When mourners filed into The Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints of Latter-day Saints in Potomac, Md., on Tuesday to remember Nevada’s former Rep. James D. Santini, it was poignant that the crowd included the Silver State’s former Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan as well as its present Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
Santini, who died on Sept. 22 at age 78, served in the House for eight years as a Democrat but ran for the Senate as both a Democrat and a Republican.
Even as American politics grew more polarized, colleagues in both parties and on both sides of the ideological spectrum still called the last U.S. representative to represent all of Nevada “the Great Santini.”
A former prosecutor and local judge in Las Vegas, Santini was first elected to Congress in 1974 by unseated Republican Rep. David Towell in the so-called “Watergate year” that gave Democrats their biggest modern sweep of Congress. But unlike most of his colleagues in the Democratic “class of ’74”, the Nevadan was a conservative.
He was strongly pro-life, skeptical of excessive government spending, and opposed to aiding governments hostile to the U.S., such as the Marxist regime that came to power in Nicaragua in the late 1970s.
But Santini was also someone who was not absolute in his ideology. As his longtime top aide Bob Henrie recalled, “Jim was a Burton guy”—referring to the late, far-left Rep. Phil Burton of California. Santini supported him for majority leader in the still-remembered 1976 contest in which Burton lost to the more centrist Rep. Jim Wright, D-Texas, by one vote.
Burton and Santini shared a passion for conservation. As Burton biographer John Jacobs wrote, “environmentalists cited the Burton-Santini Act, which enabled land near Las Vegas to be sold and the proceeds used to purchase and thereby protect underdeveloped land near the lake, as the land use decision that best improved the quality and clarity of Lake Tahoe.”
By 1981, Santini was rated 86 percent by the American Conservative Union and had backed President Ronald Reagan on the historic tax and budget cuts of that year.
A year later, he ran for the Senate but lost an ugly primary battle to three-term Democratic Sen. Howard Cannon (who went on to lose in November to Republican Chic Hecht).
In 1986, Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt announced his retirement and supported Santini as his successor. Santini then became a Republican, a move that led Democrats to denounce him for “shameless opportunism.”
“While I was serving as chairman of the 1984 Reagan presidential campaign, I asked Jim to be the national chairman of the ‘Democrats for Reagan’ effort,” Laxalt recalled, “He declined. I feel that if he accepted the post, he could have easily overcome the ‘party-switching’ issue.”
Laxalt noted “Jim and his family worked their tails off, but the race was lost to then-Congressman Harry Reid. The party-switch plus an excellent campaign by Harry was too much for Jim to overcome.” (Carol Laxalt, wife of the former senator, and Landra Reid, wife of the current Senate Democratic leader, were among those at the service for Santini last week.)
Working in the tourism industry in his later years, Santini did something unusual for a politician when he, wife Ann, and several of their six children appeared on the popular TV game show “Family Feud.”
“You gain points by answering questions for dummies and your answers are scored by how popular they are with the public,” said daughter Lori Santini Egbers, “When [host] Richard Dawson asked ‘what’s a good place to get a date?’ Dad hit the buzzer, and shouted: ‘in the district attorney’s office!’
“That’s where he first met Mom when he was a young prosecutor. But it wasn’t an answer shared by a lot of other folks polled by ‘Family Feud.’”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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