Rural Assemblyman Dini retires after 36 years

YERINGTON -- Retired Democratic Assemblyman Joe Dini figures there's one primary reason why he, from the tiny northern Nevada farming town of Yerington, could serve session after session as Assembly speaker when most legislators were from southern Nevada.

He kept his word.

Such as the time in the 1970s, when his Assembly Government Affairs Committee passed a bill that allowed the city of Las Vegas to issue bonds to build Cashman Field.

Upset that downtown Las Vegas interests might gain an advantage, lobbyists for Las Vegas Strip gambling executives had a bill introduced that would repeal the Cashman Field bond.

Despite haranguing by the lobbyists, Dini kept the bill hidden in his drawer the entire session. He let it die without a vote.

"They were on me all the time," Dini, 73, recalled. "I said, 'I am not going to pass that bill.' We promised those people in Las Vegas that they had six years to build the ballfield. After that session, the downtown Las Vegas guys were my best supporters. I proved I was honest. If I gave my word, it was good. Everyone had confidence in me."

Dini was elected by his colleagues to serve as Assembly speaker a record eight times, including all legislative sessions from 1987 to 1999. His 36 years of Assembly service also is unsurpassed. Neither mark can be topped; the voter-approved constitutional amendment limiting legislative service to 12 years goes into effect in 2009.

As Assembly speaker, Dini named the chairs and members of all committees and presided over floor sessions of the Assembly. Speakers are the top Assembly leader and they set the tone for what legislators have dubbed the "people's house."

Another reason Dini was the choice as speaker so many times was that southern Nevada legislators and local government officials constantly feuded and couldn't agree on one of their own as speaker. As a rural legislator, he wasn't beholden to Las Vegas or Reno and was a good compromise choice for members from all parts of the state.

Throughout his legislative career, Dini became known for his calm demeanor. As a young assemblyman, he learned by watching Senate leaders Mahlon Brown and Jim Gibson, both known as quiet men.

But he admits he "blew up once in a while."

"I threw the gavel at (Assemblyman) Virgil Getto at 3 in the morning. I was trying to adjourn and then he took a bill that was supposed to die off the clerk's desk. I was so mad I threw the gavel right over Mouryne's head."

Mouryne is Mouryne Landing, then the chief clerk of the Assembly. Fortunately, Dini missed her head because she now is his wife.

As he sat in a restaurant in the family-owned Dini's Lucky Club casino, Dini spoke about his accomplishments and disappointments. He doesn't regret his decision in May not to run for re-election; diabetes and other ailments have affected his health.

"I will miss the Legislature, but it was time for me to back off," he said. "At my age, it is just not in the cards to do a good job and keep up physically."

Dini was born and raised in Yerington. In 1933, his father opened the Lucky Club, where Dini helped out as a youngster. He went to college at the University of Nevada, Reno where he received his degree in engineering. A year later he returned home to run the business. His father, an Italian immigrant, was sick and his mother needed help.

Operating the club meant wearing many hats. The 23-year-old Dini dealt blackjack, craps and roulette and often worked 18-hour shifts.

"We ran our business old-style. In other words, we did all the work ourselves," Dini said. "It was tough. I did a lot of 24-hour days."

His father recovered and lived 20 more years, and Dini remained a full-time Yerington resident. That is, until 1966 when he decided to run for Assembly.

At the time he was a 37-year-old chamber of commerce member whose only elective experience was as a member of the local swimming pool board. But he shoved his four sons into an old pickup and drove the district, talking to everyone. He easily won his first of 18 legislative races.

Dini's long hours in the casino would serve him well during his legislative career. Typically, the Legislature does not adjourn for the year until the speaker has worn out members by working several 18- to 20-hour days and then concluding business in a marathon final session that lasts through the night.

"They never could wipe me out," Dini said. "The legislators wanted to go to sleep standing up and I was ready to go through the rest of the night."

If he chose to, Dini could do some lobbying for a city or county during the legislative session that begins in February, but he would prefer to stay home. He and his wife intend to take a cruise this winter with one of his four sons.

But mainly he wants to watch the flowers bloom this spring. He won't miss the round-trip drives of 140 miles between Yerington and Carson City, or the 30,000 miles he estimates he puts on his car each year handling legislative business.

Though Dini will be absent from Carson City this winter, the leadership team he assembled remains. He hand-picked Assemblyman Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, as his replacement.

Dini's advice to legislators, particularly anti-tax Republicans, is to show some "guts" and back major tax increases this year. He said the state's school system can't stand another year without revenue from a tax increase.


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