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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

Patrick McCarran (1876-1954)

Senator Patrick A. McCarran. Courtesy: UNLV, Edwards Collection

With a political career that spanned more than fifty years, Patrick Anthony McCarran was in his time Nevada's most powerful politician. He was born in 1876 in Reno, Nevada, to Irish immigrant parents and grew up on their sheep ranch. McCarran only began his formal education when he was ten years old. While at the University of Nevada, McCarran's father was injured, and McCarran dropped out of college to help on the ranch. McCarran continued his law studies while tending sheep. Encouraged by Nevada politician William Sharon, McCarran decided to run for office in Nevada's legislature.

Political Beginnings
McCarran ran on a populist platform for the Silver-Democrat party. Arguing forcefully for the need for the eight-hour workday and unions, one of McCarran's strongest arguments was in attacking the tycoon George Wingfield, a Republican who had established a powerful political foundation. Under this platform, McCarran won a seat in the Nevada legislature in 1902. After only one term as a congressman, McCarran ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate.

Sided with Striking Miners
After his defeat, McCarran returned to sheep ranching with his wife and five children and studying for his impending bar examination. After he received his law license McCarran became district attorney for Tonopah. He was well liked among Nevadans for his populist stances. In political circles, he became known as a "dangerous radical" when in 1907 he sided with miners who had been striking in Goldfield.

Attorney for the Defense
McCarran earned a seat on the Nevada State Supreme Court in 1912. Always viewing these positions as steps on the ladder to political power, McCarran ran yet another unsuccessful political campaign, this time for the United States Senate in 1916, on a platform that supported the women's suffrage movement. After losing a bid for the Nevada Supreme Court in 1918, McCarran abandoned politics for a while, and returned to practicing criminal law for another twelve years. Historian Hal Rothman credits a loss in a drunken fistfight to fellow politician Key Pittman on a street in Reno as another reason he returned home to the ranch. Back home, McCarran made a career of defending criminals. He was often sympathetic with perpetrators, and referred to sin as "a natural part of the human beast."

Independent and Powerful
Finally, in 1932 McCarran won a bid for the United States Senate at the age of fifty-six. Despite being a Democrat, he strongly opposed FDR's "packing" of the Supreme Court and some of the New Deal programs. The public approved McCarran's independence of the parties. Collier's referred to him as "for the masses rather than the classes." In 1944 he gained immense political power as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Advocate, Facilitator, Orator
McCarran greatly influenced the development of Las Vegas. In the mid-1940s, he helped supply construction materials for Ben "Bugsy" Siegel and the Syndicate to build the Flamingo. In 1950, he fought against the Kefauver Committee, particularly the committee's suggestion to raise the federal gambling tax to ten percent, arguing that "the gleaming gulch of Las Vegas would be a glowing symbol of funereal distress."

McCarran's Boys
By 1946 McCarran, as a member of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, became close political allies with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy. His anti-Semitic stance caused him to be attacked in some Nevada publications, particularly through The Las Vegas Sun and its editor Hank Greenspun. Nevertheless McCarran cultivated enough allies in his home state to ensure his reelection. He gave loans to Nevadans to pay for their law school education. These Nevadans, dubbed "McCarran's Boys," returned to Nevada with law degrees and became administrators, politicians, lawyers and judges. In return for the loan, McCarran expected their public support. Although years before, he had rallied against political boss Wingfield, McCarran had built up his own connections, becoming one of the most powerful politicians in Nevada's history. Detractors referred to McCarran's political control as a "patronage pigsty."

Power Broker
McCarran was a powerful political broker in Washington. He lobbied hard to bring more businesses and industries to southern Nevada. Aviation was one of his biggest platforms and he lobbied for the construction of the Nellis Air Force Base. Las Vegas' main airport was named McCarran International Airport. The federal government controls more than 90 percent of Nevada's land, and McCarran helped to maneuver Nevada into a position of receiving more federal funds. Noting how Nevada had benefited from federal public works projects, McCarran pushed for more. "Nothing is too good for the fine people of Nevada," he said. He also championed Nevada's right-to-work, anti-union law. Toward the end of his career, McCarran was suffering from a host of health problems. A painful ulcer had rendered him unable to eat anything but baby food for years. Finally, in 1954, immediately after finishing a thundering anti-Communist speech, McCarran suffered a massive stroke, dying on the stage.

He was a politically powerful man in Nevada and in Washington. He is remembered by some as a political manipulator and by others as the state's defender and "Champion of the American way of life."

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