When James David Santini died Sept. 22 at age 78 after a short illness, an era came to an end. The last congressman for all of Nevada — the Silver State now boasts four representatives rather than one at-large seat — Santini was elected in 1974 when a Democratic class swept into office following Richard Nixon’s Watergate downfall. In 1981, he welcomed President Ronald Reagan to Washington, was one of scores of Blue Dog Democrats who supported Reagan tax cuts, increased military spending and deregulation. He became a Republican, ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, but remained in Washington serving Nevada interests.
Born, raised and educated in Reno — except for law school in San Francisco — Santini served as an Army judge advocate general officer at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., then returned to Las Vegas as a Clark County deputy district attorney, public defender and District Court judge prior to his election to Congress. In his spare time, he searched the Nevada desert for arrowheads and American Indian artifacts (his basket collection was museum quality), but bridled that the federal government owns 85 percent of Nevada. Thus, when that ownership impinged on growing Las Vegas, he teamed with cantankerous but powerful Democratic Rep. Phil Burton of California to craft rare legislation that sold U.S. Bureau of Land Management acreage in Clark County in exchange for environmentally sensitive lands around Lake Tahoe for inclusion in a national forest.
Willing to lead on big battles, he fought Carter’s plan to pave over Nevada for MX missile hangers and racetracks. I cautioned him about entering a national defense fray but he was steadfast. “It’s wrong, and I plan to defeat it.” He did.