A Neo-Confederate in Nevada's Capitol

A local newspaper uncovers racist and homophobic writings by a top state legislator.

Cathleen Allison/AP

My hometown alt-weekly, the Reno News & Review, published an in-depth report this week on Nevada Assembly Speaker-designate Ira Hansen and the political columns he wrote for the local Sparks Tribune newspaper for many years starting in 1994. After the GOP swept the statewide offices and seized both chambers of the state legislature in this midterms, state legislators elected the staunchly conservative Hansen to the speakership. With such an extensive written record, the News & Review noted, "No Nevada official has ever given the public a more detailed blueprint to his thinking than Hansen."

And what a blueprint it is. ​The News & Review published excerpts in which he opines, among other things, that women shouldn't serve in the military "except in certain roles," that "homosexuals" often downplay the "grossly disproportionate numbers of child molesters, called 'pederasts,’ which fill their ranks," and that the Clinton administration was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. His most eye-opening remarks, however, are about African Americans.

"The relationship of Negroes and Democrats is truly a master-slave relationship, with the benevolent master knowing what’s best for his simple minded darkies," Hansen once wrote in a column about education reform. "For American blacks, being denied choice and forced to attend the failing and inferior government school system is a form of involuntary servitude." His use of the epithet "negroes" extended beyond historical metaphor to refer to black state legislators and to the current president of the United States.

Hanson's thoughts on slavery do not end there. "The lack of gratitude and the deliberate ignoring of white history in relation to eliminating slavery is a disgrace that Negro leaders should own up to," he once wrote. Paradoxically, Hansen also pays homage to the slaver aristocracy that fought to keep millions of black men, women, and children in chains. When discussing the Confederate battle flag on display in his office, Hansen wrote, "I fly it proudly in honor and in memory of a great cause and my brave ancestors who fought for that cause."

Hansen is perhaps fortunate that he lives in Nevada in 2014 and not 150 years earlier. In 1864, a Nevadan man went on trial for murdering a Confederate sympathizer in public. "I want him convicted, and before I resign … I mean to pardon him," proclaimed James Nye, the outgoing territorial governor, who would soon become the new state's second U.S. senator. "If it be meritorious to shoot a traitor in South Carolina, it cannot be unpardonable to shoot one in Nevada."

Nye wasn't the only one in the Silver State who despised the Confederacy. When Nevada's founders met that summer to draft a constitution, they enthusiastically denied ex-Confederates the right to vote unless granted an amnesty by the president. The constitutional convention's official record is filled with speeches demanding the rebels' disenfranchisement, including one by Dr. B.S. Mason, a physician representing Esmeralda County:

For my part, before I would ever take those vile copperhead snakes to my bosom, I would hurl them from the battlements of bliss, and sink them into hell so deep that the devils themselves would tremble to explore that fathomless abyss. [Applause and laughter.] That is the mercy I would show them. I have no disposition to grant them any favors. Let them thoroughly purge themselves before they are admitted to the exercise of the right of suffrage under that government which they have treacherously sought to destroy.

When a less radical delegate quoted scripture and beseeched the convention to think of mercy, Mason refused, to cheers and applause. "The same mercy which the rebels showed at Fort Pillow, the same mercy that they have shown in dooming to starvation those unfortunate brave men who have fallen into their hands," he thundered, "I am willing to show them."

All of this happened a century and a half ago, of course. Times have changed and so has the state. Barring his resignation, Ira Hansen will walk into the Nevada Assembly chamber this January and take the oath of office as its next speaker. But if the state's founders still lived, they would barricade the doors.