Joe Dini, the one and only Mr. Speaker

On the last day of his legislative career in 2001, Joe Dini invited me into his inner sanctum.

I had been in his office many times to chat, not that he ever gave up much information. But this time was different. This was it.

Mr. Speaker – he didn’t have the title anymore but he still was in spirit – did something he had never done before, as if to consecrate this as a special moment. He pulled out a couple of his familiar styrofoam cups, the ones he seemed to have up at the rostrum during most trying session endings, and poured us each some gin. Straight. Nothing to cut it.

I hated the taste (Scotch man) but I loved the moment. It was as if the great man, this one-of-a-kind, last-of-his-kind lawmaker was saying that after a decade and a half together, he wanted to say goodbye properly. I don’t remember much of the conversation, only that I tried not to wince every time I swallowed.

I have cherished those moments ever since.


I thought of that cup of gin Thursday when I heard Dini, the longest-serving speaker and legislator, had passed away at 85.  I would see Mr. Speaker occasionally after that 2001 sine die – like many of the departed, he could not stay away from Carson, although he preferred the confines of Dini’s Lucky Club in Yerington and his home with his incomparable wife, Mouryne Landing, the former chief clerk of the Assembly. (Dini married Landing after his first wife, another wonderful woman, Jeanne, passed away in 1994).

His passing not only marks, and here the cliché fits, the end of an era – no denizen of a small rural city will ever again be speaker in this urbanized state. But it also bookmarks the close of what some historian will call the Dini-Raggio epoch of the Nevada Legislature, one that began 25 years ago, when these two men, these “Two Guys from Italy,” as they were sometimes known,  dominated session after session, making the deals at the end that would shape the state.

Raggio, who died two years ago, and Dini were nothing alike. Where Raggio was overtly charming and flamboyantly clever, Dini was a quiet man, a personification of the laconic Westerner who said little but when he did, people paid rapt attention. Dini was as crafty at the inside game as was Raggio, whether it was sneaking in an amendment for a pet cause or securing funding for a road in Yerington. That wry smile, what his successor Richard Perkins described as his “calling card,” combined with a twinkle in his eye that always signaled he either was up to something or had already done something no one had noticed.

“The enduring, happy memory is Joe with that little smile on his face and a ‘heh, heh’ when asked about a subtle legislative victory (‘Did that provision get added in conference?’),” recalled Lorne Malkiewich the longtime Legislative Counsel Bureau director. “That and looking over his shoulder at the Lincoln portrait (above the rostrum) when things got tough.  He and Bill (Raggio) loved the game, but they loved Nevada more, and that was always the bond that brought them together at the end of session to reach the final agreements and close it down.”

Indeed, Raggio and Dini were the last of the institutionalists, their different styles notwithstanding, bonding over the firm belief that tradition was important, that lawmakers would come and go but that faith in the process was paramount.

“The biggest thing I learned from him was to love that institution, that it was bigger than any of us,” said Perkins. “The reverence he had for it, the love he had for it.”

Barbara Buckley, who would succeed Perkins as speaker in 2007, captured the man succinctly in a few sentences: “He was honest.  He was fair.  He was respected.  He served for all the right reasons.  He held his troops together.  He led by example.  When he spoke in a committee, it was because he had something to say.  You could hear a pin drop.”

And Buckley learned an invaluable lesson from him, too: “I once asked him how to stop something that was happening that made no sense.  He looked at me and said, ‘Sometimes you can’t stop things.  So you slow them down.  Sometimes real slow.  Know what I mean?’ That was Joe.”

Billy Vassiliadis, the longtime lobbyist who would become a Dini confidant and close friend, said the longtime speaker “was the least affected person I’ve ever seen in public office. There was a genuineness, a trueness to him that is unparalleled. He never felt the need to try to be something different. Joe didn’t feel inferior because he  wasn’t a great lawyer or great orator. That didn’t bother him.”

Indeed, Joe Dini was not a great speaker. But he was an unparalleled Speaker.


It may not be a stretch to say that Richard Perkins and Barbara Buckley would not have become speakers if it were not for what happened in 1994. After the dust settled from the national GOP wave, Dini, who had been speaker since 1987, found himself out of the majority, in an unprecedented 21-21 tie. The masterful inside player needed to make two decisions right away: Ensure he was at least co-speaker and choose a new right hand because the prospective majority leader, Rick Bennett, had been defeated.

Shortly after she had won her first election that year, Buckley received a call from Dini. “He said. ‘You’re a lawyer, right?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘Well, we have a legal problem.  The Republicans are claiming that since Chris (Giunchigliani)  and Jan Evans have election contests, they cannot be seated and the Republicans take control of the Assembly.  So, are you ready to get to work?’”

And she did, helping to draft the strategy that ensured the GOP did not get its way. “That was the first day I started working with Joe Dini,” Buckley remembered. “He was smart and cagey.  He knew how the legislative process worked; he knew how to get things done.  He gave me assignment after assignment.  When I did well, he complimented me.  When I made a misstep, he would call me in his office (which one day would became my office).  I would sit nervously and he would offer me advice.  Many years later, I gave the same advice to others who sat before me.”

Dini made another call shortly after the 1994 election, one no one expected and one he told many people (I remember him telling me) “will surprise you.”

The surprise was he picked a sophomore named Richard Perkins to be his majority leader, putting him on the path to succeed him. Perkins had been a precocious freshman during the 1993 session, and Dini saw something in him.

“He gave me the opportunity,” Perkins said last week. “He had a lot of faith in me.”

Perkins recalled that he and Dini “really did have kind of our own language. The speaker can’t really give a speech, so when the board would light up, and he wanted to save our colleagues (from speaking too much), he would give this one little hand signal, scratch his throat, and I would move the previous question.”

And, Perkins said, Dini taught him perhaps the most important lesson any leader needs to know: “If you have something that’s important to you, a bill that’s important to you, never tell anyone or someone will leverage it from here to forever.”

That was the Dini subtlety, rarely noticed, always effective. And by nurturing Perkins and Buckley, he ensured his influence would last beyond his tenure, that he would set the leadership table for many sessions to come, leaving a model for leadership that each, in his and her way, followed.

“I think what set him apart was he had great humility,” said longtime legislative lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis, who became a close friend and adviser. “He was at his heart a small-town, blue-collar guy who went there with a sense of mission, a sense of getting things done. He wasn’t a judgmental person. He didn’t divide people on Republican or Democratic lines. Sure, there was a time for uniform-wearing, but that was not how he approached his position, even before he was speaker.”

Indeed, even after first being elected to the Assembly in 1966, when Nevada was a very different place, Dini already wanted to work with Clark County, remembered a man who was a young lawmaker at the time, Richard Bryan, who would go on to become governor and senator.

“It is the passing of an era,” Bryan said on “Ralston Reports” last week. “He is a legend who will never be replicated. It speaks to his skill. He was only in his second term when I was elected in 1968 and already you could see he was reaching out to us in Clark County. He was a rural guy who wanted to work with us."


Dini was the last of the Jack’s Bar speakers, often walking over to the now-shuttered watering hole across from the Legislature to negotiate deals and cultivate relationships. He was not an Adele’s guy (that picture above is a rare picture of him there from 2001). He was rarely in the iconic, upscale restaurant down the road. That was not who Dini was.

“He was a businessman, but his mentality was that of a working person,” Vassiliadis said. “That’s what he brought to that Legislature, and it didn’t ever change him.”

Left unsaid there is that a few months in the isolated capital have changed so many people who arrive unsullied and leave tarnished by the process, the inducements. Dini, I can attest, was the same when I first met him in 1987 to the last time I saw him in 2013.

His close friend and aide de camp, Marty Bibb, said it began in the ‘60s when Dini was first elected and he learned a simple lesson from his mentor, rural Sen. Joe Viani: “If you don’t have the votes, you make a great speech. If you have the votes, you vote.”

Joe Dini rarely gave speeches, great or otherwise, and not just because he didn’t like to get up and deliver a stemwinder. He almost always had the votes.

Perkins recalled that even though he was speaker during his first four sessions, from ’93 through ’99, "I bet he spoke up in a caucus meeting…I could count the times on one hand. He spoke up only when absolutely necessary."  Perkins likened it to the old EF Hutton commercials, saying when Dini spoke, “people listened.”

Besides being remembered for his quiet but effective leadership, Dini also will be memorialized in Yerington for getting almost every road paved. Raggio was known for steering pork money toward his home, but Dini was his proportional equal.

But while Dini was a porkmeister extraordinaire, people forget how he facilitated so many historic compromises on seminal issues. As Perkins recalled, he was concerned about child welfare before anyone, including Buckley, pushed that agenda forward.

And Buckley remembered another legacy: Dini, the rural gentleman, was a great advocate for women.

“Many warned me that Joe Dini was old fashioned, did not like strong women, voted against the ERA, etc.,” Buckley said. “But Jeanne Dini and Mouryne Landing Dini were incredibly strong women.  And he ended up being one of my strongest supporters.  When I was thinking about running for governor, he told me he would support me, work the rurals for me, and he gave a great speech for me in Yerington.  So much for not liking strong women.”

Dini stepped down as speaker in 2001, making way for Perkins as he sensed a rising southern tide. Of course he extracted quite the deal – chairing the potent Commerce Committee and earning the Speaker Emeritus title.

But there was more to it, too, Vassiliadis recalled, saying Dini recoiled at  “the animosity, the partisanship, the regionalism, the factionalism, of the anti-this and anti-that.”

Indeed, in the ensuing years, right up to the 2013 session, Dini lamented the growing paralysis in Carson City, the DC model brought to Nevada, with partisan operatives scurrying around, ready to pounce to score political points.

“When I saw him last year, he was shaking his head and bemoaning what had happened to the Legislature,” Vassiliadis said. “He said, ‘When did compromise become a dirty word, why did it become a synonym for sellout?’ He was never able to accept this was the new way of politics.”

With Raggio and Dini gone, Carson City will never be the same, an era of compromise and statesmanship has been relegated to the ages. Dini genuinely fretted about the Legislature’s future during his last years, witnessing that polarization and governing by news release.

The greatest tribute to Mr. Speaker by those who preside in 2015 would be to return to those days so that after sine die, everyone could go to the bar, raise a glass of gin and toast to the one, the only Mr. Speaker.