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Influence: Power surge
Story by Michael Green and Illustration by Aaron Mckinney
Nevada has tempted the influential with many chances to misuse their power. Here are five times they gave in
Eben Rhoades and the Disappearing Money
In the same 1864 election in which they supported Honest Abe Lincoln, Nevadans elected Eben Rhoades state treasurer. He won a second term in 1866. He hired his brother as his deputy and spent most of his time in San Francisco, apparently trying to sell state bonds, until he died there, reportedly a suicide, in 1869.
Then an audit found that he had embezzled or had no record of $106,000 in state revenue. It got worse. The Nevada Board of Examiners — the governor, secretary of state and attorney general — professed to know nothing about it, although the governor, Henry Blasdel, had received a loan from Rhoades. A who’s who of Nevada leaders had vouched for his salary and good behavior. But when lawmakers tried to bill them for the loss, the next governor, Lewis Bradley, vetoed the bill. Later estimates concluded that the financial loss to Nevada, considering the interest it would have generated, may have exceeded $300 million.
The Big Four’s Big Feet
In 1873, the discovery of the “Big Bonanza,” a 12-foot-wide vein under Virginia City, made multimillionaires of its owners: John Mackay, James Fair, James Flood and William O’Brien. Two years later, the Legislature raised taxes on corporations. The Comstock Big Four, as they were known, resented it. So they simply refused to pay.
In 1877, the Legislature passed a bill slicing their tax by more than 30 percent, but Gov. Lewis Bradley vetoed it, saying “it does not become the dignity of a state to be dictated to by a couple of nonresident corporations.” The Territorial Enterprise, the Virginia City newspaper co-owned by Mackay, replied that Bradley “is old and decrepit, and it would be cowardice to abuse or insult him. ... But would to God that he was a young man that we might publish how much we wish that he was dead.”
Finally, in 1883, the mine owners paid about $300,000 in back taxes, plus penalties. During the mine’s productive years, the four divided dividends of $74 million.
The Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, approved in 1913, changed the method of electing U.S. senators. Rather than leaving it to state legislatures, voters would decide. Nevada provided a textbook example of the need for the change.
In 1873, two Comstock mining millionaires, John Percival Jones and William Sharon, competed for a Senate seat. Their campaigns bribed lawmakers — indeed, both of them bribed some of the same legislators. Jones won and served five terms. Two years later, Sharon sought the other Senate seat and won it. He showed up for one session during his six-year term.
“I Have Took Over Everything”
No individual has exercised the power in Nevada that George Wingfield wielded. A cowboy, gambler and saloonkeeper in the Winnemucca area, he partnered with George Nixon, a banker and politician, to invest in mines and other businesses in Tonopah and Goldfield during a mining boom in the early 1900s. In 1906, they incorporated the Goldfield Consolidated Mines Company at $50 million, and made it the first Nevada mining firm on the New York Stock Exchange. In 1909, they ended their partnership, with Wingfield taking their mines, prompting him to declare, “I have took over everything.”
In 1907, a radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World, tried to organize in Goldfield, leading to a general strike. Police arrested two organizers for murder, and they were convicted. Wingfield and other mine owners notified Gov. John Sparks that Goldfield had grown too violent and requested that he ask for federal troops to restore order; since he owed Wingfield money, the governor complied. The presence of troops effectively broke the strike, and the mine owners paid the nonunion replacements less.
“The Old Man”
In 1932, Pat McCarran won election to the U.S. Senate. He was determined to stay there and accumulate power, and he did, in Washington, D.C. — and at home. In Nevada, he sought to control the state Democratic party, interfering in primaries and calling in favors to punish enemies, including getting critics fired from their jobs.
One of the last of his many efforts to assure favorable press showed both his power and its decline. In 1952, he faced regular criticism from the Las Vegas Sun and its publisher, Hank Greenspun, who attacked him as a political boss and an anti-Semite, calling him “the old buzzard.”
The buzzard struck back. One morning in 1952, 12 casinos canceled their Sun advertising. Greenspun asked Moe Dalitz, the Desert Inn’s operator, why. He said Dalitz replied, “Why did you have to attack the old man?”
Greenspun responded with a $1 million lawsuit against McCarran and the casino operators, accusing them of a conspiracy that violated federal antitrust laws. The casinos settled, and McCarran neither confessed nor was proved innocent of being involved.
These examples vary from elected officials to behind-the-scenes figures. Yet all required crafty alliances between political and economic leaders. Today’s Nevada is a much more populous state with less easily controlled media, so, of course, nothing like this could ever happen again.
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