VUCANOVICH, Barbara Farrell

VUCANOVICH, Barbara Farrell
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1921–2013

Biography

In 1982, Barbara Vucanovich became the first Nevada woman elected to federal office. At the time, Vucanovich represented one of the biggest districts in the country, covering nearly the entire state. Winning her first elective office at the age of 61, the former business owner and congressional aide won an influential seat on the Appropriations Committee (eventually chairing the Military Construction Subcommittee) and served seven terms in the House of Representatives.

Barbara Farrell was born on June 22, 1921, in Fort Dix, New Jersey, to Thomas and Ynez Farrell. Public service was a part of her life from an early age.1 Her father was the chief civil engineer for New York under Governors Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt. Her mother had been a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I. Barbara Farrell was raised in Albany, New York, graduating from the Albany Academy for Girls in 1938. She attended the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart from 1938 to 1939. In 1949, the family moved to Nevada. On March 8, 1950, Barbara Farrell married Ken Dillon and they settled in the Reno area in the northwest part of the state. The couple raised five children: Patty, Mike, Ken, Tom, and Susan, before her husband died in 1964. Barbara Farrell Dillon married George Vucanovich on June 19, 1965. While raising her family, Barbara Vucanovich also owned and operated a speed reading school and a travel agency.

Vucanovich’s first experience in politics came in 1952 when she served as a delegate to the Nevada state GOP convention. Three years later, she won a one–year term as president of the Nevada Federation of Republican Women. She worked for Republican Paul Laxalt for nearly 20 years while he served as Nevada’s lieutenant governor and governor. When Laxalt won election to the U.S. Senate, Vucanovich worked for him as manager of his district office and as a campaign adviser from 1974 until 1982. It was in that capacity that she learned the nuances of constituent service, a skill that even her opponents admired. One observer noted Vucanovich “is good with people, and she can think on her feet talking to them.”2 In 1976 and 1980 she served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention.

Reapportionment after the 1980 Census split Nevada into two congressional districts, one which encompassed the expanding city of Las Vegas and the other covering the sprawling remainder of the state. Senator Laxalt encouraged Vucanovich to run for the larger district. “Good Lord, what would I be able to do?” she replied. It was a “wide–open state” she observed—open 24 hours a day for gambling and legalized prostitution. As a 61–year–old grandmother with five grown children and 15 grandchildren, she seemed an odd fit. “You would be wonderful,” Laxalt responded. With that endorsement, she secured the GOP nomination and squared off in the general election against Democratic opponent State Senator Mary Gojack, who had previously challenged Laxalt for his Senate seat in 1980. Though she had lost her Senate bid by a wide margin, the race had helped increase Gojack’s visibility; however, President Ronald Reagan also bolstered Vucanovich’s name recognition when he made an appearance at a rally in Reno on her behalf while stumping for Nevada Republican candidates.3 The economy was a major focus of the 1982 campaign—unemployment in Las Vegas and Reno had eclipsed 10 percent during the ongoing national recession—and the issue offered a clear dividing line between the two candidates. Gojack seized this statistic, arguing that the Republican administration had not aided Nevada during the economic downturn. Vucanovich supported the Reagan administration’s plan, one of lower taxes and reduced government spending. She also shared the President’s optimism that the economy was on its way to recovery.4 Gojack’s ties to the women’s rights movement and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) battle in the 1970s contrasted with Vucanovich, who painted herself as a social conservative. “The real choice is between a liberal and a conservative,” Vucanovich said. “Mary’s … trying to effect social change. But the people here are very conservative. They back the President and so do I. I think he’s trying to turn the country around from the socialistic bent to less government and less spending.”5 Vucanovich was victorious with 56 percent of the vote.6

Congresswoman Vucanovich successfully secured six additional terms in Congress. Of those elections, only one was won with an overwhelming majority, 71 percent in the Reagan landslide of 1984. Another was much closer. In 1992, running against the popular mayor of Reno, Pete Sferrazza, and three minor party candidates, Vucanovich won just 48 percent of the vote. Sferrazza campaigned as a pro–choice candidate, railing against increasing congressional salaries and cost of living raises. He ran well in Reno and its surrounding counties, but Vucanovich—who outspent her opponent three–to–one—held on to her seat by a five–point margin, winning in large part because she carried the vast rural stretches of the state by a wide margin.7 Two years later, in her final House race, Vucanovich won with 64 percent of the vote. The fact that she campaigned statewide for her enormous district made Vucanovich a logical choice for a potential gubernatorial campaign in 1990, a candidacy for which she received widespread encouragement and support. “The people of Nevada have told me they believe, as I do, that I can be elected governor and that I would make a great governor,” she said; however she declined the nomination: “At the same time, [voters] feel my voice is too important in the House of Representatives, and I happen to agree with them.”8

During her tenure in Congress, she served on four committees: Appropriations, Interior and Insular Affairs (later named the Resources Committee), House Administration, and the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. At the time of her retirement, she ranked 14th out of 23 Republicans on the Appropriations Committee and was the chair of the Subcommittee on Military Construction—only the second woman ever to chair a subcommittee of that prestigious panel. Her grandmotherly demeanor played to her advantage in an institution filled with men, many of whom were decades younger than she. She once entered the Republican Cloakroom to find male Congressmen sprawled on the couches, smoking cigars, and telling patronizing jokes about women. She thought to herself, “You know, I’ve raised three boys, why do I have to put up with this junk?” Vucanovich turned to her colleagues, “Hey, listen you guys, knock it off, will you?” The jokes stopped.10

Vucanovich lived up to her campaign persona as a fiscal and social conservative. She was one of a handful of women to consistently vote against any measure that permitted abortion or federal funding of the procedure and, in 1993, voted for a parental consent law. In 1984, she opposed the addition of an ERA plank in the GOP platform, arguing that if it did manage to pass, legal challenges to its exact meaning would clog the courts “for 100 years.”11 Vucanovich also supported the death penalty and was a major recipient of National Rifle Association funding for her positions against gun control.12 Realizing that her votes sometimes conflicted with her constituents’ wishes, she asked them to take a wider perspective of her House service: “I don’t ask you to agree with me on every issue, but I do ask that you look at what I stand for, consider the job I have done, and decide if you believe I have earned your vote.”13

As a Member of the House of Representatives, Vucanovich pursued a variety of issues important to Nevada’s natural resources. Vucanovich opposed a federal plan to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the U.S. government’s primary storage dump for nuclear waste. The measure eventually passed Congress after her retirement. From her seat on Interior and Insular Affairs, Vucanovich also protected the Nevada mining industry. She vigorously opposed an early 1990s overhaul of the Mining Act of 1872, arguing that it favored eastern coal interests rather than western mining. She proposed 150 amendments to stall its progress, and the measure later lapsed at the end of the 102nd Congress (1991–1993). Vucanovich also strenuously opposed President William J. Clinton’s proposed 12.5 percent gross royalty on minerals, and she went so far as to invite the President to visit mining operations in western Nevada.14

At the beginning of her freshman term in 1983, Vucanovich was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram, which identified the cancer at an early stage, leading to prompt, lifesaving treatment. Thereafter, Representative Vucanovich supported all efforts to increase medical research and treatment for women, despite her fiscal conservatism. “As a breast cancer survivor, I know the importance of medical research,” Vucanovich said in a floor speech. “I also know the many questions that run through your head—why, how, and why me? We need diverse research to provide us with these essential answers.”15 In 1989, she introduced the Omnibus Breast Cancer Control Act, which required Medicare and Medicaid coverage for annual mammograms for women over certain ages and increased funding for a public awareness program through the National Cancer Institute. “Breast cancer is not a partisan issue or a women’s issue,” Vucanovich told her colleagues. “Breast cancer must become a legislative and communications priority in the government and the private sector.”16

In 1996, at age 75, Vucanovich announced her retirement from Congress. She told reporters that she wanted to spend more time with her family. “I look forward to returning to Nevada full time and expect to continue working on Nevada’s behalf as a private citizen,” she said.17 Her husband passed away in December 1998. In 2000, a post office in Nevada was named after Vucanovich to honor the state’s first female member of Congress.18 Vucanovich died on June 10, 2013, in Reno, Nevada.19

Footnotes

1United States Capitol Historical Society (hereinafter cited as USCHS) Women in Public Service, videocassette (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 1998).

2Deborah Churchman, “Nevada Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich Brings Care, Warmth to Washington,” 1 February 1983, Christian Science Monitor: 18.

3James Gerstenzang, “President Plugging for GOP Candidates in Nevada,” 6 October 1982, Associated Press.

4Tom Raun, “Election ’82: Nevada Race Offers Clear Test of Reaganomics,” 26 October, 1982, Associated Press.

5Joseph Kraft, “In Nevada, a Turn To Wine and Cheese,” 21 October 1982, Washington Post: A19.

6“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

7Almanac of American Politics, 1994 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Inc., 1993): 786; “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,” http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/election.aspx.

8“Barbara Vucanovich,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1996.

9Politics in America, 1994 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1993): 935.

10USCHS, Women in Public Service.

11Steven V. Roberts, “Panel of G.O.P. Concludes Draft of ’84 Platform,” 17 August 1984, New York Times: A1.

12“Handguns and Money,” 3 March 1986, Washington Post: A9.

13“Barbara Vucanovich,” Associated Press Candidate Biographies, 1996.

14Almanac of American Politics, 1994: 786.

15Congressional Record, House, 102nd Cong., 2nd sess. (28 May 1992): 3839.

16Congressional Record, House, 101st Cong., 1st sess. (18 September 1989): 5694.

17“Vucanovich to Retire from House,” 6 December 1995, Washington Post: A8.

18“Vucanovich: Ex–Rep. Has Officially Gone Postal,” 10 October 2000, The Hotline.

19"Barbara Vucanovich, First Woman Elected to Congress in Nevada, Dies at 91," 10 June 2013, Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com/article/20130610/NEWS/306100037/Barbara-Vucanovich-first-woman-elected-Congress-Nevada-dies-91 (accessed 10 June 2013).

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Nevada Historical Society

Reno, NV
Papers: In the George John Vucanovich Papers, ca. 1910-1998, 4.5 linear feet. Persons represented include Barbara Vucanovich.

University of Nevada
Special Collections Department

Reno, NV
Papers: 1982-1996 (bulk 1989-1996), 86 cubic feet. The collection of Barbara Vucanovich contains congressional papers and correspondence, including press clippings and releases, Appropriations Committee files, staff files, legislative files, campaign materials, Commission on Presidential Debate materials, office administrative files, and photographs. Also included are portraits, video tape, sound recordings, memorabilia. A finding aid is available in the repository. Restricted.
Papers: In the Patricia D. Cafferata Papers, 1958-1992, 14 cubic feet. Persons represented include Barbara Vucanovich.

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassettes: 1984-1988, 8 commercials on 2 videocassettes. The commercials were used during Barbara Vucanovich's campaigns for the 1984 and 1988 U.S. congressional elections in District 2 of Nevada, Republican Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Barbara F. Vucanovich" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Vucanovich, Barbara. "A Conversation with Jefferson." In A House of Ill Repute, edited by Dan Renberg, 70-75. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Vucanovich, Barbara F. and Patricia D. Cafferata. Barbara F. Vucanovich: From Nevada to Congress, and Back Again. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2005.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Appropriations
    • Military Construction - Chair
  • House Committee - House Administration
  • House Committee - Interior and Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - Natural Resources
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families
  • Joint Committee - Joint Committee on the Library
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