Many Nevada governors have faced challenging times. Few have faced such sustained challenges over their entire term of office as those of Charles Russell.
Born on December 27, 1903 in Lovelock and schooled at Deeth and Elko, Russell graduated from the University of Nevada. He taught school in Ruby Valley in 1927, and then moved to Ely, eventually becoming editor of the Ely Record. In 1934, he won the first of three assembly terms before moving to the state senate in 1940.
In 1946, Russell ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and easily defeated Democrat Malcolm McEachin. In the House, Russell pursued traditional Nevada issues, such as those dealing with land and mining. In August 1947, President Harry Truman vetoed a measure supported by Russell to provide price supports for strategic minerals. Russell voted for the Taft/Hartley Act, irreparably breaching his previously good relations with labor. In 1948, he narrowly lost reelection to Democrat Walter Baring.
After a stint as a Marshall Plan aide in Europe, Russell returned to Nevada and easily unseated Democratic governor Vail Pittman in 1950. Russell became governor as the state faced unprecedented problems. He was one of the last of Nevada's traditional governors, an administrator who left initiatives and policy to the legislature. But circumstances did not always allow him to maintain that stance.
As Russell took office in January 1951, the state encountered major public relations struggles over organized crime involvement in Nevada casinos, which were investigated and exposed by Estes Kefauver's U.S. Senate committee. At his second legislative session in 1953, Russell sought substantial new powers for the Nevada Tax Commission (then the gaming licensing board), a residency requirement for licensees and greater transparency. He got some of what he wanted, but not all.
The 1955 legislative session proved more responsive after a scandal involving Meyer Lansky's hidden investment in the Thunderbird Casino. Russell and the legislators did not call for a review of existing licensees to remove mobsters who were already licensed, so organized crime infiltration continued. But at Russell's suggestion, the legislature created the Gaming Control Board to investigate licensing applicants, thus creating the two-stage process that exists today.
Another issue confronting Russell was population growth. In the 1950s, Nevada began its long reign as the nation's fastest growing state. Augmenting that growth was the baby boom: Nevada's birthrate jumped fifty-seven percent in the first five months of 1947 over the same period in 1946. The 1949 legislative session tried and failed to deal with its educational implications.
By the time Russell became governor, the state faced a flood of students about to enter kindergarten, but was unprepared. School construction and the costs of educating students strained the resources produced by the state's tax system. But Russell was reluctant to take a strong stand, which, according to legislators like William Swackhamer, was because he had bound himself in the 1950 campaign to anti-tax rhetoric.
Parents started organizing to demand higher taxes and end the politicians' inertia. The crisis could no longer be ignored, and finally Russell called lawmakers into special session on January 5, 1954.
In a five-day session, they passed an emergency appropriation until the regular 1955 session, and funded a School Research Committee to plan Nevada's strategy for solving the crisis. The committee commissioned Tennessee's Peabody College for Teachers to produce a report on Nevada's educational system, which it delivered at the end of the year. By then Russell had been reelected, defeating Pittman again, and freed from his 1950 anti-tax positions.
Russell released the Peabody report to the public on December 16, about a month before the session. The report said only one western state funded education at lower levels than Nevada and called for it to guarantee a threshold of support to local school districts according to a complicated formula. The Peabody proposals brought the question of school funding to a head; they would require new revenue sources.
Russell opposed a sales tax, but not forcefully, so he left the choice of new taxes to lawmakers. The lawmakers approved a sales tax, bequeathing an unstable revenue source to decades of Nevada governance. But it got the state through the school crisis.
Just as important as the funding was a change in structure. Nevada had more than 100 school districts. They were all eliminated and each county became one school district.
During Russell's governorship, Nevada was a target for criticism, not just for mob influence and inferior schools, but for social policies. Collier's, then one of the nation's leading magazines, published respected social scientist Albert Deutsch's article, "The Sorry State of Nevada." He described a state with the nation's third-highest income level, yet whose rates of crime, suicide, infant mortality, and tuberculosis were among the nation's highest, and whose prisons and schools were the most overcrowded. Nevada's mental health clinics weren't overcrowded because, the magazine said, it had none, and only one understaffed mental hospital. The article was solidly researched, and the accompanying photographs made Nevada look like a third world nation.
Russell had tried to address some of these problems. On December 3, 1954, he announced that he would ask the Nevada Legislature to create an aid to dependent children (ADC) program, costing $330,000 in state funds and $440,000 in federal funds for the 1955-57 biennium. He also met in the state capital with representatives of several mental health organizations about conducting a planned survey of Nevada's needs in their field. Russell later recommended improvements at the legislature, but with limited success.
Russell's governorship also changed how state government did business. A new purchasing system replaced primitive purchasing practices. He revived the defunct state parks system. Russell asserted forceful leadership in creating a civil service system, vetoing one measure and then proposing his own system.
During this decade of growth, Russell was involved in many more issues than Nevada governors usually dealt with. Those issues took their toll on his ability to gain support, even within his party. In May 1956, the Nevada Young Republicans Convention in Winnemucca adopted resolutions praising the "outstanding service" of every statewide GOP officeholder except Russell. At the Nevada Republican Convention, a GOP state senator called for an investigation of Russell's appointees to the Public Service Commission.
By the time he sought a third term in 1958, Russell was a weakened candidate. He lost to Democrat Grant Sawyer. That ended Russell's political career in Nevada. In December 1959, he was appointed to a foreign service post in Paraguay, where he served until 1963, when he became a fund raiser for the University of Nevada. He died on September 13, 1989, closing out an eventful life and career.