Who was Nevada’s ‘Silver Lady’? Barbara Vucanovich was also the first Latina ever elected to Congress
Vucanovich served in the U.S. House from 1983 to 1997.
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Dubbed Nevada’s ‘Silver Lady” by former Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, Barbara Vucanovich was the first Nevada woman and Latina elected to U.S. Congress in 1982.
Over the course of the next 14 years, the Republican former business owner and congressional aide sat on the Appropriations Committee, would chair the Military Construction Subcommittee and served seven total terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Born in 1921, in New Jersey, public service was a constant of her childhood as her father was the chief civil engineer for New York under Governors Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Her mother was a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I and was of English and Mexican ancestry from Southern California. Her maternal great-grandmother became a U.S. citizen upon the transfer of California to the U.S. in 1848.
At 18, she married James Henry Bugden before separating shortly after he was assigned overseas during World War II. Vucanovich worked at several New York businesses during the 1940s before going west to Nevada in 1949.
There, she settled in Reno and obtained a divorce from Budgen. A year later, she would remarry to Kenneth Dillon, a founding partner in the law firm Vargas, Dillon, and Bartlett, who was the one to introduce her to Nevada politics.
They had five children before his death in 1964, and she then married George Vucanovich in 1965, whom she met while working on Paul Laxalt's unsuccessful campaign in 1964 for the U.S. Senate. He died in 1998. While raising her family, she owned and operated a speed reading school and a travel agency.
While married to Dillon, in 1952, she was introduced to local politics and served as a delegate at the Nevada State GOP convention. Three years later, she won a one-year term as president of the Nevada Federation of Republican Women.
Vucanovich then worked for Laxalt again, but this time for almost 20 years while he served as the state’s lieutenant governor and governor. She then worked for Laxalt as manager of his district office and as a campaign advisor from 1974 until 1982 after he won election to the U.S. Senate.
In 1976 and 1980, she served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention.
Nevada was split into two congressional districts after reapportionment after the 1980 Census. Sen. Laxalt encouraged the 61-year-old Vucanovich to run.
With his endorsement, she secured the GOP nomination and faced off in the general election against Democratic State Senator Mary Gojack, and was victorious, taking 56% of the vote.
During her time in Congress, her daughter, Patricia Dillon Cafferatta, served as Nevada State Treasurer, was a member of the Nevada State Assembly, and was District Attorney in three different counties.
Vucanovich was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram during her freshman term. Because it was identified early on, it led to a prompt, lifesaving treatment. In the time after, she supported all efforts to increase medical research and treatment for women.
“Breast cancer is not a partisan issue or a women’s issue,” Vucanovich said once in a floor speech. “Breast cancer must become a legislative and communications priority in the government and the private sector.”
She introduced the Omnibus Breast Cancer Control Act in 1989, which required Medicare and Medicaid coverage for annual mammograms for women over certain ages as well as increased funding for a public awareness program through the National Cancer Institute.
Rep. Vucanovich served six additional terms in Congress. She also 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.
Vucanovich announced her retirement after 14 years of service in 1996. By the time of her announcement, she ranked 14th out of 23 Republicans on the Appropriations Committee and was the second woman ever to chair the Subcommittee on Military Construction.
Her political commitment continued well into the next decade, which mostly consisted of serving on external committees, before her death in 2013 at 91 years of age.
Before her death, alongside her daughter Patricia, she penned her memoirs, Barbara F. Vucanovich: From Nevada to Congress and Back Again, published by the University of Nevada Press in 2005.
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