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Leaving a Life of Politics

Myrna Williams tells it like it was

Joshua Longobardy

So she was in the center of it while it grew, expanded, effloresced all around her. And, as you all well know, she served it too: Starting in 1969, having obtained her degree in social work from UNLV, Williams returned to teach at her alma mater in the school of social work, and that's what she did until she became restless a decade later—something her husband, David, came to call "Myrna's 10-year attention span"—and decided to run for public office. She did, and she won, starting in 1984 her tenure in the state Assembly, representing District 10, there in the heart of Las Vegas. But then that 10-year attention span flared up again, and in 1994 she decided to run for the Clark County Commission, District E, in essence the center of the city, and she won that too.

And for the next 11 years she would remain in that capacity. You all remember her there, during the televised meetings: the spectral face, the low raspy voice, the grouchy liberal arguments (save for that one nonconforming vote against smoking bans in 2003), the irascible and sometimes insurmountable demeanor, all captured in microcosm during her last television appearance, on Face to Face with Jon Ralston. She had made her way up to the vice-chair position, participated on innumerable boards, was appointed to various commissions, and throughout all of it—the teaching, the Assembly, the Clark County Commission—she never held another job, like the vast majority of her colleagues. Public service never paid much money, $62,000 at its height for Myrna, but that didn't matter any, because, to use her words, "it was only money," and she had received enough of the public servant's compensation—gratitude—to sustain her for another lifetime. Born in Chicago, raised in Southern California, Williams came to love central Las Vegas, which had captured her heart 48 years ago when she arrived and which we all know for its poverty, its dispossessed, its blight. As commissioner she renovated parks, ushered in new ones, repaired city streets and ignited the TAG graffiti-abatement program. But her chief mark as a teacher and politician had been the Cambridge Community and Recreation Center, located, of course, in the heart of the city.

That was her first dream as a commissioner, a monumental vision: a one-stop shop to serve the community. And with patience and dedication, that's what Cambridge became—that's what it still is becoming. There tens of thousands of people visit doctors, dentists, the fitness center, the pools, computer labs, senior-citizen events, dances and other myriad types of shindigs, like political rallies held by Williams' personal friends Harry Reid and John Ensign. Nearly all of its services are bi-lingual. "It's international, intergenerational, intereverything," Williams said to me as we walked through the community center last month, her heart in her throat. "This center was my flagship goal," she said, "the reason I got into politics."

A mother and a grandmother, Williams had contemplated retiring from public office, going out on her own terms, four years ago, but didn't, because she didn't feel as if she'd realized that vision she had for Cambridge and her district when she first started, and so she ran for reelection and won. And then, in 2006, the vision still hadn't been realized (and in truth, it probably never could be: even Williams said "One never exceeds a vision"), and so she, now a widow since the January 2006 passing of her husband of 53 years, David, planned to serve yet another term. Provided that she won, of course.

We all know that she did not. We all know that she fell victim to an exacerbating dynamic in American politics—mud wrestling—and the only reason I rehash it now is to expound on a point I think is relevant.

Commentators said her race with Chris Giunchigliani, a Democrat like Williams with a near-identical ideology, was the year's ugliest, in the dirtiest year for politics to date. Even Williams got nasty, the quagmire having sucked her in, distributing fliers that blasted her opponent, and accusing Giunchigliani on TV of voting for tax hikes that Williams herself had also voted for during her time in Legislature. It required of Williams a great deal of money to compete—$770,000 to be exact, and some $702,000 more than it did during her first campaign in 1983. Giunchigliani accused Williams of being inaccessible to her constituents, and with one swift mortal blow she linked Williams to her disgraced counterparts in the county commission with fliers, sent out right before the August primaries, misasserting that Williams had been at one point a subject of the infamous G-Sting investigation.

I had spoken with Williams the moment she, and the rest of Clark County, realized that her political career had come to pass. It was August 15, 2006, the night of the primary elections. I asked Williams what it was like to have such a long and prodigious life as a public official come to an end, and she, with unrepentant bitterness, said, "It is just horrible," the way she was going out, her opponent having resorted to such dirty politics, to what Williams called "slander and libel."

But then she recovered her composure and said:
"Me—I'm tough, I can handle it. But what it did to my family ..."
My last impression of her on that funereal night in August was from a distance.

All but a couple of individuals had gone home, and Williams, smoking a cigarette outside her campaign headquarters on Maryland Parkway and Flamingo Road, at the core of the city, stood alone. She was 76 years old, and had spent half her lifetime in public service.

I spoke to Williams again in her last remaining weeks in office, at the Cambridge Community Center that had been her "flagship" from day one. She gave me a tour. Age, cigarettes, zoning meetings, constituents' concerns, jurisdictional restraints, bureaucratic viscosity, a brutal primary election season, had all taken a toll on her body. Her hair was thin, her skin pale (almost even jaundiced, you might say), her makeup just a bit off, and her legs were unsteady, and her smoker's cough overcame her, but Williams was still vibrant. I asked her if she had spoken to Giunchigliani since the primaries. She said no. "Nor do I have any desire to talk to her." I asked what advice she would offer her successor if she were to speak to her. She said: "I'd say, be prepared to deal with people every day. It's not a part-time job, like Legislature, where you're only dealing with laws." I asked if she would ever advise her daughter to get into politics. "I'd say yes, we need good people running for office," Williams reacted, coffee and nicotine and rancor in her breath. "With the nasty kind of campaigning that goes on today, we end up getting the wrong kind of people in office. We saw that with my race." Then she paused, thought, unblinking:

"You know, I'm not sure I'd encourage her. You make a target of yourself when you run these days. The state of viciousness now, they'll pull up every little thing you've ever said and use it against you."

I then asked Williams, a reader, a moviegoer, a longtime mistress of music (as you all know), what was next. Are you going to call it quits? "My dad lived to be 98 and a half," she said, "and he was still driving the LA freeways at 94. They're gonna have to force me out. Actually, when my term is completed I'll be working on a big public project. The Don Reynolds Estate project. It's going to be huge."

In any event, her political career has come to an end. As did my tour of Cambridge, at the community center's entrance, where a large standing plaque memorialized to Williams sits. It, the plaque, leads me to what I've been trying to say, and that is, not to worry. Although Myrna Williams the politician has passed on, she has accomplished something symbolized by that plaque that I believe we all strive to do, which is to leave our own personal "I was here" behind. That is, with that plaque at Cambridge, to remain and remind people in Las Vegas of Myrna Williams' work—a life's work dedicated to public service. Long after Myrna Williams the person has passed on, her legacy will endure for as long as Cambridge endures, which, if Williams' vision is realized, will be many, many generations from now.

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