Ralph Denton 1925-2012

Nevada liberal icon Ralph Denton has died at his home in Boulder City at age 86.

Denton was one of several men—Richard Ham and the late Otto Ravenholt were others—who became Democratic heroes in the state by taking on U.S. Rep. Walter Baring, a right wing Democrat, in Democratic primaries. Baring, once a moderate member of the U.S. House, moved far to the right during the Kennedy administration. At the time, Nevada had only one House member, so it was a statewide race.

Denton advocated liberal views that carried greater weight coming from a native son who was raised in Caliente. He was particularly forceful on civil rights in a state that still had racial bars. After attending law school in Washington, D.C., where he met another law student named Grant Sawyer, he returned to Nevada and ultimately became a deputy to Sawyer, who had become Elko County district attorney.

Later Denton moved to southern Nevada. He became one of a small group of advisors to Sawyer when auto manufacturing millionaire Errett Cord funded the governorship campaign of state Attorney General Harvey Dickerson, raising the possibility of a governor taking office beholden to a single man for most of his financial backing.

In a three-way race, Sawyer beat Dickerson in the Democratic primary with surprising ease. In that year, the Democratic nomination was nearly tantamount to victory—the incumbent Republican had lost the support of his own party and was trying for a third term. Sawyer served two terms as governor.

Some of Sawyer’s small cadre joined his administration, but Denton went back to Boulder City, though he continued his political support and counsel of Sawyer.

In 1964, in the first primary after Baring’s “conversion,” Denton lost to the incumbent by just 3 percent of the vote. He ran again in 1966, losing by 3.5 percent. (He later said he ran the second time in order to pay the bills left over from the first time.)

Denton did serve as Esmeralda County district attorney and as a Clark County commissioner.

In 1968 he aided U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy in getting elected assistant majority leader of the Senate by bringing pressure on Nevada senators.

Over the years Denton took on a steady stream of unpopular clients. Michael Green, who worked on Denton’s book A Liberal Conscience with him, once said he was “a living refutation of every nasty lawyer joke ever told.”