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Paul Laxalt: A Governor Who Cared About His State

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In this April, 1981 file photo, Senator Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), appears on ABC's Good Morning America television show in Washington. Laxalt, the conservative Republican who rose to political power as a Nevada governor, U.S. senator and close ally to Ronald Reagan has died at age 96. A public relations firm says he died Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, at a health care facility in Virginia. (AP Photo, File)

Paul Laxalt was a Nevada governor and U.S. senator for two terms, a close political ally of President Ronald Reagan and a statesman respected for the manner he treated even those he disagreed with.

He died this week in Virginia at the age of 96.

He was the son of Basque sheepherders in northern Nevada. His grandson is Adam Laxalt, who is campaigning for governor.

Jon Ralston and former Nevada governor and senator Richard Bryan joined State of Nevada to talk about Laxalt's far-reaching legacy in the state.

“He was the most charming individual I knew,” former Senator Richard Bryan said about Laxalt.

He said he had a certain charisma that drew people in.

And although Bryan and Laxalt were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Bryan said Laxalt was never antagonistic towards him.

Bryan said part of that is who Laxalt was as a person and part of it is it was a totally different time in American politics.

“He was a man who respected the office he held,” Bryan said, “He respected others and you just didn’t get this kind of acrimony that today, unfortunately, characterizes much of our public dialogue involving our public officials.”

 Jon Ralston, who has covered politics in Nevada for years, agrees that Paul Laxalt had a certain charisma that could change the dynamics of the room he walked into.

Ralston remembers meeting him when he was first starting out as a political reporter in 1986. Laxalt was at a fundraiser for a man looking to replace him in the Senate and he was going to announce his run for president.

“My palms were sweating,” Ralston remembers about their first meeting.

But Laxalt quickly put the cub political reporter at ease, asking him questions about himself and treating him like a member of the family.

“He was so disarming I don’t think I asked a decent question,” Ralston recalls.

Bryan remembers Laxalt using his power as governor to smooth the way for corporations to become part of the casino industry, which at the time was controlled by the mob.

Laxalt also supported the creation of the state’s community college system, which some people opposed because they were concerned it would take money from the universities.

He also used his friendship with President Ronald Reagan to end a controversial missile plan in Nevada.

But Ralston questions why Laxalt did not use that friendship to stop the so-called Screw Nevada bill, which made Nevada that only option for storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mtn.

Although he can’t be sure, Bryan believes that many people in Nevada at the time thought the plan for Yucca Mtn. was part of the state’s role in national security and they should just accept it.

Now, Paul Laxalt’s grandson Adam Laxalt is running for governor.

Bryan said Adam Laxalt is much more conservative than his grandfather and he has a sharper edge to his politics than his grandfather.

Ralston took it a step further.

He said Adam Laxalt “has only been in Nevada politics for a cup of coffee.”

And while Adam Laxalt knows how to present himself and knows how to find issues, Ralston doesn’t believe his grandfather would be happy with some of what Laxalt has done.

“I don’t think Adam Laxalt’s grandfather would like the way Adam Laxalt is conducting himself vis a vie the governor or in this campaign. That might be presumptuous of me, but I just don’t see him approving of that kind of behavior, I just don’t.”

Jon Ralston, editor, Nevada Independent;  Sen. Richard Bryan

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
Casey Morell is the coordinating producer of Nevada Public Radio's flagship broadcast State of Nevada and one of the station's midday newscast announcers. (He's also been interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, whatever that's worth.)