Gibbons might take some cues from plain old Kenny

With the swearing in of Jim Gibbons, Gov. Kenny C. Guinn returns to private life. After eight years, Nevada's nice-guy governor goes back to being plain old Kenny.

I suspect the former educator will make the transition just fine. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he was relieved to slip back into the citizenry, for in many ways Kenny Guinn has been our least political governor.

No governor in modern Nevada history has won the office without prior campaign experience, and yet if the popular Guinn ran tomorrow he might easily win election. He transcended party politics like few other leaders in state history.

One of the things I respect most about Guinn, and one of the things that most frustrated the state's true conservatives and Republican Party stalwarts, was his unflinching focus on following his own political course.

He was a Republican who made conservative Republicans cringe because he insisted on governing from the middle and refused to turn away from the numerous needs of the people of the state.

He embraced none of Nevada's libertarian roots and became known in anti-tax circles as a Republican in Name Only.

When the time came to step up and call for an unprecedented tax increase, Guinn did so without an assurance of success. On the contrary: He came close to losing his greatest battle.

Others would have hard-wired the Legislature and amassed political favors, but Guinn decided what was needed and took the substantial heat.

To say that's not in keeping with the tradition of the office is an understatement. Guinn might just as easily have hit the snooze button at the Governor's Mansion and put his administration on cruise control. (Other governors have done just that and suffered no political repercussions or hits to their lightweight legacies.) No one can accuse him of meekly leaving the state's highest office like a dedicated company man.

Although Guinn probably will be best remembered for his Millennium Scholarship program, which used Nevada's big tobacco litigation settlement dollars to provide college tuition for a broad spectrum of students, historians won't forget his privatization of the state's industrial insurance system.

I always got a kick out of Guinn's willingness to appoint people who weren't from his political party into high-profile jobs. His prickly Republican allies bellowed, but that didn't prevent him from making the call.

That was Gov. Kenny being Gov. Kenny.

Guinn's basic goodness showed through often during his tenure. He never stopped being the affable, fatherly school district superintendent. He never stopped caring.

He quite literally was a great guy to have a beer with. He was most comfortable not sitting behind his big desk in Carson City, but sitting amid friends and reporters at the Tap House. The Guinn whose public speaking style could be painfully halting was a charming raconteur in smaller groups.

No one runs for public office without a healthy ego, and Guinn was no exception. But it was his self-deprecating style that won over skeptics. If you can be twice elected governor and not be perceived as an elitist know-it-all, it's safe to say you have your ego in check.

Nevada's nice-guy governor now goes back to being plain old Kenny. I know he'll be glad to make the trip.

Is there a lesson for his successor?

Only technically from the same political party, Guinn and Gibbons couldn't be more different. The fact their personalities have clashed is hardly surprising. One is a numbers-crunching former educator more in love with policy than the pomp that accompanies the office. The other is a military jet pilot, a big-picture political planner who has directed and marched his career toward the Governor's Mansion for many years.

One of the challenges for Gibbons will be to cultivate some of Guinn's best traits: an even temper, a lack of arrogance, a willingness to embrace a controversial goal. I think he can do it, but it's a safe bet a lot of eyes will be watching Gibbons to see whether he pulls it off.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kenny is going fishing. Jim Gibbons enters an office he has long coveted.

Time will tell whether a man with twice Kenny Guinn's political ambition achieves half his success.

• John L. Smith's column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal's Opinion page. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment