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Becky Harris, Part 1

Becky Harris
Courtesy Nevada State Legislature

State Senator Becky Harris made some news recently: she’s the first woman appointed to chair the Nevada Gaming Control Board. It’s about time.

She’s only the second woman ever appointed to the board. The first was attorney Patty Becker. She was named in 1983 by … well, let me just say, Governor Sandoval, welcome to the club of governors who have appointed women to the control board. Our membership is now up to two.

At the same time, the control board hasn’t been around THAT long. We thought it might be useful to look back at its origins.

The 1955 legislature created the control board. That was a busy session. Lawmakers divided the state into county-wide school districts for the first time—and that’s still the system today. They passed legislation related to creating a university campus in Las Vegas.

Many have thought the control board resulted from pressure related to national attention to organized crime. The reality is that organized crime was the cause, but not the way people think.

In 1950, Senator Estes Kefauver and his committee on organized crime came to Las Vegas and held hearings. They were at the downtown federal building, now The Mob Museum. Kefauver’s report on Nevada’s gaming industry was scathing. He was critical of mob ties and of the state for allowing casino executives to hold office and serve on boards, including the one that then regulated gambling.

That board was the Nevada Tax Commission. It had been created during the early twentieth century, when progressives were expanding the role of government in regulating business and industry. But it wasn’t until 1945 that the Tax Commission began regulating casinos. From the legalization in 1931 until then, local government handled licensing. The state just got some of the money. But the 1945 legislature instituted a tax on gaming revenue, and gave the state a say in regulating it.

By then, some mobsters were already involved. And pretty much the entire investigative apparatus consisted of one man, Robbins Cahill—honest and hard-working, but there’s only so much one man can do.

Then came the 1954 governor’s election. Republican Charles Russell was running for a second term. He was a Lovelock native who had gone to school in Deeth and Elko, and graduated from the university in Reno. He moved to Ely, where he published a newspaper and won several terms in the legislature and one term in the House of Representatives. He’d had a tough election the first time against an incumbent, Democrat Vail Pittman, who was running again—AND had been a fellow editor and legislator in Ely. Pittman had come to Nevada to work in mining in Tonopah, following in the footsteps of his older brother Key, who would serve several terms in the U.S. Senate from Nevada.

Russell’s campaign supposedly was in trouble in 1954. As I have reason to know, when you’re governor, you get a lot of chances to make people happy, but even more to make them mad at you.

What happened next has a lot to do with why Brian Sandoval could appoint Becky Harris to a gaming control board leadership position. And we’ll explain that next time.