Oran Gragson, the mayor who gave life to Vegas

-Oana Mihalache

Even if many of the personalities that are associated with Vegas come from the arts or gambling area, the merits for an impressionistic number of reforms that changes this city are owed to people from politics. Such an example is Oran Gragson, the longest serving mayor of Vegas, a man who fought against corruption, initiated a wave of social reforms and started a project of systematization that drastically changes the city.

He first run for mayor in 1959, and then he stayed in this position for 16 years. Born in 1911, Oran Gragson grew amidst the Great Depression of the ‘30s in the United States, and in 1932 he was working for the construction of the Hoover Dam – located between the states of Nevada and Arizona, a project which was initiated by the president Franklin D. Rooseveld during the economic recession. His only fortune consisted then of $2.70, but he only got to work at the Dam for two weeks, and then he became a truck driver for a dollar an hour. In 1934, he married Bonnie Hanley – his high school girlfriend – and they spent their honeymoon in Las Vegas.

Intuitively, Gragson then told his wife, while he was trying to convince her they should live there, that he one day will be the mayor of Vegas. Shortly after, his road toward entrepreneurship started, precisely in 1937, when he worked as an associate for his first business called the Little Secondhand Store. After many other adventures in this field, he managed to owe his own store, at which he sold television sets. This is the moment when he started seriously to think about becoming a mayor – because the police in town repeatedly told him they had found the door at his store left open, even though he knew that he himself had locked it. The corruption was in full swing in those days in Vegas, and the policemen were controlling local businesses. Well, the spirit of justice characteristic of Gragson was to end this custom – or at least try to do it.

From a novice in politics to the longest serving mayor of Vegas

After he managed to eliminate the endemic corruption within the Police Department, then run by a group of officers accused of burglary and other illicit acts, Gragson started to plan the Fremont West Expressway, now part of US Highway 95 and also known as Oran Gragson Expressway. His road in politics started with the county elections in 1959, when he was not among the favorites for the electorate – as he was largely not known to the vast public, but at the elections in 1963 he managed to win. His electoral platform included, among other proposals, a radical reform in the Western side of Vegas, which was in a visible depressed state and had much to recover towards the rest of Vegas. A member of the Republican Party, his stakes for the mayor post were mainly the eradication of corruption among the local policemen and the initiation of social reforms meant to ensure equal chances for disadvantaged social and racial categories. One of the first measures he undertook as mayor and through which he managed so secure funds for his plans was to convince President Nixon to support legislation for a transfer of funds worth $1,6 million in order to enact an anti-poverty program in Vegas. In 1968 he proposed another measure that included a sales tax that would raise $6 million annually for Clark County. A year later he was recognized by the University of Nevada as a Distinguished Nevadan.

The long career of the mayor Gragson meant a total of four mandates, and it surely cannot be resumed to a few pages, but his initiatives did a lot to help Vegas become what it is today – an eclectic city, attractive for tourists around the world and for entrepreneurs as well. Even if he could have run again, Gragson decided to instead retire and he became the director of the association Downtown Progress, which he ran until 1986. His deep involvement in the social life of Vegas went beyond bureaucratic limits: he was part of a Committee to Employ the Handicapped and in 1976 he co-founded with his wife and other members the American’s Cancer Society’s Cancer Crusade – to mention only a few examples from his civic involvement. Gragson literally witnessed the development of Vegas, and he was the man to lay the foundations for what later became Sin City – now a well-established destination on the map of global gambling.

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