PHOTOS COURTESY OF JON PORTER
Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Editor's note: The formative years of the two candidates for the 3rd Congressional District are examined in these stories. Future stories will examine their political and legislative histories.
In the early 1970s, when Jon Porter was in high school, he played keyboard in a band called Lazy River. As it turns out, the band’s name serves as an apt metaphor for Porter’s early life, growing up in Humboldt, Iowa, a farming town of about 4,600 people.
Today, Porter, a three-term Republican congressman representing Nevada’s 3rd District, is facing the toughest challenge of his political career. He and his opponent, Democratic state Sen. Dina Titus, are attacking each other with negative TV ads. Titus is also pounding on him on the campaign trail while Porter is running under the radar, juggling his reelection fight with responsibilities in Washington, where he has conducted himself as a reserved and quiet legislator.
A look at his early life in small-town American provides insight into a low-key personality working in a field of amplified egos.
Outside of high school sports, the Humboldt of Porter’s youth had a movie theater, a bowling alley, a swimming pool and not much else. On Friday nights, teenagers would “shag the drag” — cruise the town’s five-block main street. In winter, tennis courts were flooded to create ice skating rinks.
(In 1955, at the height of the Cold War and when Porter was a newborn, Humboldt hosted a delegation of Soviet officials for an overnight glimpse of rural American life. The group spent the night at the Kozy Korner Motel.)
“You felt very safe and secure,” former Porter classmate and longtime friend Randy Berka said of growing up in Humboldt. “Everybody’s your neighbor and everybody’s your friend. It’s too bad so many of us grew up there and left.”
In fact, so much of the town’s youth was leaving that ABC-TV sent a crew to document the exodus. A 30-minute documentary titled “A Small Town in Iowa” asked the question, “What is it about paradise that’s turning the bright kids off?” It was narrated by newsman Harry Reasoner, who was born in Dakota City, next to Humboldt. The answer, he concluded: The town was too small to satisfy young people with egos and ambitions.
When the program aired in 1972, Porter was a junior at Humboldt High School and putting the piano lessons he reluctantly took as a child to good use playing the Hammond B-3 organ for Lazy River, a band he formed with four buddies in summer 1969. The group played weekends at high school dances, homecomings, nightclubs and county fairs. The set list was full of covers. Grand Funk Railroad was a band favorite.
But Porter didn’t dream of rock stardom.
“I never sensed that Jon wanted a bigger audience or had a craving to leave there,” said Berka, Lazy River’s vocalist and rhythm guitarist. “He wasn’t Mr. Popular or big man on campus. He was just your regular, average guy. Unassuming, fun to be around, and a good listener.”
With Berka as frontman, Porter was content to live in the background, doubling as the band’s road manager and business agent — getting gigs, signing contracts and making sure Lazy River collected its money. He was not one to steal the spotlight.
“Jon was the calming influence in that band,” Berka said. “When you have a rock ’n’ roll band, everybody has their idea of what you should do, what song you should play. And Jon was always the rational guy with the level head who would bring everybody back to reality.”
The humility was the result of his upbringing. Porter’s parents operated a modest appliance shop, which was really an extension of the family’s house, run in an enclosed patio. They imparted a strong sense of civic responsibility. Porter recalled flipping pancakes many a morning at function of the Lions and Rotary clubs. His father, Ron, would take care of a rancher’s broken furnace even if it was Christmas Eve.
“My parents really taught me a lot about responsibility,” Porter said. “They taught me that nothing was free, that you had to work hard and that you had a responsibility to give back to the community.”
Politics, however, were not part of the family conversation.
“I cannot remember a discussion about politics with my parents,” Porter said. “Our dinners were about, ‘How do we keep the business going? How do you pay the taxes? How do you help this rancher whose power is out in the middle of the night?’ We were very apolitical.”
In fact, Porter doesn’t recall how he cast his first presidential ballot. He thinks it might have been for Jimmy Carter.
Still, there were flashes of a potential political career.
Porter, as senior class president, and Berka, as student government president, fought the high school administration, first to lessen the importance of semester tests (they counted for half a student’s final grade) and then to win the right to wear mustaches and long hair. Porter lobbied the school board to allow trimmed mustaches, and won. “He really liked representing people and getting things done for them,” Berka said.
Porter was undecided about his future when he finished high school. His parents would soon move to Boulder City, to partially retire and to be close to relatives in Las Vegas. Lazy River had broken up, and Porter, along with Berka, had formed another band, named Shadrack. The band, drawing heavily from Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield, was short-lived, recording an album in the Porters’ appliance store before half the group split for college.
Porter spent a semester at community college in Des Moines before going to Briar Cliff University, a small Catholic school in Sioux City, about 130 miles west of Humboldt, on the Nebraska border. Intrigued by social work, Porter sampled philosophy and theology courses and briefly considered the priesthood. He was interested in business, too, because he managed a record store while in school.
“I think I was like a lot of folks at that age,” Porter said. “I wanted to try different things. I was looking around.”
He found love in fellow student Dianne Dille, a clerk at the local JC Penney department store. The two married in February 1978 and five months later, after having moved to Boulder City, had their first child.
“I wasn’t able to finish college,” Porter said. “It’s one thing I wish I had done, but I had to take care of my family.”
Besides, he said, “I fell in love, and realized I could still help people in different ways.”
After first working at the appliance store his parents had opened in Boulder City, Porter studied to become an insurance agent, taking night classes in Las Vegas. In 1983, the one-time keyboardist for Lazy River began working for Farmers Insurance.