Friday, July 23, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
Former Gov. Kenny Guinn, who died Thursday, lived a remarkable life and left an extraordinary legacy after nearly five decades of service to the state. After accomplished careers in both the public and private sectors, Guinn was 62 when he entered politics, winning the governor’s race in 1998. He earned a well-deserved reputation during his two terms in office as a consensus builder who would put aside partisanship to do what was best for the state.
His story is a classic American tale. Guinn was born to fruit pickers in Arkansas, and he grew up poor. His family moved West to work the fields in California. His father was illiterate and his mother had a third-grade education, but Guinn wanted more. His parents made sure he went to school, and a friend’s family helped as well, taking him in so he could stay in school when his parents were traveling to do farm work. Guinn became an academic and athletic star and won a college football scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in physical education and became a teacher and a coach. He moved to Nevada in 1964 to become an administrator in the Clark County School District and worked on his doctorate. He was named superintendent of the School District in 1969.
He left the School District in 1978 to go the private sector. He ran a bank and later led Southwest Gas Co. He also served as interim president of UNLV for a year, guiding the university through a tumultuous time. Along the way, Guinn served on a number of civic boards, helping guide the community.
After winning the governor’s office, he quickly went to work on the state budget. He audited and reorganized state government. He trimmed $350 million, cut 800 positions and froze another 1,600. He also privatized the workers’ compensation program.
Guinn was a Republican, but he was a Nevadan first. He did not let partisanship stand in the way of sound policy, doing instead what he thought was right for the state. Because he didn’t blindly hew to GOP dictates, he was at times reviled by some members of his own party for being a “RINO” — a Republican In Name Only.
That didn’t intimidate him. He stood against his own party when he saw it necessary. Guinn fought against the federal government’s plan to dump high-level nuclear waste in Nevada, despite overwhelming Republican support in Washington.
He also faced down the far right in 2003 over taxes. Having seen the state budget hammered in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Guinn called for a more sensible tax policy and a tax increase. He was pilloried by his conservative critics, who said his plan would harm the economy. But Guinn proved to be right. The Legislature passed a tax increase, saving necessary state services. The economy wasn’t hurt; in fact, it rebounded and thrived.
Guinn was known for being a gentleman, listening to opponents and working with legislators to find ways to move the state forward. He pushed to improve health care for Nevadans, restored money to mental health services and worked to improve education. His two terms in office were a success by any measure.
Among his favorite achievements was the Millennium Scholarship. Financed with money from the state’s tobacco settlement, the program has given thousands of Nevadans an opportunity to go to college.
Kenny Guinn was a rare leader. He did what he thought was right and didn’t allow himself to get bogged down by the petty partisanship that has driven much of today’s politics. And when Guinn left office, Nevada was a better place to live. He will be missed.