing time pressures brought on by the 120-day session, saying people needed to have the evenings off to build relationships with each other so compromise could be reached the next day.
Even back in 1999, he was perplexed by people like Sharron Angle and her propensity to vote no on everything without offering a rationale or alternative solution to a problem. He’d ask me, “What’s going on in Washoe County? Why are they sending someone like her to represent them when she’s not interested in moving the state forward?” I was never able to provide an answer he could accept.
Joe loved the Clampers, and he ignored the protests of female legislators when he allowed them on the floor to celebrate Clampers Day. He loved his colleagues from both sides of the aisle, encouraging John Carpenter’s quirky Suzy Q obsession and his Cowboy Hall of Fame Day. He was secure enough to promote brilliant women like Barbara Buckley, and he took great delight in using her intellect and political skills to advance the Democratic agenda.
I was summoned to his office during the first weeks of the 1999 session to help him figure out how to assist Republican John Marvel, caught in a controversy over his use of the term “wetback” to describe Nevada’s Hispanic farm workers. When I explained why the Latino and progressive communities were so deeply offended by Marvel’s comments, Joe told me he understood but asked me to convey to these groups that it wasn’t fair to judge Marvel by current sensibilities. “To him, it’s just a word he’s always used,” he said.
After he retired, I saw him now and then, and he’d always wave me over to talk. I’d go with trepidation, expecting him to disapprove of my liberal ranting about this or that. Instead, he’d always remark favorably on my advocacy in the media, and he’d question me closely about the issue. “Keep fighting!” he’d say. “We need that.”
Speaker Dini deserves all the accolades we’ve heard in the last week since his death, but he would probably prefer to be remembered simply for his deep love for the state, its people, and a legislature he led with skill and civility, focused on doing what was right for the average Joe.