LAS VEGAS – Barbara Vucanovich, who was the first woman to represent Nevada in Congress and went on to serve the sprawling, rural 2nd Congressional District for 14 years, died Monday after a brief illness, family members said. She was 91.
Vucanovich died at an assisted living complex in Reno less than two weeks before her 92nd birthday, after breaking her pelvis in February and never fully recovering, according to her daughter, Patty Cafferata.
The Republican was remembered as a warm-hearted trailblazer.
"Barbara Vucanovich was the matriarch of her political generation," said Gov. Brian Sandoval, calling her Nevada's "Silver Lady."
He compared her to another conservative who recently passed away — British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady."
"First and foremost, however, Barbara was a wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother," Sandoval said. "Her family was always her priority, even as she served the entire Nevada family in the United States Congress."
Vucanovich was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 — the same year as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — and she served from 1983 until her retirement in 1997. Her tenure included stints on the House Interior, Natural Resources, and Appropriations committees, and the Subcommittee on Military Construction.
Among the bills she authored and saw enacted as law was the repeal of the 55 mph speed limit, and the source tax, which prevented more than one state from collecting taxes on pension and retirement benefits of retirees — many of whom moved to Nevada.
Vucanovich won her first term with the slogan, "What Congress needs is a tough grandmother." She campaigned for her seventh term by attacking the Clinton administration, saying she wanted to fight its tax proposals, including levies on casinos and gamblers.
Her repeated re-election, she said, showed that Nevadans wanted a conservative voice in Congress.
During her final term, she was elected as Republican conference secretary, one of four party leadership positions. She became the first Nevadan to serve in a leadership role in the House.
"Barbara helped to break the glass ceiling for Nevada women in the political world," said Rep. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat.
Accomplishments aside, Vucanovich was no stranger to adversity. She outlived two husbands and a son, and was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after she was elected.
She went on to champion funding for early screening, detection and treatment, and treatment of the cancer at a time when many women were afraid to talk about it, women's advocates said. She also supported equal pay and treatment for women, while taking a Republican stance to oppose abortion and support the death penalty.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle recalled her personal touch: Republican Sen. Dean Heller remembered her taking him to lunch in the congressional dining hall on one of his first trips to Washington, and Reid remembered that she and her husband were inseparable.
"While Barbara was deeply honored to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, her family always came first," family members said in a statement. "Perhaps that is why she was so admired as a politician."
Born in Camp Dix, N.J., to Army Major General Thomas Farrell and Ynez White Farrell, a member of one of Southern California's founding families. Vucanovich was raised in New York state and moved to Reno in the late 1940s.
It was there that she met her first husband, attorney Ken Dillon Sr., and became active in Republican politics. After Dillon's death in 1964, she married George Vucanovich, a native of Tonopah.
She worked on campaigns and served as a staffer for Republican U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt before assuming a newly created congressional post that encompassed 16 of Nevada's 17 counties — virtually the entire state except for Las Vegas and Henderson.
Her second husband died of leukemia in 1998.
A funeral for Vucanovich is set for Friday at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Reno.