Wagner between covers

Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner and Gov. Bob Miller at a reception for legislative interns in 1995.

Lt. Gov. Sue Wagner and Gov. Bob Miller at a reception for legislative interns in 1995.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Sue Wagner’s long awaited oral history has finally been released. At least one local bookstore, Sundance Books, has it on the shelves.

Wagner served as a Nevada assemblymember and senator from 1974 to 1991, chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee for many years. She became Nevada lieutenant governor in 1991, retiring from elected office in 1995. She is now an appointed state gambling regulator.

In this state with such terrific population turnover that a politician can become little known by being out of office for four years, the 466-page book serves to record some recent political history that might otherwise be forgotten. Guy Louis Rocha of the Nevada State Archives says it’s important “for Sue Wagner’s legacy to be better known in this state” because she is such a significant figure in recent state events. (An oral history is an autobiography that, instead of being written, is done with questions and answers by an interviewer—in this case, Vikki Ford.)

Wagner was at the center of numerous Nevada battles over important public policies, all of which are covered in the book—prison overcrowding, domestic violence, open government, birth defects, gender equality. She is the author of the state law that provides a funding source (a portion of marriage license fees) for local domestic violence shelter programs and was a leader in the unsuccessful fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Nevada.

There are dozens of state laws on the books with Wagner’s name on them. She believes her most important achievement is a law dealing with fetal testing so that birth defects can be repaired in the womb.

But Wagner’s career was also marred by terrible tragedies—the crash of a plane that killed her husband, scientist Peter Wagner, on a cloud seeding mission, and the crash of a small plane carrying Wagner herself during her campaign for lieutenant governor. Wagner survived that crash, which killed another passenger, but her fragile condition and complications during her recovery cut short her political career.

The book also touches on the difficulty many Nevada women politicians have had keeping their homes and marriages together when their husbands were less than supportive of their careers and the more generalized problems all women politicians face.

While Wagner’s husband was very supportive, she did face the more general problems. When she began her career in elective politics in 1974, she encountered people who told her, “You should be at home with your kids.”

By the end of her political career, it was the other way around—she faced demands that she not leave politics. When she announced in 1996 that she would not run for a vacant congressional seat because she felt Congress had become so meanspirited and dogmatic on religious and other issues, the Reno Gazette-Journal ran an editorial suggesting she was a coward. (The newspaper backed off after being hit by a flood of angry letters.)

Wagner’s former senate colleague, Reno attorney Thomas “Spike” Wilson, has proposed her for inclusion in the Nevada Senate Hall of Fame.

“The extent and breadth of proposed legislation which she has submitted over the years is a strong testament to why she should be admitted to the Hall of Fame, and the senate is long overdue in naming her to the hall of fame, and I do not understand why they have not done so before now.”