Biographer remembers state’s longest serving senator
February 24, 2012
Nevada lost one of its clearest thinkers with the death of Reno native and longest-serving senator Bill Raggio, the lawmaker’s biographer said.
Raggio, who resigned his seat in the state senate last year, died on Thursday in Australia while visiting his family.
A Reno native, Raggio, 85, began his public service in 1952 and finished in 2011. He was Washoe County district attorney for 12 years and served in the Senate for more than 38 years. His legislative service includes 10 sessions as majority leader.
Author Mike Archer, who wrote “A Man of His Word: The Life and Times of Nevada’s Senator William J. Raggio,” said the senator was a tough prosecutor and a careful legislator.
“He came from a generation that found political posturing to be a bit distasteful,” Archer said. “He was a tough guy who could make tough decisions. He once told me that if you really listen to the arguments, 99 percent of the time what both sides have to say is so compelling you could vote either way.”
Archer said Raggio was in large part responsible for Nevada’s fiscally conservative policy.
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“It was his abilities that made this a fiscally conservative state,” he said. “Raggio inched along to work out the best deal for the state under the circumstances.”
Before he was a senator, Raggio was a prosecutor who tried nine capital cases and served as Washoe County District Attorney.
“He said he never thought he would be any good at criminal law, but he turned out to be a devastating prosecutor,” Archer said.
Raggio prosecuted Thomas Lee Bean who killed Olympic skier Sonja McCaskie in 1963. Archer said seeing the state of McCaskie’s body and the crime scene where she’d been killed continued to affect Raggio in later years. McCaskie is still on death row in Nevada.
Raggio’s nemesis over the years was brothel owner Joe Conforte, whose prosecution Archer characterized as a war.
“Raggio was trying to close him down and Conforte tried to set (Raggio) up with an underage girl,” Archer related. “He taped his meeting where Conforte tried to extort him. There was a big sensational trial and Conforte was convicted in 1960 and sentenced to 22 months in prison. Raggio burned his brothel in Wasdsworth down. During the trial of Judge Harry Claiborne, Raggio asked Oscar Goodman if he could join the defense team just so he could cross examine Conforte on the stand. His cross examination was withering.”
Whether as a prosecutor or senator, Raggio could be all business, but he had a Nevadan’s sense of humor.
Archer relates that Raggio and Las Vegas Judge Charles Thompson were on a rafting trip in Chile and decided to visit Machu Picchu.
“Raggio was infamous for hitting people up for $20 and he’d run out of cash in Chile so he borrowed $75 from Thompson,” Archer said. “A couple of weeks later, Raggio came into Thompson’s chambers to write him a check to pay off the debt and in the lower lefthand corner he wrote in big letters the word ‘bribe,’ so Thompson wouldn’t cash it. I talked to Thompson and he said he needed the money so he cashed the check. Five years later Raggio was being cleared by the Gaming Control Board to become a corporate officer of a gaming concern, and the control board came across the check he wrote and showed it to Raggio and asked for an explanation. He suggested the gaming control guy take it to Judge Thompson and Mirandize him in an effort to keep the joke going.”
Nevada officials from both sides of the aisle expressed their condolences at Raggio’s death.
Stateline resident Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki called Raggio a mentor and friend.
“Bill was a true public servant and his sole agenda was simply to make Nevada a better place,” Krolicki said. “He has left an unmatched political footprint upon our state, and the citizens will reap the rewards of this gifted and decent gentleman for many years to come. Kelly and I have the Raggio family in our prayers, and our hearts go out to Dale and his children. I hope they are comforted by the knowledge that all Nevadans are mourning his passing, and we are forever grateful to have been blessed by his devotion, leadership and friendship.”
Rep. Mark Amodei said Raggio was an example of the best in public service.
“This is the end of an era in Nevada,” Amodei said. “Bill was an icon of legislative public service and it was a privilege to serve with him in the state senate. My condolences go out to his wife Dale and his two daughters.”