The prominent Reno Republican, the longest-serving state senator in Nevada history when he retired in January 2011, died Thursday. He was 85.
Raggio was first elected in 1972 and served in the senate for 38 years, including 28 as Republican caucus leader. Because of recent term limits, his record in the Senate will likely stand.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore of Nevada politics, Bill Raggio’s image would forever be carved there,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement. “One of the great lights in the world of Nevada politics has gone out.”
Greg Ferraro, a longtime family friend, said Raggio died of respiratory illness around 10 p.m. PST Thursday while vacationing with his wife, Dale, in Sydney, Australia.
“They were planning on going on a cruise,” Ferraro said.
Funeral arrangements were pending.
A second-generation Nevadan, Raggio was born in Reno on Oct. 30, 1926. He married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Brigman, who died in 1998. He married his second wife, Dale Checket, in 2004. Raggio is also survived by two daughters, Leslie Righetti and Tracy Chew. A son, Mark, died in 2004.
Raggio became a Washoe County assistant district attorney in 1952, a year after receiving his law degree.
His political career was launched six years later when he was elected the county’s top prosecutor. Raggio took on infamous Nevada brothel boss Joe Conforte, and in 1959 had Conforte’s Triangle River Ranch on the outskirts of town burned to the ground as a public nuisance.
Raggio also handled several high-profile cases, winning a death sentence against Thomas Lee Bean for the 1963 murder of Olympic skier Sonja McCaskie. The case received national attention, and Raggio was honored by the National District Attorney’s Association as outstanding prosecutor in the United States. Bean’s death sentence was later overturned.
But it was Raggio’s leadership in the Legislature that won the respect of Republicans and Democrats alike.
“Throughout my political career, I adhered to a policy of not allowing political differences to transform into personal differences,” said Paul Laxalt, former Republican Nevada governor and U.S. senator. “That was the essence of Bill Raggio. Sadly, that quality is sorely missing in today’s toxic political environment.”
Raggio himself spoke of his distaste for deepening political divides, and it was that crevice that ended his tenure as the Republican Party leader just before the 2011 session.
Raggio had become increasingly vocal against the hardline, no-tax stance of the conservative right, and was shunned by more conservative members of his party after endorsing Democratic U.S. Sen. Harry Reid in the 2010 election against tea party candidate Sharron Angle. Raggio was replaced in his role of senate minority leader by Sen. Mike McGinness, of Fallon.
Reid said he was deeply saddened by Raggio’s death.
“I have known Bill for decades. He has been a mentor to me. He always fought for Nevada and his invaluable contributions and service to our state will live on,” Reid said in a statement. “His important voice will be missed.”
In announcing his retirement before the 2011 legislative session, Raggio cited health reasons and slowing physical mobility.
“I had hoped to complete the remainder of my 10th elected term, but my physical mobility simply does not allow me to function fully, and therefore it is time for me to step aside for someone who can give the position a 100 percent effort,” he said.
At the time, Sandoval