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Paul Laxalt

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Subject: United States Senate election in Nevada, 1980, List of Governors of Nevada, United States Senate election in Nevada, 1974, Harry Reid, Nevada gubernatorial election, 1966
Collection: 1922 Births, American Military Personnel of World War II, American People of Basque Descent, American Prosecutors, Governors of Nevada, Lieutenant Governors of Nevada, Living People, Nevada Republicans, People from Reno, Nevada, Republican Party State Governors of the United States, Republican Party United States Senators, Santa Clara University Alumni, United States Army Soldiers, United States Presidential Candidates, 1988, United States Senators from Nevada, University of Denver Alumni
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Paul Laxalt

Paul Laxalt
General Chairperson of the Republican National Committee
In office
January 28, 1983 – January 23, 1987
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Position abolished
United States Senator
from Nevada
In office
December 18, 1974 – January 3, 1987
Preceded by Alan Bible
Succeeded by Harry Reid
22nd Governor of Nevada
In office
January 2, 1967 – January 4, 1971
Lieutenant Edward Fike
Preceded by Grant Sawyer
Succeeded by Mike O'Callaghan
23rd Lieutenant Governor of Nevada
In office
January 1, 1963 – January 2, 1967
Governor Grant Sawyer
Preceded by Maude Frazier
Succeeded by Edward Fike
Personal details
Born Paul Dominique Laxalt
(1922-08-02) August 2, 1922
Reno, Nevada, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Jackalyn Ross (1946–1972)
Carol Laxalt (1976–present)
Relations Adam Laxalt (grandson)
Children 6
Alma mater Santa Clara University
University of Denver
Religion Roman Catholic
Military service
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1943–1946

World War II

Paul Dominique Laxalt (born August 2, 1922) is an American politician who was Governor of Nevada from 1967 to 1971 and a United States Senator from 1974 to 1987. In the media, the words "son of a Basque sheepherder" often accompanied his name. He was one of Ronald Reagan's closest friends in politics. In fact, after Reagan was elected President in 1980, the national press began to refer to Laxalt as "The First Friend." He is the older brother of Robert Laxalt, who was a noted and prolific writer. He is a member of the Republican Party.


  • Early life, education, and early career 1
  • Political career 2
    • 1964 U.S. Senate run 2.1
    • Governor 2.2
    • U.S. Senate 2.3
      • Senate tenure 2.3.1
    • Relationship with Ronald Reagan 2.4
      • Sacramento Bee Libel Suit 2.4.1
    • 1988 presidential election 2.5
  • After politics 3
  • Personal life 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Early life, education, and early career

Laxalt was born on August 2, 1922 in Reno, Nevada, the son of Basque parents, Therese (Alpetche)[1] and Dominique Laxalt, a shepherd, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s from their homeland in the Pyrenees, which straddle France and Spain. Dominique became wealthy in the sheep industry, but he lost everything in the early 1920s. Thereafter, he went back to sheepherding for the rest of his career. Therese, who had been trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu cooking school, eventually opened a restaurant called The French Hotel in the Nevada capital of Carson City.

Therese and Dominique had six children: Paul, Robert (born in 1923), Suzanne (1925), John (1926), Marie (1928) and Peter (1931). The Laxalt children were raised largely by their mother as Dominique spent long periods of time away from the household as he tended to his sheep in the deserts and mountains of Nevada. The children all helped Therese at The French Hotel. It was here that Paul first acquired an interest in politics as he listened in on the conversations of the politicians who patronized the restaurant (including the legendary U.S. Senator Patrick McCarran). Paul played on the 1938 state basketball champion team at Carson High School before graduating and attending Santa Clara University. When World War II broke out, Paul joined the U.S. Army and served as a medic, seeing action in the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines. After the war, he graduated from the University of Denver (1949) law school.

After graduating from law school and after serving as a district attorney, Laxalt enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer. His clients included George Whittell, who owned a large portion of the Lake Tahoe frontage on the Nevada side of the lake, Harvey and Llewellyn Gross, who built and ran Harvey's Wagon Wheel on Lake Tahoe's south shore, and Dick Graves, founder of the Sparks Nugget. While representing Graves, Laxalt helped win the famous "Golden Rooster case" in which the federal government tried to confiscate a 15-pound solid gold rooster that Graves displayed near the entrance of his Golden Rooster restaurant.

Political career

Paul Laxalt's first attempt for public office was in 1950 when he ran for District Attorney of Ormsby County, Nevada, turning out the incumbent D.A. He served from 1950 to 1954. Laxalt's first run for statewide office came in 1962 when he ran for Lieutenant Governor against former Congressman Berkeley L. Bunker. Using innovative television ads and personal television appearances, Laxalt was able to introduce himself to the electorate, particularly in Southern Nevada where he was virtually unknown. In the middle of the campaign, at a Fourth of July rally in Las Vegas, Republican Gubernatorial candidate Rex Bell, a former Hollywood actor who had persuaded Laxalt to run with him on the GOP "ticket", dropped dead of a heart attack. A great amount of pressure was applied to Laxalt to run in Bell's place, but the young attorney demurred, and he remained in the lieutenant governor's race. He ended up defeating Bunker by a comfortable margin. Laxalt served one term as lieutenant governor—from 1963 to 1967.

1964 U.S. Senate run

In 1964, Laxalt, while serving as lieutenant governor, ran for the United States Senate against Democratic incumbent Howard Cannon. Laxalt had wanted to remain lieutenant governor, but with no other serious Republican contenders entering the race, he "threw his hat into the ring" in mid-1964. It was a difficult year to run as a Republican as GOP standard bearer Barry Goldwater was about to be trounced by President Lyndon Johnson. Not too long before election day, Goldwater scheduled a visit to Las Vegas. Laxalt's advisors told him he should "duck" Goldwater as they feared any association with the Arizona Senator would spell trouble. Laxalt, who often described Goldwater as his "political Godfather", reportedly told his aides, "Listen, Barry Goldwater is my friend. If I snubbed him now, I could never look him in the face again. I would rather lose." The Laxalt-Goldwater meeting on the tarmac was splashed on the front pages of local newspapers. (Goldwater would go on to lose Nevada by 28,000 votes.) Still, the Laxalt-Cannon race remained close. As he watched the returns come in from his home in Carson City, Laxalt was stunned when one of the television networks declared him the winner. The next morning he flew to Las Vegas where he was told that certain precincts reported late and that Senator Cannon had won by 48 votes. The race was the subject of intense controversy for years.


Governor Laxalt

Laxalt then decided to challenge two-term Governor J. Edgar Hoover to express Nevada's desire to establish a cooperative relationship.) During the gubernatorial campaign, Laxalt also led a movement to purge members of the John Birch Society from the state Republican Party. Sawyer was defeated by an unexpectedly wide margin (nearly 6,000 votes). Laxalt served one term as governor, from January 1967 to January 1971.

Laxalt's tenure as governor was noteworthy for coinciding with the purchase of several hotel-casinos by reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes. Laxalt allowed Hughes to secure his gaming license without appearing before the state's gaming regulatory authorities because he thought having an internationally acclaimed businessman involved in Nevada gaming would send a positive signal about the legitimacy of the industry. Laxalt also supported corporate ownership of gaming operations in Nevada, which helped pave the way for modern-day gambling. With the financial support of Hughes, Laxalt helped establish the state's first community colleges and Nevada's first medical school.

Along with Ronald Reagan, governor of neighboring California, Laxalt helped create the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, to protect scenic Lake Tahoe. He also expanded the park system and promoted prison reform in Nevada. On one occasion, Governor Laxalt, against the advice of his staff, went to the Nevada State Penitentiary during a prisoner uprising. He met personally with several prisoners who described to the governor the deplorable conditions they were living under. Laxalt sympathized with their concerns and ordered the prison staff to address the problems. When he was later asked by the media if he had qualms about entering the prison yard, Laxalt, a former trial lawyer, said, "No, not really. Many of them were my former clients!"

In 1985, the Nevada State Senate praised Laxalt in a resolution for appointing the first African American to the governor's cabinet.

In 1970, Laxalt lobbied President Nixon to reduce the prison sentence of notorious Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa after Hoffa was convicted of attempting to bribe Nevada Senator Howard Cannon. While Governor, Laxalt worked with Teamster officials on gambling investments in Nevada.[2]

Laxalt governed Nevada as a fiscal conservative, but felt compelled to raise taxes at the outset of his administration because of the budget situation. Laxalt did not seek a second term. He bequeathed a budget surplus to his successor, Governor Mike O'Callaghan. He left office saying that he had "a gut-full" of politics.[3]

U.S. Senate

After leaving the governor's mansion, Laxalt and his family opened a hotel/casino in Carson City. In 1974, when 20-year incumbent U.S. Senator Alan Bible announced his retirement, Republican political insiders pressed Laxalt to re-enter politics and seek the open U.S. Senate seat. He eventually agreed and wound up running against the sitting Democratic Lieutenant Governor, Harry Reid. At that time the Watergate Scandal was a burden for all Republicans running for national office in 1974. Nonetheless, early in the campaign, Laxalt enjoyed a consistent but tight lead on Reid in most polls. However, after President Gerald Ford pardoned former President Richard Nixon, Laxalt's prospects, like Republican prospects everywhere, suddenly took a dramatic turn for the worse. Laxalt compared it to having "a hundred pound weight around my neck." Still, he managed a victory by fewer than 1000 votes. To give the Republican Laxalt a leg-up in seniority, Senator Bible resigned three weeks early and on December 18, 1974. Nevada Governor Mike O'Callaghan appointed Laxalt to finish out Bible's term. In the 1980 Senate race, Laxalt won re-election over former State Senator Mary Gojack with 59% of the vote.

Senate tenure

Senate picture

In his first term in the Senate, Laxalt was active in many legislative battles. In 1977, he led the fight against President Carter's proposal to transfer the Panama Canal to the Panamanian government. Despite being in the minority in the Senate, Laxalt helped build a coalition opposed to the Panama Canal Treaties. Opponents successfully built a grassroots campaign designed to put pressure on the Senate. On the day of the vote, Laxalt was confident that he would be able to secure the 34 votes needed to defeat the treaties. However, his Nevada colleague Howard Cannon decided to support the treaties. Even in defeat, Laxalt had won plaudits from both sides of the aisle for the manner in which he led the opposition. Indeed, throughout his Senate tenure, Laxalt remained popular among his colleagues, principally because he was viewed as a "straight shooter" and someone who never allowed political differences to turn personal. He was good friends with conservative Senator Jesse Helms and liberal Senator Ted Kennedy. (At the request of Sen. Kennedy, Laxalt arranged to have President Reagan present Ethel Kennedy with the original copy of the medal honoring her late husband Robert F. Kennedy.)

During the Carter Administration, alarmed by what he viewed as Carter's "War on the West," Laxalt became co-chair of the Senate Western Caucus, a bi-partisan coalition of Western Senators who were mainly united on public land and water issues.

Laxalt's legislative activities were curtailed after Reagan's election. At the behest of conservative leaders, Laxalt drafted the initial version of the Family Protection Act of 1981, which would have cut back on child and family programs that proponents regarded as contributing to the disintegration of the American family. The legislation went nowhere.

As the president's closest confidant on Capitol Hill, Laxalt was constantly advancing the President's agenda in the U.S. Senate and even the House. He became the "go-to guy" for Senators and House members wishing to curry favor with the Reagan White House. During the Reagan Presidency, Laxalt's words carried extra weight as they were seen as coming from a White House insider.

He was besieged with requests, even some as trivial as Senators and Congressmen looking for White House invitations. His role as a "link" between the two branches went both ways. The White House often used Laxalt to send messages to key members of the Congress. Remarkably, Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker took the unprecedented step of making Laxalt an ex-officio member of the Senate leadership. Still, Laxalt remained active on issues he considered priorities. He helped shepherd through the Senate the "Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984", which was the first comprehensive revision of the U.S. criminal code since the early 1900s. It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. In addition, with the aid of liberal Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Laxalt was able to pass a regulatory reform bill by a unanimous vote in the Senate.

One of his highest profile victories was defeating President Carter's proposal for basing the MX Missile. The plan called for shuttling missiles around on underground tracks to foil Soviet attempts to monitor the missiles. The system would have encompassed 30,000 square miles in (mostly) Nevada and Utah. Laxalt and Utah Senator Jake Garn, through their positions on the Appropriations Committee, worked tirelessly to discredit the plan. President Reagan eventually scrapped the MX basing proposal. Critics complained that he did so to help his friend Laxalt, even at the expense of protecting the country's national security interests. Laxalt dismissed such complaints, arguing that the basing plan was fatally flawed from the outset.

In 1985, President Reagan sent Laxalt to inform then-President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos about the U.S. government's increasing concerns about the Philippine economy and the threat posed by the ongoing Communist insurgency. At the height of the 1986 People Power Revolution, the country was teetering on the brink of a bloody civil war. Marcos phoned Laxalt to see if Reagan wanted him to leave office, and Laxalt said that he could not speak for Reagan on such a sensitive subject. Marcos then asked, "Senator, what do you think I should do?" Laxalt famously answered, "You should cut and cut cleanly. The time has come." There was prolonged silence to the point Laxalt asked, "Mr. President, are you still there?" Marcos replied weakly, "Yes, Senator, I am still here. I am just so disappointed." Sixteen hours later on 25 February 1986, Marcos fled the Philippines for good after 21 years as dictator.

In 1986, shortly before his retirement from the Senate, Laxalt proposed an amendment to the Energy Department's appropriations bill that slashed funding for the nuclear waste repository program from $769 million to $380 million for Fiscal Year 1987. Laxalt was livid over the recent elimination of potential eastern repository sites, arguing that removing these sites from consideration amounted to crass politics. After delivering a low-key but impassioned speech on behalf of his amendment, Laxalt prevailed. The adoption of his amendment was a huge blow to the nuclear waste program generally and significantly slowed its momentum.

During Laxalt's two terms in the U.S. Senate, he served on several influential committees, including the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, the Appropriations Committee and the Judiciary Committee. When Republicans took control of the Senate in 1981, Laxalt became chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Regulatory Reform Subcommittee, and the Appropriations Committee's State, Justice and Commerce Subcommittee. In 1986, while serving on the Judiciary Committee, Laxalt played a key behind-the-scenes role in securing the committee's approval of President Reagan's nomination of William Rehnquist for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Negotiating principally with Senators Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden, Laxalt was able to strike a deal that allowed the committee to vote on the nomination. Rehnquist was subsequently approved by the full Senate by an overwhelming margin.

Early in his first term, Laxalt had a near-death experience in the San Francisco Bay area. In February 1976, he spoke at a Lincoln Day event in Napa, California. Soon after arriving in Napa, Laxalt was contacted by the Ford White House and told that he was needed in Washington the next day to cast a critical vote in the Senate. Pressed for time following his speech, Laxalt agreed to take a private plane to the San Francisco airport. As the plane flew over San Francisco, suddenly the engines went silent. The plane was out of fuel. The San Francisco tower told the pilots that their only chance was to head for the Oakland airport, which was nearer. After barely clearing some houses in San Francisco, the plane landed in San Francisco Bay. Fortunately, the plane remained intact. Just as Laxalt was contemplating an attempt to swim to shore, a Coast Guard helicopter hovered overhead and rescued the passengers. Laxalt later learned that his vote in the Senate was not required.

It is a long-held tradition to pay tribute to retiring colleagues on the floor of the Senate. On the eve of Laxalt's retirement, several Senators paid their respects to the Nevadan. Senator Ted Kennedy said, "Paul Laxalt may be Ronald Reagan's best friend in the Senate—but it can also be said of Paul Laxalt that no Senator has more friends on both sides of the aisle in the Senate than he does."

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York added, "To this Senator, my colleague, Paul Laxalt, the strong silent Gary Cooper of the U.S. Senate, is, to a degree, enigmatic. This trace of mystery is perhaps in keeping with his Basque heritage, a people whose origins are unknown. The Senator from Nevada keeps his distance, maintains perspective, remains objective."

Relationship with Ronald Reagan

Senator Laxalt and then-candidate Reagan during the 1980 campaign

Laxalt had become close friends with Donald Regan as White House Chief of Staff, but he declined because he intended to run for President in 1988. Instead, he recommended former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Majority Howard Baker, who took the job.[6]

It was the 1976 Republican Presidential race that may have cemented the tight political friendship between Laxalt and former Governor Reagan. Reagan had decided to challenge President Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Ford enjoyed widespread support among the GOP establishment, particularly in Washington, D.C. Reagan decided that having Laxalt serve as his national chairman would give his campaign credibility it was otherwise lacking. Although Laxalt was not well known on a national level, he was well liked and respected in the U.S. Congress, and he was similarly respected by many prominent members of the national media. Laxalt eventually acceded to Reagan's request, even though doing so severely jeopardized his relationship with the Ford White House. Laxalt campaigned all over the United States on behalf of Reagan, often campaigning by his side.

With his back to the wall, Reagan won shocking victories in North Carolina and Texas, which propelled the race all the way to the national convention in Kansas City. Laxalt nominated Reagan at the convention. Eventually, the Reagan campaign lost a key procedural vote to Ford and the sitting President eked out a victory. Although he was on the losing side, Laxalt's national profile increased dramatically as a result of his efforts on behalf of Reagan. When Reagan defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in 1980, with Laxalt again serving as national chairman, the Nevada Senator's profile rose even higher.

Sacramento Bee Libel Suit

As a long-time public official in Nevada, where individuals with alleged ties to organized crime were prominent in the early Las Vegas gaming industry, Laxalt came under scrutiny for his relationships with certain individuals. In 1983, during Laxalt's second Senate term and on the eve of Reagan's re-election bid, the Sacramento Bee published two articles about Laxalt's business dealings while his family owned the Ormsby House, a hotel-casino in Carson City, in the early 1970s. The articles claimed that certain Federal agents had alleged that the casino had been skimmed of profits while owned by the Laxalt family. Laxalt sued the Bee for libel, claiming that the articles' allegations were false, and that the implication that Laxalt associated with members of organized crime was defamatory. He also denied knowing about skimming activities and, in fact, denied that any skimming whatsoever had taken place.

Laxalt sought $250 million in damages. In 1987, the lawsuit was settled. In a statement, the Bee acknowledged that pretrial discovery "had not shown that there was a skim" at the Ormsby House. Laxalt declared that pretrial investigations had found no evidence of the wrongdoing at issue. The Bee maintained that it did not commit libel because it had not stated that Laxalt was involved in wrongdoing; it had merely reported that a third party held suspicions that wrongdoing had taken place at the Ormsby House. Under the settlement, the two sides agreed to allow the question of attorneys' fees to be decided by a panel of former federal judges.

In March 1988, after an extensive review, the judges awarded Laxalt $647,452.52 in fees and costs. One of the panelists, former Carter Administration Attorney General Griffin Bell, said that he would have preferred awarding $2 million, but he felt the final amount was "fair." The Washington Post described the judges' decision as a "slap" at the Bee newspapers. Laxalt was quoted as saying that the case had proven the Bee's allegations to be without basis.[7]

1988 presidential election

Laxalt retired from the Senate in 1987 and was replaced by the man he had defeated in 1974, Harry Reid, who would go on to become the Senate Majority Leader. Laxalt made a brief run for the Republican Presidential nomination during 1987. The campaign lasted only four months after Laxalt determined that the effort had fallen short of its fundraising goals. Political commentators at the time concluded that he had waited too long to enter the race, which meant that not only did his competitors have a leg up in organization, but many of the top political strategists and fundraisers had already signed on with other camps. He was eventually named a co-chairman of George H.W. Bush's successful presidential campaign. Eight years later, he served in a similar capacity in Bob Dole's failed presidential bid.

After politics

Laxalt was a partner in the New York City-based law firm of

Political offices
Preceded by
Maude Frazier
Lieutenant Governor of Nevada
January 1, 1963 – January 2, 1967
Succeeded by
Edward Fike
Preceded by
Grant Sawyer
Governor of Nevada
January 2, 1967 – January 4, 1971
Succeeded by
Mike O'Callaghan
United States Senate
Preceded by
Alan Bible
United States Senator (Class 3) from Nevada
December 18, 1974 – January 3, 1987
Served alongside: Howard Cannon, Chic Hecht
Succeeded by
Harry Reid
Party political offices
New office General Chairperson of the Republican National Committee
January 28, 1983 – January 23, 1987
Served alongside: Frank Fahrenkopf
Position abolished

External links

  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ "How the Bush Dynasty Almost Wasn't", Hoover Digest
  6. ^ Lamar, Jacob V. Jr. (March 9, 1987), "Cover Stories", Time
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Finley, Kumble, Major Law Firm, Facing Revamping or Dissolution", The New York Times
  9. ^ Goldstein, Tom (March 25, 1990). "Finley Kumble sat on a wall". The New York Times. Retrieved February 6, 2009.
  10. ^ Eisler, Kim Isaac. (1990). Shark Tank: Greed, Politics, and the Collapse of Finley Kumble, One of America's Largest Law Firms. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-0-312-03830-4
  11. ^ "50th Anniversary of Robert Laxalt's Sweet Promised Land", North American Basque Organization
  12. ^ Jackalyn Ross Laxalt, State of Nevada Official Website
  13. ^ Weiner, Rachel, (February 20, 2013). "Former Senator Pete Domenici kept son secret for decades". The Washington Post. Retrieved February 20, 2013.


Laxalt was married in 1946 to Jackalyn Ross (1927–2004), the daughter of John Rolly Ross, who was a Federal judge in Nevada.[12] The couple had five daughters (Gail, Sheila, Michelle, Kevin and Kathleen) and one son (John Paul). They divorced in 1972. He has twelve grandchildren and four great-grand children.[13] Laxalt is currently married to his second wife, Carol, who had one daughter (Denise) from a previous marriage. After he retired from the Senate, Paul and Carol Laxalt continued to reside in Northern Virginia. When he was able to travel to Nevada, Laxalt liked to make his way to the family property near Marlette Lake, which sits about 1000 feet above Lake Tahoe's eastern shores. Laxalt's father bought the property originally as a sheep camp and a location for his flocks to graze during the summer months. Paul Laxalt described Marlette Lake as his "slice of heaven on earth." Laxalt also owns a cabin overlooking Front Royal, Virginia. He used the cabin as a "weekend getaway" during his second Senate term. He famously refused to install a phone in the cabin. On several occasions, the maintenance person in the community clubhouse would knock on the cabin door and say breathlessly, "President Reagan just called for you!"

Laxalt's brother, Robert Laxalt, was a noted and prolific writer. His book Sweet Promised Land, which told the story of his father returning to his Basque homeland after almost 50 years in the American West, was internationally acclaimed and won several literary awards.[11] Laxalt, the oldest child of Dominique and Therese Laxalt, had five siblings: Robert, Sue, John, Marie and Peter. As noted, Robert was an acclaimed journalist and author; Sue was a Roman Catholic nun; John, a lawyer and political consultant; Marie, a school teacher; and Peter (Mick), an attorney.

Personal life

On August 2, 2012, Governor Sandoval issued a proclamation declaring that date, Laxalt's 90th birthday, as "Paul Laxalt Day" in the state of Nevada.

One of Laxalt's initiatives that gave him great personal satisfaction was the Intern program he established during his two terms in the United States Senate. The program was designed to bring college-age students to Washington, D.C., to work in Laxalt's Senate office for the equivalent of a college semester. The program produced several individuals who went on to prominent careers in government and business, including Nevada's current Governor, Brian Sandoval.

Paul Laxalt was honored in various ways both during and after his public service career. The Paul Laxalt Mineral Engineering Center, an $11 million building that was completed in 1983, has been described as a giant step forward for the University of Nevada-Reno and the School of Mines. The 60,000-square-foot building houses classrooms and laboratories for mining engineering, chemical and materials engineering, and geological sciences. The Paul Laxalt State Building in Carson City was formerly the U.S. Post Office (built in 1891) and the first Federal building erected in Nevada. It is located in the center of the Carson City's Historic District. [10][9]

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