Two Nevadans sought the U.S. presidency
As interest in the 2012 presidential contest shifts west and focuses on the Nevada caucuses, the question may be asked, “Has a Nevadan ever been nominated by or sought the presidency of a nationwide U.S. political party?”
The answer is “yes.” In fact, two Nevadans have reached for the country’s highest political office.
In July 1908, the Socialist Labor Party at its national convention in New York nominated Morris “Morrie” Preston, a Goldfield union leader, as its presidential candidate.
And Carson City lawyer Paul Laxalt, who during his lengthy political career served as Ormsby County (now Carson City) district attorney and Nevada’s lieutenant governor and governor and U.S. senator, sought the vice presidency in 1980 and the presidency in 1988 on the Republican ticket.
Both men were unsuccessful in their quests for national office.
Preston, the business agent of the Western Federation of Miners, an arm of the Industrial Workers of the World also known as the “Wobblies,” was nominated as the Socialist Labor Party’s candidate while serving a 25-year term in the Nevada State Prison in Carson City for a murder he allegedly committed in Goldfield in 1907.
An advocate of his party’s platform of “socialist industrial unionism,” Preston represented Nevada miners, construction workers, mill hands, bartenders, waitresses and other union members in their quest for higher wages and better working conditions from mine officials and local business owners.
Preston was walking a Goldfield picket line one day in front of a restaurant owned by a fellow named Tony Silva who had refused to pay his staff union wages, and the two men got into a shouting and shoving match.
They drew their revolvers, but Preston was quicker on the trigger and reportedly shot Silva dead on the spot.
Preston ran off, but was arrested, tried, convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison.
Also arrested in connection with Silva’s demise was Preston’s friend Joseph Smith.
He was sentenced to 10 years on charges of involuntary manslaughter although he was at home having dinner at the time of the shooting.
Preston’s fame spread across the land, and he received his party’s presidential nomination and was interviewed in his Carson City cell by newspapermen who labeled him “the freak candidate of all history.”
Socialist Labor Party leaders, though, soon realized it would be awkward to keep Preston’s name on the ballot, and eventually named party member August Gillhous of New York to take his place.
Gillhous received only 14,029 votes nationwide, and Republican William Howard Taft was elected president after defeating Democrat William Jennings Bryan.
During his incarceration, Preston repeatedly sought a pardon but was turned down each time. He was paroled after serving 10 years and died in Los Angeles in 1924 after falling from a telephone pole. Smith was paroled after serving five years and died in Oakland in 1935.
Both men, however, were awarded posthumous pardons by the Nevada Parole Board in 1987 after it was revealed that prosecution witnesses had lied during their trials.
It was only the second time that posthumous pardons were granted by the state of Nevada.
The pardons were given only after pressure from Smith’s surviving relatives and the publication of a University of Nevada Press book, “The Ignoble Conspiracy: Radicalism on Trial in Nevada,” by then-Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha and UNR professor Sally Zanjani.
As for Laxalt’s quest for the presidency:
Laxalt, who had become a close friend of Ronald Reagan when they were serving as governors of Nevada and California, received national prominence while serving as national chairman of Reagan’s presidential campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980.
During the GOP national convention that year, Laxalt was named as a potential Reagan running mate, but the position eventually was given to George H.W. Bush.
In 1988, after his retirement from the U.S. Senate, Laxalt again sought national office, this time declaring himself a candidate for president at the Republican national convention.
But because he waited too long to enter the race and fell short of fundraising goals, the nomination went to George H.W. Bush.
Laxalt served as a co-chairman of Bush’s successful campaign and eight years later held a similar role in Bob Dole’s losing presidential bid.
Laxalt, the son of a pioneer Carson City family, today is 90 and lives in Washington, D.C., where he still practices law.