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Joe Brown received the Monte Miller Economic Freedom Award at the Red Rock Casino and Resort in Las Vegas (Photo: Keystone Corp)

The Globe Interview: Joe Brown ‘The Godfather’ of Nevada

Prior to winning the Monte Miller Economic Freedom Award, Joe Brown shares his memories, wisdom, and a few lessons from 1968 to the present

By Megan Barth, November 24, 2023 12:07 pm

I could have talked to Attorney Joe Brown, founder and President of Keystone Corporation, “The Godfather” as he is known in certain circles, for hours. Having lived in Nevada since 1968, he has socialized with Frank Sinatra, played tennis with Governor Paul Laxalt, was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, and has dedicated his life to his family and giving back to his community. Although we didn’t have hours for our interview, Joe was about to receive Keystone’s Monte Miller Economic Freedom award, an award given to influential voices voices in Nevada who work to preserve free-market principles and economy prosperity.

Joe shared his fond memories, his humble wisdom gained from years of experience and relationships for current and future Republican candidates, and with succinct clarity, some lessons learned along the way.

How did you end up in Las Vegas? I understand that you moved here in 1968 after graduating law school?

Yes. I had an older brother. My brother went to a prep school in Palm Beach with a girl from Reno by the name of Susan Cord, and she talked him into going to UNR for college. The last time I saw him alive was Christmas of 1958. He loved Nevada, loved Lake Tahoe–everything about it. Unfortunately he was killed in a car accident driving home at the very end of May of 59.

So, nine years later, when I was getting out of law school in Virginia, I was coming out of a class with three other friends and there was a notice on the placement board from a judge in Las Vegas who was looking for a ’68 graduate to be a clerk. One of the guys saw it and thought it was so funny, just the idea of practicing in Las Vegas! He said, “I’m gonna send in a resume.”

So, all four of us did without ever giving it a serious thought. I never told my wife that I had done it. I never gave it another thought beyond that day.

But, a few weeks later I got a call saying that I had been picked from among the four. I said, “Oh my God!” I said, “Your Honor, I’m very embarrassed and I apologize, but I, I wasn’t serious about it!” He said, “What makes you think you wouldn’t like it? Have you ever been in Nevada?” And I said “No.”

Long story short, he just pestered me three or four days a week. He would call me. He sent me the newspapers—sent me everything from Fish and Game, from the Chamber of Commerce, and subscribed to send us the newspapers every day. At that time, my wife had been teaching school. I got married after my first year of law school. So I said, “Well, she’ll need to get a job.” And he said, “Send me her resume.” A day later, he called back and said, “Ok, she has a job.”

So, I ran out of excuses of why I shouldn’t do it. We agreed we would spend one year in the West and then we’d get serious about life next year. It’d be a year that we could just explore the West because neither one of us had been west of the Mississippi. We came to Vegas without any expectations beyond one year.

What was Vegas like in those days?

There were about 160,000 people in the county. Everybody was very welcoming and friendly. The judge and his wife lived in Boulder City in a very modest house. He had come to Nevada as a young boy. His dad was an engineer who worked on building the Hoover dam. He had two sons and he had converted his garage, and we lived in the garage for the months of July and August of 68. Once school began, my wife and I moved to North Las Vegas to be closer to where she would be teaching.

Why do you think he took such a shine to you out of the four applicants? What do you think made yourself stand out where he was so dogged and determined for you to move?

He loved to tell me this story!

He said he was friends with the secretary to the Dean of my law school. She was a wonderful old southern lady, Catherine McDowell.

He said to Catherine, “Which of these four applicants should I offer the job to?” And she said, “Joe Brown.”

He then asked her if I was number one in my class and she said, “No.”

So, he then asked, “Is he on the law review? And she said “No.”

“Well, is he dumb or something? Am I gonna be sorry I hired him?”

And she said, “Oh, no, you’ll be quite happy with him. And besides that, you’ll love his wife.”

My law school was fairly small and there was a lot of socializing between the faculty and the students. And so Catherine knew all the students and she knew all the wives.

The Brown Family (Photo: Keystone Corp.)

What can you tell us about your early years in Nevada? And, and how you specifically became involved with influential Nevadans like Paul Laxalt and Bob Maheu?

Judge Wartman and his wife loved good food and restaurants. They took us to a place that, back then, was the hot local spot in town. It was off the strip over near where UNLV is now. The owners were a wonderful Italian couple, Luigi and Mildred Coniglio. and they took a liking to us. They would table hop with us and introduce us to anybody important in the restaurant. So they introduced us to Bob Maheu and Eve, his wife.

Bob, you know, was a very important guy in the state. Probably, the only one that came close to him would be the Governor Paul Laxalt or Sheriff Ralph Lamb. We met all the people that ran the hotels and everyone was so friendly. If we’d meet someone, they’d almost automatically say, “Well, jeez, come to dinner. Frank Sinatra is gonna be at our place next weekend. Why don’t you come be our guest?” It was just amazing how friendly everyone was!

I was an oddity because the district judges in Nevada never had the money in their budgets to hire law law clerks before. So beginning July 1st of 68, that was the first year that the district judges had the money in their budgets to hire law clerks. I was the first one, actually. The others were hired within days. There were only six judges back then and four had clerks.

Judge Wartman had been appointed by Paul Laxalt because there was a vacancy created when Judge John Mowbray ran successfully for the Supreme Court.

So Wartman said to me, “Would you like to go there to with me to the Sahara Hotel? They have just opened up a new convention area and there’s gonna be a ribbon cutting and the governor is gonna be there.” Since he appointed me, I’m friends with him and I’ll introduce you to the governor.”

And I thought, wow, I’ve never met a governor before. You know, I never met a mayor before.

So, I met Paul and I expected kind of a quick handshake and the bum’s rush. But he took me aside and wanted to know my impressions in Nevada. What I like to do, was I married, what did my wife think? What did she think about the town?

Just personal questions about our likes and dislikes and what we’ve seen so far. One of the things that I told him was that I was a tennis player and he said, “Oh, I’m a tennis player. We’ll have to play sometime. When I come down, if I’m here for any length of time, I usually bring my raquet and look for a game.”

I went home and told my wife, and I called my dad back in Florida and said, “You know, the governor said he’s gonna play tennis with me.” My dad said, “Oh, sure. You’ll never hear from him.”

Well, two weeks later he was in town again and I saw him and he said, “How’s your tennis game? And I said, “I haven’t met anyone yet who plays.”

And he said, “Well, I’ve got my racket with me. Do you wanna play tomorrow?”

So, here I was less than a month in the town and I was playing tennis with the governor.

Did you let him win?

I didn’t have to let him. He was good.

We began a great relationship

A fellow that I had met at Luigi’s restaurant by the name of Tom Bell was a local lawyer who had been retained by Bob Maheu. Tom Bell was a bachelor and he ate dinner at that restaurant frequently. We saw him several times and he took me aside one night and said, “You know, we’re going to start a law firm to handle the legal work for the Howard Hughes companies. Governor Laxalt is coming out of office and hopefully he’ll join us. But, his brother Peter is going to join the firm and a former pro football player, by the name of Eddie LeBaron, is going to be managing partner.”

And I said, “Oh my God, Eddie LeBaron had been my hero since when I was a little kid.”

I didn’t think a second about going to work with them. I abandoned any thought of going back to Atlanta, which is what our original plan was. So the next thing I knew effective November of 69, I was part of the firm.

Jo Brown with former Nevada governor Bob List (Photo: Keystone Corp)

What was your specialty in law?

My specialty was anything that came in the door. (laughing)

I would say that what I did mostly was handling matters for the hotels, ranches and other properties. Hughes had seven hotels. I would kind of be in be the intermediary between the hotel and the insurance companies. I dealt with the contracts with some of the showgirls and entertainers.

You’ve interacted with influential figures, perhaps mentors. Could you share who had significant impact personal and professional journey? 

I think—without any question—Paul Laxalt because we became very close friends.

In 1974, he decided to get back into politics and successfully beat, barely beat, Harry Reid for Senate in 74. There was a recount. Harry called for a recount and I was on the legal team that defended the election. So, that was my baptism by fire.

I knew nothing about politics or elections. I went with him on speaking engagements and did a lot of things that were kind of non-related to my job. I just did it voluntarily. But, it was interesting to me, too. I’ve never been around that before.

Then, Eddie LeBaron. He had been an All-American. He was quarterback for the Washington Redskins and then he was the first quarterback when they started the Dallas Cowboys franchise. He was the most modest, wonderful great pal. We became dear friends. So, he was a huge influence on me as well.

As a founding member and the first president of Keystone Corporation, it obviously holds a special place in your life. Could you share your role in its formation and what it represents to you?

A very close friend of mine by the name of Tom Weisner—I would add him to the list of very influential friends in my life here—Tom was an All-American fullback at Wisconsin who played in the Rose Bowl in 1960 and was also a heavyweight boxing champ in college. He was elected to the county commission in 1970, I believe. I got to know him by going to Rebel basketball games. We just became pals and Tom became the National Committeeman from Nevada for the RNC. He was the National Committeeman for several terms. The Western leadership conference was going to take place the next year and Tom had convinced them to hold it in Las Vegas.

A fellow named Jerry Dondero, who had been Paul Laxalt’s Chief of Staff, both when he was governor and in the Senate said we should use this as a nucleus to form a club that can raise money and support Republicans on the local level.

So we all got inspired and we chartered the group and got people involved. Between Tom, Jerry and the other people on the committee, they drafted me to be the first president. A fellow named Bob Maxey, who was the first general manager of the MGM Hotel, was the chairman, and I was the president.

Joe Brown with President Ronald Reagan (Photo: Keystone Corp)

Can you share any memorable moments or lessons learned from working with the Reagan administration as when you were appointed for two terms to the State Justice Institute and The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the United States?

It was just such a great time, compared to what we’ve got now and what we’ve had from both parties for the last few…but especially this current administration.

I mean, in the Reagan cabinet everybody had a mission. There was a pride of belonging to that administration. It was a thrill for me to be an appointee and to be invited to the White House to events. I met Reagan many times—alot through Paul Laxalt— because he and Paul were such good friends.

Paul had a party at the Georgetown Club every year that Reagan was in office and then he continued it afterwards and called it his Basque Lamb Fry.

Reagan came seven out of his eight years in office. The only year that he missed was when they were bombing Muammar Gaddafi. Reagan called in on a speaker phone. He said, “Uh, fellas, I’m sorry, I missed your party. I always look forward to that. But, I’ve been busy bombing the shit out of Gaddafi.”

What advice would you offer to individuals who are interested in becoming involved in Republican politics?

Oh, boy. Well, it, it takes a lot of work. You’ve got to maintain and stick to your principles. Don’t be swayed. You know, there’s a lot of people that sell out. I’ve noticed this all my career, among people that get elected, and I mean judges too. They get into their first campaign with great ideals, and then after a while… I have heard so many of them say, “Well, yeah, I’d like to support that, but I won’t get re-elected if I do that.”

They abandon their principles, which I’ve always been disgusted by.

I’d rather have a politician lose than throw in the towel over something that’s important for the electorate, for the people.

Joe Brown with Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo and First Lady Donna Lombardo (Photo: Keystone Corp)

What are the most pressing political issues facing Nevada today? And, how does the Republican Party address those concerns?

Well, what is going on in the Middle East right now. There are so many problems in the world right now and I think that the weakness that we have shown on a national level has just invited all of this.

I’m a firm believer in that weakness encourages bad actors to do bad things.

The amateur pull out of Afghanistan, and Obama’s red line, that he quickly forgot about, and many other things like that. 

I was in South Africa in 1982 by myself for a week, my wife left a week early to take care of the boys. The last week that I was there, I was at the bar in the hotel in Johannesburg. Two pilots came and sat next to me at the bar. They were from South African Airways and they told me a story that they had stopped to let some passengers off in Nairobi. While they were there, a terrorist group came in and shot some security guards around the airport and then boarded each plane and terrorized all the passengers and stole their money and jewelry. An EL AL plane came in from Israel and these terrorists let them do whatever they wanted—unload, load, refuel, and then take off.

One of the pilots said the lesson to be learned from that is that you don’t antagonize Israel because they won’t let you get away with it. So, I made a mental note of that.

When you look across the legislative landscape, for example, in Nevada, we now have a legislative majority that’s only one seat away from the Senate for a supermajority. How do Republicans grow their presence in the legislature?

Governor Lombardo is working hard on recruiting viable, electable candidates to try and win those seats because we could be in a horrible mess if Democrats win both houses with a veto-proof margins.

But, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to raise money and get out there and pound the pavement, especially focusing on new Nevadans who came here because they’re sick and tired of the liberalism of Washington, Oregon, California and other states. I think we need to have “Welcome to Nevada” events and to try and get the conservative people there. If they’re like me and like a lot of people I’ve known that have come here to town recently, they want to meet people and they want to get involved.

Vegas is still a friendly and welcoming city, as is Nevada a great state, it’s just a little bigger now so you have got a larger place to find those right people.

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Megan Barth
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