Friday, September 14, 2007

Carson City, the state capital

In the Nevada state assembly hall there hangs, behind the speaker's dais, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. If you know as little about its history as I did before visiting this week, then you don't know that Lincoln managed to get Nevada certified as the nation's 36th state in 1864, as the Civil War was drawing to its inexorable conclusion, despite the fact that the territory did not meet the necessary population requirement. Lincoln did this for two reasons: in gratitude for the significant funding of the the war effort (see previous posting on Virginia City and the Comstock Lode) and also because he had to have Nevada's three votes in order to ratify the Emancipation Proclamation 13th Amendment.

The names of dozens of precious minerals and ores taken out from beneath the state's soil and mountains, and the scenes portraying their excavation and commercial employment, are displayed in a mural ribbon that adorns the top of each hallway in the old Capitol building. There don't seem to be any pictures of the thousands of abandoned mines that litter Nevada's landscape, still claiming lives of curiosity-seekers who venture in and are suffocated by methane (the least painless of the possible and various accidental deaths).

What also gets no tribute in art in the halls of government is the state's current revenue stream, gaming. There are casinos large and small, plush and dingy, within walking distance up and down the street from the Capitol, the state supreme court building and the state assembly. Max Baer, whose singular claim to fame was portraying the ignoramus Jethro Bodine, nephew of hayseed-turned-oil tycoon Jed Clampett in TV's "Beverly Hillbillies", is building an new casino on the outskirts of Carson City themed after the television show. It is to feature a two-hundred-foot oil derrick as landmark.

No word on whether the enterprise will include modern-day salutes to US soldiers killed in Bush's War for Oil, to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children who have died in the bombings and violence, or even a nod to American petroleum consumption (say, a bigger-than-lifesize Hummer tearing up the suburban landscape). My guess is no.

Across the street from the Nugget Casino, where our tour bus dropped us yesterday afternoon (with free tickets for the evening buffet) is the Nevada state museum, housed in the old US Mint building. Did you know Carson City minted coinage for a few years in the 1960's? I didn't, but most numismatics know if you have a coin with "CC" near the president's head then you've got a rare and worthy collectible.

Much like the Texas Legislature, Nevada's 21 senators and 42 state assemblymen and women meet in the winter and spring of odd-numbered years, but Texans convene for 180 days while Nevadans gather for just 120. Like their Lone Star peers, they are paid small stipends and as such most of the members have comfortable incomes from primary employment and entrepreneurship. They also spend the first month reading proclamations and bestowing honoraria on constituents, semi-celebrities and causes, and the last month furiously writing, amending, and voting on thousands of pieces of legislation, leaving much of the work to die at the end of their session. They are also frequently summoned into special session to address unfinished business or pet concerns of the governor (and corporate lobbyists).

The speaker of the Nevada state assembly is a woman, as is the state's attorney general. Nevada, like so many other Western states, is purple and trending blue, in their case because of the economic growth from Californians fleeing high taxes and congestion, a burgeoning population of Latino immigrants, and the organization of the state's casino laborers. The influence of Nevada's early primary election day -- January 19, between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary --was initially expected to have greater influence on the Democratic nominee's selection, but it appears that will be diminished because of the land rush by other states to move up their presidential primaries to Feb. 5th, creating a quasi-national primary on that day.

Today: a cruise across the lake to the North shore to see the old Cal-Neva resort hotel, where Frank and Dean and the rest of the Rat Pack palled around for a few years in the '60's, and the Thunderbird Lodge.

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