Inside The Beltway
Nothing New—or Not? Sex Scandals and Nevada Politics
by Michael Green
Nevada is having its “MeToo” moment. Amid the long overdue attention being paid to sexual harassment, Representative Ruben Kihuen has faced harassment allegations made by a former official from his campaign. Before that, State Senator Mark Manendo resigned after an investigation in Carson City.
You’ve seen all that. You have not seen anything like this before … or have you?
We have seen something similar. In 1991, Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, sexually harassed her. Others were willing to testify, or did testify, to the same thing. Thomas responded that this was an attempt at a “high-tech lynching,” and the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed him, 52-48, with Nevada’s two U.S. Democratic senators, Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, voting against confirmation. The next year, several women won election to the House and Senate in what was widely called “the year of the woman.” How much this changed issues like sexual harassment remains open to debate.
But sex scandals—harassment, discrimination, philandering, and worse—have been part of politics since … well, since the snake opened his campaign for power by providing an apple to one of the voters. About half of the presidents have had some kind of scandal or question raised about sex, from Thomas Jefferson having six children with one of his slaves to the present incumbent, with John Tyler and Grover Cleveland marrying women less than half their age. As for sex-related scandals in Nevada, they have been going on since … yep, day one.
Start with sex, or views of sex, being at the heart of the fight to create a Nevada territory. In 1850, when Congress set up a governmental system for the land that now comprises the state of Nevada, it put what is now Clark County with Arizona and New Mexico as part of New Mexico Territory. The rest of present-day Nevada became part of Utah Territory.
Utah. Ah, yes, that place settled just a couple of years before by Mormons who had left Illinois after the lynching of their leader, Joseph Smith, and his brother. Pray tell, what had non-Mormons in a tizzy about that church? A big part of it was plural marriage. Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, would end up with 27 wives.
Now, the fact that the Mormons were very communal in their social and economic policies also bothered those on the outside looking in, but the sexual aspects of all of this excited a great deal of comment. Mormons became a political football during the 1850s, when the most divisive national issue was slavery, and its expansion into federal territories. Stephen A. Douglas County, the senator from Illinois and a leader of the Democratic party, argued in favor of “popular sovereignty,” which might be described as the American democratic ideal taken to its illogical conclusion: let the voters decide whether they could own other people. His most noteworthy Republican rival in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln County, regularly attacked Douglas’s “sophistry,” as he called it.
By the way, really, the counties in Nevada are named for them. They are not named for the counties.
Back to the issue. Lincoln took great pleasure in pointing out that Douglas had no problem saying that the “pee-pul” should decide on slavery, but went on supporting legislation that prohibited Mormons from having polygamy. A bit of hypocrisy or a contradiction there? Yes, said Lincoln. Douglas threw out some legal arguments but, essentially, Lincoln was right: slavery was the issue that Douglas was trying to resolve, and it was easy to pile on the Mormon Church. It was so easy that in 1856, the first presidential campaign platform of the Republican party—yes, Lincoln’s party—referred to the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy.
Nevadans got their own territory in 1861 after many years of effort. What ultimately did it was, yes, the discovery of the Comstock Lode meant that what had been the western corner of Utah Territory had the population to justify a different government. But the reason it could happen was the secession of seven southern states. When they left and formed the Confederacy, all but one member of Congress representing those states—Andrew Johnson of Tennessee—seceded with them, handing power to Republicans, who believed in prohibiting slavery from the territories. They proceeded to create new territories, including Nevada, but without mentioning slavery—not, as some critics have tried to argue, because slavery didn’t really matter to them, but because their party would be controlling the territories and would see to it that slavery didn’t expand.
That part was not a sex scandal, although Jefferson Davis suffered from herpes and Lincoln was convinced at one point in his life that he had contracted syphilis. Moving right along ….
In 1875, the first U.S. senator elected from Nevada, William Morris Stewart, would have been happy to continue in office for a third term. The problem was that someone else wanted his seat, and that someone had more money than Stewart could ever hope to have—and, in fact, had helped finance Stewart’s previous campaigns.
William Sharon was one of the true barons of the Comstock Lode. As the boss of the Bank of California, he was the lending agent for a lot of mining development. He also used that position to find ways to take over mines and mills. He expanded his and his bank’s empire to include transportation, public utilities, and the local newspaper. Those who study the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century point to Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller as practitioners of “vertical integration” to control not only their companies, but also the means of producing and marketing their wares. Sharon could have taught those guys how to do it.
Sharon first ran for the Senate in 1873 and bribed a lot of legislators, but another Comstock millionaire, John Percival Jones, outbribed him and won the seat. Sharon was determined to win in 1875 and did. He went back to Washington, D.C., was sworn in, and pretty much high-tailed it out of there and went back west. He barely ever showed up in Washington.
He had a decent excuse: his bank’s corporate headquarters were a mess and the company was going under. He headed to San Francisco and saved it. But he ended up being a senator from Nevada who lived in California and didn’t show up in Washington. It cost him reelection.
That mattered more than his scandal, and it was a ring-tailed, double-jointed doozy. He had a mistress named Sarah Hill. When his wife died, he didn’t want to marry Hill, and eventually gave her the gate. Hill sued, claiming they had, in fact, married. On the advice of a friend of his, Stephen Field, Sharon claimed Nevada residence. With Hill living in California, the suit went into federal court. Amid the fighting, Sharon died.
The lawsuit combined morbid entertainment and a new kind of legal ethics. Sharon had loaned Field $25,000 that he never repaid, but Field heard the case anyway—as a U.S. Supreme Court justice who was riding the local circuit and had given Sharon legal advice. Hill eventually married her attorney, David Terry, and both of them pulled out weapons in the courtroom. Ultimately, having lost the case, Terry and Hill bumped into Field at a railroad station. Terry punched the justice, whose bodyguard leaped to his feet and shot and killed Terry. For his part, Field continued on the Supreme Court until his retirement.
Any which way, though, although he was still alive, Sharon wasn’t returning to the Senate. In 1881, the legislature chose James Fair, another Comstock mining millionaire—one of the Big Four who had discovered the Big Bonanza in 1873. It was the first chance Democrats had had to elect a U.S. senator in Nevada, and here was a rich Democrat prepared to pay for it. It was a match made in heaven.
The same could not be said of Fair’s marriage. While he was in the Senate, his wife sued him for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Testimony made clear that Fair had misbehaved, though he tried to take the high road and say he would not say anything to harm his wife’s reputation. What he really didn’t appreciate was that his wife received a lot of support in her divorce from John Mackay, his longtime partner in mining and other business ventures.
Mackay disapproved of Fair’s treatment of his wife, and, really, of how his partner treated the entire human race: Fair wasn’t considered terribly pleasant, while Mackay was a beloved figure. So, how does someone as unpopular as Fair win a Senate seat? Well, you probably can think of other politicians who have gone a long way amid claims that few people actually like him or her. The answer in this case is that Fair had money—which didn’t hurt many of the other politicians you might have thought of.
But, by the end of his term, Fair had little interest in continuing in the Senate. Democrats never really got their act together, and Republicans easily won the legislature in 1886 and chose William Stewart, who had given up that seat a dozen years before.
This was the Victorian Era, when sex allegedly didn’t exist and certainly wasn’t supposed to be talked about. Two senators from Nevada became caught up in scandals related to their sex lives and their political careers didn’t actually suffer as a result. That was because they had the money to win if they wanted to win, but chose to get out—and perhaps because the public didn’t get to see it on 24/7 cable and read about it on the internet. Other politicians in decades to come would be less fortunate … or would they? We’ll return to this subject later.