Beyond sagebrush politics: A prospering megalopolis steers Nevada

  • Gambling helps make Las Vegas a fast-growing city

    Las Vegas News Bureau
  • Quick weddings are one attraction of Las Vegas

    Kit Miller
  • Other services are another attraction

    Kit Miller
  • Elko, one of the cow counties, is home to ranches and agriculture

    Jon Christensen
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Nevada doesn't get a lot of respect. It has been called "The tag-end of Creation," "America's Great Mistake" and "the Rotten Borough." John Muir said it was "irredeemable now and forever." The Almanac of American Politics, considered by many to be the bible of basic political research, says, "Its existence as a state is happenstance."

More accurately, its existence is due to politics (HCN, 10/13/97). Nevada became a state in 1864, even though it didn't meet the population requirement, because Republicans thought they needed its three electoral votes to win re-election for Abraham Lincoln.

When the silver and gold booms of the late 1800s and early 1900s petered out, the population dropped again, the state nearly went bankrupt, and there was even talk in Washington, D.C., of revoking statehood. But in the early 1930s, Nevada legalized gambling and reduced the residency requirement for divorce to six weeks. "Catering to what most Americans considered sin - casinos, pawnshops, divorce mills, quick wedding chapels, even legal brothels - turned out to be good business," the Almanac notes.

Today, no one talks of revoking statehood. Nevada has been America's fastest-growing state since the 1960 census, when the population was 285,278. In 1970 it was 488,738. In 1980 it was 800,508. In 1990 it was 1.2 million. And today it is estimated to be 1.8 million and is still growing.

Most Nevadans - around 1.2 million - live in greater Las Vegas, which also happens to be one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Most of the state's 4,000 to 6,000 new residents a month move to Las Vegas. The greater Reno-Carson City-Gardnerville-Minden front range along the Sierra Nevada in the northern part of the state is home to around 400,000 residents.

The rest of Nevada is known as the "cow counties." Although the number of cows is down, cattle still outnumber people there by at least two to one. Around 87 percent of the state is federal land, and most of that is leased to ranchers by the Bureau of Land Management.

In addition to seeing cows in central Nevada, you might see low-flying military jets. The Pentagon controls 4 million acres in the state and even more air space.

Mining is also important, especially in northeastern Nevada, where around 60 percent of the gold produced in the United States is mined.

But it is gaming, Nevada's euphemism for gambling, and tourism that run the state. Around 30 million tourists spend $22.5 billion a year in Las Vegas. Another 5 million tourists come to Reno each year and spend almost $4 billion.

The gambling-hotel-resort industry employs 26 percent of the workers in Nevada, while an additional 18 percent are employed in other services. Retail trade jobs account for 16 percent and wholesale for 4 percent of Nevada workers. Governments employ 12 percent (this figure includes most teachers).

Eight percent are in construction, building houses for newcomers and new casinos. Fourteen percent is divided among manufacturing; utilities and transportation; and finance, insurance and real estate. Two percent are engaged in mining.

Nevada has traditionally sent "Dixiecrats' to Washington - conservative Democratic senators dedicated to bringing home the bacon to a state heavily dependent on the federal government. The state's current senators - senior Sen. Harry Reid and junior Sen. Richard Bryan - are both Democrats. But the two representatives in Congress are currently Republicans.

Rep. John Ensign is running for the Senate this fall, trying to unseat Reid. Since 1994, when he won in an upset, Ensign has represented the traditionally Democratic First District in Nevada, consisting of the densely populated core of Las Vegas and its nearby suburbs. Shelley Berkeley, a former Democratic Assemblywoman and university regent, is running for the open House seat against Don Chairez, a former District Court judge, who switched parties to run against her as a Republican.

In the Second District, which encompasses 99.8 percent of the state's land area, Rep. Jim Gibbons is a runaway favorite to be re-elected, since no Democrat is running for the seat. Gibbons faces only Independent American, Libertarian and Natural Law candidates.

All of the candidates hew to the state religion in Nevada, which is antinuclear, at least when it comes to waste. It was not always so. The powers that be in Nevada celebrated and defended testing of nuclear weapons in the desert north of Las Vegas up until George Bush signed a testing moratorium in 1992. But since the 1970s, when there were still a few politicians willing to consider storing nuclear waste as an economic development policy, politicians have realized that appearing weak on accepting waste is political suicide.

So despite perennial defeats in Congress, Nevada's delegation filibusters in the Senate and hatches arcane maneuvers in the House to delay the day that Yucca Mountain becomes the nation's nuclear waste "suppository," in the words of one-time Sen. Chic Hecht (the unfortunate quote contributed to his defeat by Richard Bryan in 1988).

Sometimes these political gambits pay off. President Clinton has vowed to veto a temporary nuclear storage site in Nevada - a promise that helped him carry the state in 1992 and 1996. And House Speaker Newt Gingrich pulled a bill to set up a temporary waste dump in Nevada in 1996 to help John Ensign win re-election.

At the state level, current Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat, cannot run again, having served the limit of two terms. Jan Jones, the Democratic mayor of Las Vegas, is running against Republican Kenny Guinn for the governor's office.

In the Legislature, Republicans held a 12-9 majority in the last state Senate and Democrats controlled the Assembly 25-17. The perennial battle is the "fair share" debate between southern and northern Nevada - Las Vegas and Reno - over how to divide the spoils of gaming taxes. The cow counties have been mostly irrelevant since the 1960s, when state Senate seats began to be assigned according to population rather than land area.