Las Vegas Sun

December 22, 2014

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Empty words or empty house

When Gov. Jim Gibbons and his wife moved into the Governor's Mansion in Carson City, they were shocked to find, in their words, a largely empty residence.

Walls were bare. Furniture was sparse. And even everyday items such as bed sheets, towels, cookware and dishes were in short supply.

The home's previous occupants, the Guinns, had furnished the mansion with personal belongings during Gov. Kenny Guinn's two terms. And although they dispute leaving the 98-year-old mansion empty, they acknowledge that its interior looked far different on the first day of the Gibbons administration on Jan. 1 than on the final day of the Guinn administration.

"We had all of our family pictures up," said Guinn, a Republican. "We had paintings, clocks and other artifacts we purchased. What was there was a lot of things we had accumulated over eight years."

When the Guinns left, they took with them their personal bed, a couple of leather lounge chairs, a wide screen television in the den, his personal office chair and bunk beds for their grandchildren in the basement.

"They expected to go in and see the mansion the way it was when we were there, and that wasn't the case," Guinn said.

Wanting to save future first couples from the moving-day surprise she encountered, first lady Dawn Gibbons has created Friends of the Nevada Mansion, a nonprofit corporation to solicit private donations to outfit the two-story house.

"I want this place to be nice when somebody else occupies it," she said.

Although the mansion fund is intended to spiff up the house as it approaches its 100th birthday and to benefit all future administrations, Friends of the Nevada Mansion has heightened some decidedly unfriendly attitudes among several of Nevada's first families.

Gibbons said when she took former Gov. Bob Miller and his wife, Sandy, on a tour of the mansion on New Year's Day, they told her they were surprised that the Guinns had left the house so bare.

The Governor's Mansion had been the source of some strained feelings between the Millers and the Guinns. The Millers, who occupied the mansion for 10 years before the Guinns, have privately voiced unhappiness about what they considered the Guinns' failure to properly credit them for spearheading a privately funded $5 million mansion renovation project completed after the Millers left in 1999.

The Guinns say they left the mansion in good shape and took only what they had bought with their money.

"Of course it would look bare compared to what it looked like when we were living there," Guinn said.

Bob Nylen, curator of history for the Nevada State Museum, said former first lady Dema Guinn also returned many paintings, ceramics, bronze statues and photographs on loan from the museum in her name shortly before the Guinns left office. Dawn Gibbons requested that most of those items be brought back to the mansion when she and her husband moved in, he said.

Although Dawn Gibbons voluntarily provided the Sun with the names of donors to Friends of the Mansion, which has collected $75,000, the fund's creation has renewed a debate about whether the state should extend its political disclosure laws to such contributions.

The debate was sparked this year after the governor was slow to disclose the identity of defense fund contributors who raised $169,100 last year to help him with his legal troubles.

Three-fourths of the money donated to the mansion fund came from a single $50,000 contribution by another nonprofit corporation - Nevada Inauguration Events Inc. That group, run by Gibbons political strategist Sig Rogich, used private donations to pay for the governor's inaugural balls in Reno and Las Vegas in January.

The Millers are unlikely allies with the Gibbonses in their spat with the Guinns.

Bob Miller is a Democrat who defeated Gibbons, a Republican, in his first try for the state's top office in 1994. And this year, Secretary of State Ross Miller, the former governor's son, took Gibbons to task over the defense fund and sought legislation to plug the loophole in the state law that allowed Gibbons to skirt disclosure.

State archivist Guy Rocha said ill feelings between the Millers and Guinns date several years - after the $5 million renovation, which added a state room for public events and a garage, completed early in Guinn's term.

"There definitely was tension between the two first ladies over who was responsible for the upgrading of the mansion," Rocha said.

Miller raised most of the money with the help of several of his politically connected friends, including Rogich, lobbyist Harvey Whittemore and businessman Larry Ruvo. The group created a nonprofit corporation similar to Friends of the Mansion. It was called Mansion 2000 of Nevada.

But when it came time to honor those who had contributed to the renovation fund, the names of the Millers and the Guinns were left off a large stone monument praising the donors.

Miller and Guinn disputed that there was animosity between them, and Guinn said he and his wife were responsible for getting the names of the first couples carved into the monument.

"They worked hard to get this accomplished," Guinn said of the Millers.

The foundation for a rocky Guinns-to-Gibbonses transition was laid long before the Governor's Mansion changed hands.

Animosity began brewing after then-Rep. Gibbons, during a speech at the 2003 Legislature, criticized Guinn's proposed $833 million tax increase , which was designed to keep the state running during a difficult economic period.

Guinn took that as a public insult from a fellow Republican. When it became clear that Gibbons was the Republican front-runner in the race to succeed him, Guinn worked behind the scenes to recruit other Republicans to run.

Dema Guinn also publicly suggested that Dawn Gibbons, who at the time was seeking her husband's congressional seat, would have a difficult time serving in Congress and being first lady.

Dawn Gibbons lost in the primary, and the two women have not spoken since. And Guinn is the only former first lady who has refused to participate in a new committee that Mrs. Gibbons has created to help ensure smooth future transitions into the mansion.

Guinn said she was "shocked" to hear that the mansion was bare when the Gibbonses arrived.

"I left the house in wonderful condition," she said. "I left all the pots and pans, the dishes, the linens, the cookware. I left a wonderful foundation for her."

The former first lady said she also left several televisions and, despite having lived in the house for half of this fiscal year, saved about 65 percent of the $350,000 in state money budgeted to run the mansion to pass on to the Gibbonses.

The current first lady said she had to buy five TVs, including a large flat screen for the den, with some of the donated private money. She also has used the donations to fix a clock and a mirror and has bought several parlor chairs, recliners and bar stools. To date, she said, she has spent about $39,000 of the $75,000 in contributions.

Gibbons said the mansion fund and the committee she created will for the first time establish standards to inventory what's in the mansion. Everything she has purchased, she added, is now state property.

"The mansion is everybody's," she said. "I'm trying to do the right thing."

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