By Mike Archer
Travelers arriving at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport invariably pass by the bronze bust of Senator William J. Raggio, smiling back at them from a pedestal behind a velvet cord. Raised lettering on the wall behind the bust proclaims him to be “Father of the Airport Authority.” Raggio’s success in establishing that governmental entity, which broke the stranglehold of longtime, local monopolies, revolutionized the tourist industry in northern Nevada, but was just one of his many significant accomplishments in shaping the State.
William John Raggio, Jr. was born in Reno, then the picturesque “City of Trembling Leaves,” in a small Vine Street maternity cottage on October 30, 1926—just a few hours short of Nevada Day. He was a fourth-generation Nevadan and descendant of immigrants from northern Italy who had arrived penniless; but, by hard work and thrift, saved enough to become successful landowners. These values, along with an abiding respect for the country that provided them such a golden opportunity, were passed along and instilled in Bill, whetted through the Great Depression and a World War that encompassed his early life.
By the 1960’s, Raggio was nationally recognized as a brilliant and gutsy district attorney, fighting endemic corruption in the local city government and police department, and personally prosecuting some of the most heinous crimes ever committed in Nevada. But all of this came at a personal cost, with the lives of Bill and his family disrupted by threats of violence to the point where trusted police sentries kept watch, often for weeks at a time, on the Raggio home each night and often escorted his three children to school for their protection.
After an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate, Bill Raggio was elected to the Nevada State Senate in 1972. Once there, he spent long hours learning his job, impressing colleagues with his dedication and work ethic, and was soon chosen as Senate Minority Floor Leader. As a member of the Senate Committee on Finance, Bill carefully studied the intricacies of the state budget and became widely admired for his prodigious intellect and extraordinary retention, even among those who did not share his conservative political views.
In 1987, when Republicans won a majority in the Senate, Bill became Floor Leader and Chair of the Finance Committee, guiding that governing body over most of the next two decades with a willingness to listen and consider the needs and opinions of others. His charisma, patience and sense of fairness—balanced, when he felt it necessary, with an intimidating presence and an occasional calculated fit of temper—steered colleagues to acceptable compromises and kept the Legislature functioning.
Bill’s longevity in these legislative posts was all the more remarkable because of the dramatic political power shift during his tenure to Clark County. Despite southern Nevada legislators comprising a significant majority of seats in the Senate, northerner Bill kept his leadership position largely due to his cleverness and experience, which allowed him to play the political game like an accomplished chess master—always several moves ahead of his rivals. During this time, he often was referred to, by both admirers and critics alike, as "Nevada's Shadow Governor."
Of all Senator Raggio’s accomplishments, he was most proud of his prominent role in the creation and passage of the Nevada Education Reform Act, one of the most complex and controversial pieces of legislation ever to challenge state lawmakers. Yet, he was able to lead them through that maze with his encyclopedic knowledge and talent for synthesizing a discussion down to its essence.
He was also an ardent supporter of Nevada’s colleges and universities. Students at the University of Nevada, Reno, campus are reminded of this daily by the looming presence of the William J. Raggio College of Education Building. In Clark County, his contribution as an outstanding role model for those entering the legal profession is seen in his name on the largest classroom facility at the Boyd School of Law.
As a life-long Republican, Senator Raggio was dedicated to maintaining low taxes, but understood that circumstances change and increases were sometimes necessary. During the 2003 legislative session, he was challenged by, what he termed, “far right” conservatives within the Senate’s Republican caucus. This split was largely the result of his decision to join Republican Governor Kenny Guinn, and over two-thirds of the Legislature, in voting for a tax increase to keep Nevada schools open. It was a tough choice, Bill later said, but necessary because Nevada’s children deserved teachers, books, and decent classrooms “like those of us who had come before.”
This internal political rift widened and, during the 2008 Republican primary election, the Tea Party faction ran their own candidate in a heated, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign to oust the incumbent Raggio. Rather than discounting these challenges, Senator Raggio embraced them as an opportunity to remind his fellow lawmakers that they were elected “not just to serve Republican or Democrat constituents, but in the best interest of all the people of Nevada,” and that inflexible political positions, pledges, and narrow, overly-simplistic answers for solving the broad and complex issues facing the State, were an abdication of their duty to thoughtfully vet information, and make informed decisions.
During the 2010 election for Nevada’s U.S. Senate seat, Bill was among more than two hundred prominent Nevada Republicans to endorse Democratic Senator Harry Reid against his Tea Party opponent. Nevertheless, Bill became the lightning rod for ire when Reid won reelection. Two weeks later, the Republican Senate Caucus stripped Raggio of his leadership position. On January 5, 2011, Senator Raggio announced the end of his 56-year-long career in public service.
From presidents and other luminaries in the political, legal and business world, to sports figures and entertainers, including his warm personal friendship with Frank Sinatra, Bill Raggio seemed larger than life. And no legislator in the annals of Nevada history left a larger footprint on the political landscape. A product of the old school of Nevada politics, Bill was never an ideologue; but rather a pragmatist who recognized early on in his political life that compromise was not an act of betrayal or surrender, but the only way to achieve results in the legislative process. For Bill Raggio, integrity, courage and compassion were not merely worthy and attainable virtues, but essential to the healthy governance of Nevada and our nation.
On New Year’s Day 2011, just a year before his death from a respiratory illness, eighty-four-year-old Raggio reflected on his life: “There are very few things I would have done differently, even now knowing the consequences, but I have always tried to keep my word on things that I believed. I am honored and privileged to have had the sustained support of my constituents, and must acknowledge that it’s been a great ride.”
Happy 92nd birthday, Senator. It was a great ride for us, too.
Michael Archer is the author of A Man of His Word: The Life & Times of Nevada’s Senator William J. Raggio. His articles and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Nevada Review and the Political History of Nevada—2016.