- - Tuesday, October 13, 2015


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.

Rep. Santini was that rare breed, a workhorse, whom I met in 1978 when he was chairman of the Mines and Mining Subcommittee of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committee (today, the Resources Committee). Earlier, Santini led a delegation to the White House urging President Jimmy Carter to investigate U.S. vulnerabilities owing of the nation’s dependence on foreign sources for strategic and critical minerals. To Mr. Carter’s credit, he ordered the study; to his discredit, it was a sham, which Santini sought not just to illuminate, but also to improve. As Santini cautioned, cajoled and criticized administration witnesses, I readied questions for subcommittee Republicans. Too often, however, I sat alone on Santini’s right. At one session, he grabbed my questions, reviewed them, and then put his aside and asked mine. It was the start of a 37-year friendship.

Knowing the Carter study would be worthless, Santini enticed mineral experts onto his staff, held his own investigatory hearings, which included a no-nonsense fact-finding tour in southern Africa, and issued “U.S. Minerals Vulnerability: National Policy Implications,” a study that remains a landmark. A supportive introductory letter from Interior Committee Chairman Morris K. Udall, Arizona Democrat, testified to Santini’s persuasive skills. Udall was a hero of the environmental juggernaut. The African trip was uniquely Santini. As his colleagues, their entourages and Defense Department brass used military aircraft to shop and sightsee in London, Paris and Vienna, his tiny subcommittee staff, a Foreign Relations Committee aide and an enlisted military escort flew commercial to dusty, rural, hot-as-hell African mining sites.

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. But he could hold his fire. When I advised him a rare pro-mining victory had been overturned by staff skullduggery, he delayed confronting his guilty colleague. “I am still too angry.” In time, they spoke and resolved the issue. Later, as a Washington lawyer for travel and tourism — in Congress he founded the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus, which still exists. He also led in suing the National Park Service for ending flights from Las Vegas over isolated portions of the Grand Canyon at the demand of environmental zealots.

A devoted husband, and attentive father and grandfather, he made annual pilgrimages with his two younger sons to the NCAA Final Four in its far-flung venues. They were there in 1990 in Denver, when their beloved University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels under Coach Jerry Tarkanian won the basketball championship. Tarkanian was still coach, in part because, fiercely loyal, Santini had come to his defense years earlier when Tarkanian was attacked by the NCAA.

My family was a beneficiary of his friendship, generosity of spirit and loyalty. A nation that may not know his name is indebted for his leadership on issues that vex us today.

William Perry Pendley is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation and is author of “Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today” (Regnery, 2013).

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