A look back: A day in the life of Gov. Guinn
Editor’s note: This story was first published Jan. 10 1999. Reporter Jon Christensen spent Inauguration Day, Jan. 4, 1999, with the new governor and his family.
Kenny Guinn started his day whistling a snappy tune. His wife, Dema, knew he was happy. He always whistled that special tune when things were going well.
And today they were at the end of a long, hard road. They had been on the campaign trail together for 30 months, crisscrossing the state to win the governor’s office. It was a victory that some said was being handed to Kenny Guinn.
But the Guinns knew better. Rarely is anything ever handed to you. You have to be ready when opportunity comes. And that takes work.
The Guinns could look back now across 30 years of working together on Kenny’s political career in Nevada. Looking back even further, the small farming town in California’s Central Valley where they both grew up was still very much alive in their memories.
Dema’s father owned a grocery store in Exeter and Kenny’s was a laborer in a cold storage plant. They were sweethearts just out of high school when they got married in Reno 42 years ago. Dema supported Kenny while he went to college and then graduate school in the 1960s.
Then they moved to Las Vegas. They could see it booming. With Kenny’s determination and Dema’s unflagging support, they could make themselves part of that big thing. And today all that hard work and careful cultivation was bearing fruit.
It was still dark in the governor’s mansion at 5:30 a.m. The inauguration wouldn’t begin until 10 a.m. but Kenny was always up this early at home. So he made coffee and knocked about the bathroom getting ready for his first day at work.
In just half an hour, the construction workers would arrive to continue renovating the governor’s mansion. In a way, the big old house itself was a symbol of the transition between the old administration and the new. It was still a work in progress. They could have stayed in a hotel but it wouldn’t have been the same.
The whole family was together here in the new house. And that was the way it should be. The Guinn boys, Jeff and Steve, and their wives and children were still asleep upstairs.
Soon the house would be filled with the busy activity of six adults and three children competing for the bathroom – one shower still had to be repaired – and getting ready for the biggest day in their lives. But for now Kenny had the dark house to himself and the only sound was the jaunty tune he whistled.
Before 8 a.m., he went out into the morning dressed in a gray suit and black overcoat. Some of his young staff members were already waiting for him at the silver-domed capitol. “They were as excited as I was, maybe more,” he said. “It was a long hard road for some of them, too.”
Guinn saw a woman carrying a heavy coffee urn. “Let me help you do that,” he said, taking it from her. Truth be told, there wasn’t much else to be done. “I was just kind of standing around waiting for the action to begin,” he said.
Soon friends and reporters began trickling in and Guinn showed them around the spare offices on the ground floor of the capitol. There were a few congratulatory bouquets of flowers on desks and tables. The governor’s offices looked like a work in progress.
Outside, the Carson High School band was warming up. Men in long, warm overcoats and women in fashionable furs and hats were finding their seats or milling about.
Pete Ernaut, Guinn’s campaign manager and chief of staff, arrived beaming.
Reporters closed in on him hoping for a bit of news. “This is rah-rah, sis-boom-bah,” he said with a smile.
There would be time enough for hardball political news in the coming days and weeks and months. This was a time to celebrate with pomp and ceremony the likes of which Nevada’s capitol probably had never seen before.
When the formalities began, Kenny and Dema sat in the front row on stage in front of the capitol. Kenny smiled and pointed a finger as he recognized friends among the 450 people in the crowd. Steam rose from every breath he took. He sat and watched as the other constitutional officers were sworn in together. Then it was his turn.
Kenny Guinn put his hand on the Bible held by his longtime friend Bob Rose, chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court. As he started to repeat the oath, he tripped over the first words. It was so cold it was hard to talk, he realized. Time too seemed to slow down for a moment.
“I looked at my wife,” he said, “and I thought about how lucky I was to be there, coming from the childhood I had. My parents would have been very happy and I thought of them.”
A 21-gun salute shook the crowd. Then four jets, two C-130 transport planes, and a helicopter from the National Guard flew low over Carson Street. And as Kenny Guinn rose to give his first speech as governor, the sun finally eased around the corner of the cold sandstone building and cast a warm glow on the stage.
The speech was neither a campaign-style stem-winder, nor a rallying cry for a new administration. Instead, it was a subdued thank you from a man in transition to the supporters who helped get him here. It was a pledge to cherish the trust given to him as governor. And it was a short, sweet paean to opportunities in this “wonderfully lucky state, this melting pot of the West,” Nevada.
“I know that there are always some who are anxious, and some even have doubts, about what we can accomplish,” said the new governor. “But if you look at all that we have succeeded in doing in such a short time in this great state with its unprecedented growth and success that once seemed beyond possibility – and it does make us the envy of the world – then you and I know that with just a little give and take, the 21st century can bring an era of success beyond our wildest imagination and our fondest dreams.”
Guinn made his way back into the Capitol. As old spectators and young children alike thrust inaugural programs at him asking for his autograph, he made his way through the crowded Capitol hallways under the portraits of Nevada’s 27 previous governors.
Later, there was a luncheon for more than 300 friends, lobbyists, politicians, and campaign supporters. He circulated among the tables, offering his thanks and neglecting to eat lunch.
In power now, he was surrounded by friends who helped him get there. Then it was off to the swearing in of the Supreme Court justices. They, too, were old friends. He had signed Nancy Becker’s high school diploma and the diplomas of many of Myron Leavitt’s children when he was school superintendent in Las Vegas.
Kenny Guinn realized he was part of what may well be the last generation of leaders from a Nevada that is quickly disappearing – a small state where everybody who was anybody knew each other and it was possible for a young man to rise from nowhere through hard work, cultivating important friends and seizing opportunities whenever they were at hand.
He did it, with his wife’s support, through force of will by saying, “Yes!” to everything he could possibly take on, new jobs, new political appointments, new charities. He had a hard time saying, “No.” It was a weakness, he admitted, but it was also a strength because it allowed him accomplish more.
Now he would have to learn to say, “No.” If he didn’t know it already, it had been hammered home over the last 40 days in the fight over what to cut to make ends meet in the budget he had to send to the Legislature soon.
By the time the ceremonies and celebrations were over the sun was going down behind the Carson Range. A chill was descending on the governor’s mansion as the Guinns arrived home. But his family was there.
There wasn’t anywhere to sit inside. So they huddled on the stairs and ate pizza and talked. It was his oldest son’s birthday. So they had a cake.
Then Kenny stayed up, talking with his sister and brother and two lifelong friends from California who had to leave early in the morning. At 11 p.m., the governor went to bed.
He didn’t stay up worrying about the budget or other tough decisions that he would have to face to lead the state into the 21st century. Nevada was much more complicated now than it was when he and his friends were coming up. It was an awesome responsibility. But there was only one way to face it.
The secret was on a sign he used to see in front of a real estate office when he was a boy. It became one of his favorite sayings. “The definition of a big shot,” it said, “is a little shot that kept on shooting.”
The next morning he would be the first up, whistling his tune again. And he would be the first one to open the office and make coffee as the first real day of work began for the new governor of Nevada.