Gambling on Harry Reid

Have the Democrats hit the jackpot with the new minority leader from Nevada -- or crapped out?

Topics: Democratic Party, Harry Reid,

If you know Washington politics, you’ve heard of Harry Reid, elected Tuesday to replace the defeated Tom Daschle as Senate minority leader. If you don’t know Washington politics, you are about to learn much more about him.

The Nevada Democrat won his fourth Senate term on Nov. 2 with more than 60 percent of the vote — his largest margin in a statewide race in a 40-year political career. And after his party lost four Senate seats in the same race, he was well positioned to become the Senate’s most powerful Democrat.

Reid entered the Senate in 1987 with South Dakota’s Daschle. They were similar: moderates from conservative states, low-key, hardworking, partisan but able to work well on both sides of the aisle. As Daschle moved up, so did Reid. After winning a third term in 1998, Reid became Daschle’s whip, or assistant leader, running floor operations.

But when Daschle became the first Senate party leader in more than 50 years to lose his reelection bid, Reid promptly spoke to his friend and soon-to-be ex-colleague, then began rounding up votes. The way was clear for Reid to become the leader of the Senate opposition to George W. Bush.

Predicting Reid’s effectiveness, especially as compared with Daschle’s, is somewhat difficult. Daschle managed to appear obstructionist enough to inspire Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist to end a long-standing gentlemen’s agreement among members of the congressional leadership not to campaign against each other. By contrast, Mitch McConnell, Reid’s Republican counterpart as whip, whom no one has accused of hiding his partisanship, is one of those praising Reid, personally and professionally.

The Democratic caucus’s loss of some of its more conservative members (Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana, Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia) will certainly shape the role Reid ends up playing. The 44 remaining Senate Democrats (plus independent Jim Jeffords) may seem like a slightly more liberal group, but they have certainly heard the discussion of the role that “moral values” played during the campaign. As a moderate — and a more conservative one than Daschle — in a rebuilding party, Reid might carry more weight with his colleagues than his predecessor did as a barometer on the issues. In particular, as a pro-life Mormon, he will provide a counterweight when Republicans beat the abortion drum. NARAL rates him as pro-life, having voted for choice only 29 percent of the time, compared with Daschle’s 50 percent.

As for Bush’s inevitable nominees to the Supreme Court, Reid is shrewd and partisan enough to know when to fight and when to go along. Despite his leanings on abortion, he was among the 48 Democrats who opposed the confirmation of Clarence Thomas — nominated by a more moderate President Bush.

As Reid becomes a more familiar presence on television and in print, Americans, Democratic and Republican alike, will find out a lot more about him. And they’re likely to be pleased. In the meantime, here’s some of his history.

To know Harry Reid, you need to know Searchlight. Searchlight is a stop on the highway between Las Vegas and Laughlin. Its residents mostly live in trailers and congregate at a casino. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a successful mining camp and has occasionally revived.

Inez and Harry Reid lived in a shack in Searchlight and had four boys. The youngest, Harry, was born on Dec. 2, 1939. One of his lingering memories is of his mother picking tiny rocks out of his father’s back after a long day in the mines. He often joined his father underground. “I never did any drilling, but I ran the hoist on a lot of occasions, and I did a lot of mucking,” he later said.

His parents had it tough. His father committed suicide, a victim of ill health, alcohol and depression. His mother lost all of her teeth, Reid recently told a group dedicating the new dental school at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and one of his first acts when he had enough money from practicing law was to buy his mother a set of dentures.

To continue his education beyond junior high school, Reid had to leave Searchlight. “Even though I began to spend less and less time in my hometown, my thoughts often returned to the days of my youth. Most of all, I realized how much I loved the desert,” he wrote in “Searchlight: The Camp That Didn’t Fail,” a scholarly history of the town he published with the University of Nevada Press.

Now he has returned. He built a home on a hill overlooking Searchlight. His political action committee is called the Searchlight Leadership Fund, and he keeps a Searchlight map in his Senate office.

Reid knows the importance of a balancing act. He was born in a “red” portion of the state, the old Nevada of miners and ranchers, but his votes come from the “blue” parts, the new Nevada in which gaming dominates. Reid tries to represent all of these interests, yet rarely receives much support outside Las Vegas and Reno. Still, their votes are enough to have elected him four times to the Senate.

In both gaming and mining, corporations and their workers want to be left alone, but the feelings of miners and ranchers in rural Nevada may be stronger: Some federal employees with the Bureau of Land Management have even claimed to fear for their lives. Rural Nevadans tend not to be culturally conservative so much as libertarian.

Reid gets fewer of their votes, but he knows them and their thinking, thanks to his many campaigns and his ties to Searchlight. One of his old teachers sees another effect of his beginnings on him: “I think, now, that it must have been the spirit of the mines in Searchlight, something raw and untamed and confident. He had no fear.”

To know Harry Reid, you need to know that teacher, Mike O’Callaghan. In 1956, O’Callaghan went to Henderson, Nev., then a small industrial town and now one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, to teach social studies at Basic High School. He also coached boxing at the local boys’ club.

Since entering high school, Reid had stayed with Henderson families during the week and hitchhiked back and forth to Searchlight on weekends. In Henderson he met Landra Gould, who was a year behind him in school, and later married her. He also won his first major office as student body president, and became a boxer.

Reid’s parents had imbued him with a strong work ethic, and O’Callaghan added to it — and not just in class. As a boxing coach, O’Callaghan used to send the boys jogging up the steep grade to Railroad Pass, en route from Henderson to Boulder City. O’Callaghan followed in his new Buick and made clear to the boys that if they stopped or fell, he didn’t plan to use his brakes. They didn’t stop or fall.

After Reid graduated, O’Callaghan helped him get a scholarship to college, then a patronage job as a Capitol Hill policeman so he could afford law school. And he lent Reid the money he needed to take the Nevada bar exam, which he passed before finishing law school.

O’Callaghan left teaching to hold numerous state and federal administrative jobs, then ran for governor in 1970, with Reid as his running mate. O’Callaghan was the underdog against a better-financed, more prominent opponent. By then Reid had spent one term in Nevada’s Assembly, where he introduced a slew of bills, including the first bill in Nevada to try to do something about air pollution.

Reid was O’Callaghan’s lieutenant only for the first of his two terms. Amid oil crises, inflation and unemployment, they expanded government services without raising taxes. “There has never been a governor and lieutenant governor that worked more closely than we did,” Reid said later. “There was never a meeting he didn’t invite me to.”

In 1974, Reid ran for an open Senate seat against former Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt. He ran a poor campaign and lost by 611 votes — to a Republican in the first congressional election after Richard Nixon’s resignation. The next year, trying to keep his name before the public, Reid ran for mayor of Las Vegas and lost. Before his 36th birthday, Reid appeared to be a political has-been.

But O’Callaghan didn’t give up on Reid, said longtime Nevada lawyer and political figure Ralph Denton. “Mike knew what Harry was, and he appointed him chairman of the Gaming Commission. The people who believed he was too young and weak, I think, soon … came to the conclusion he was neither too young nor too weak. He’s a strong man.”

In the late 1970s, federal and state investigations revealed the involvement of organized crime at several Strip hotels that were supposed to be clean. Crime families in Kansas City, Mo., pulled the strings at the Tropicana, where mob representative Joe Agosto claimed influence with state officials. “I got a clean face in my pocket,” he said. The reference was clear. Reid, then as now, looked boyish and light-skinned. Reid responded by calling him a hoodlum and said, “Someday, he will get what he deserves.” Agosto later testified for the federal government against the mob. State officials investigated and cleared Reid, and the FBI took the unusual step of announcing that it had no evidence to suggest Reid was tied to the mob. And the mob was displeased enough with him that Reid later found a bomb attached to a family car.

A year after declining an offer to continue as Gaming Commission chairman, Reid won the first of two terms in the House, then moved to the Senate. O’Callaghan never again ran for office. When he died in 2004, Reid delivered one of the eulogies. “If you were doing your best, it was good enough for Mike. If you were right and fighting for it, Mike was by your side. What more could someone ask for in a father figure than Mike O’Callaghan,” Reid, not a publicly emotional person, said with tears in his eyes, his voice breaking.

To know Harry Reid, you need to know Nevada’s political history. Sen. Pat McCarran served from 1933 to 1954 and held Washington in thrall in the late 1940s and early 1950s as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and its internal security subcommittee, where he hunted communists with as much single-mindedness as Javert seeking Jean Valjean.

But McCarran also held a senior position on the Appropriations Committee and used that power accordingly. Nevada received military bases, a magnesium plant, airport funding and numerous other pork-barrel projects through his efforts. He used his clout to block Sen. Estes Kefauver and his supporters from attacking the gaming industry.

Nor did McCarran hesitate to use that clout back home. He tried to maneuver other Democrats like pawns on a chessboard — and smashed them when he deemed it necessary. He threatened to revoke the liquor license of a bar owner who hired one of his political enemies, and he organized advertising boycotts of critical publications.

One of the Democrats he pressured, Walter Baring, served 10 House terms. Like McCarran, Baring made it a point to know his constituents by first, middle and last name. Like McCarran, Baring could be fanatically anti-communist and disloyal to his party. Unlike McCarran, Baring never produced significant legislation.

After Baring blocked the creation of the Great Basin National Park, Reid pushed it through, aiding eastern Nevada’s economy, and cost himself the support of some in the mining and ranching communities, who nicknamed him “Sierra Harry” for his trouble. Reid has delivered millions in research money to the state’s university system and millions for road improvements. He has also obtained funding for Nevada test-site research while fighting federal funding of efforts to locate a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain.

As McCarran did, Reid understands the need to win federal help while keeping the government out of Nevada’s business. And, as McCarran did, he has involved himself in state and local politics, anointing and blocking candidates, with limited success. Reid has said he plans to avoid future kingmaking. McCarran understood the need to take care of the home folks, but not that sometimes they need to be left alone. Reid has learned both lessons.

Reid survived scrutiny from a Los Angeles Times article that purported to show that he voted for gaming and mining interests because his sons worked for a law firm that represented those industries. That’s true of every other successful Nevada politician. Reid understands the same about his colleagues because he understands his state’s past.

To know Harry Reid, you need to know the U.S. Senate. Recent reports have mentioned that Reid isn’t the greatest public speaker, but even his counterparts across the aisle like and respect him. That he epitomizes the Senate’s best traditions helps explain Reid’s success.

When McCarran’s political protégé, Alan Bible, arrived in the Senate, Carl Hayden, a longtime senator from Arizona, told him there are two kinds of senators: a workhorse who does the job and a show horse who gets the attention. Bible was a workhorse, and it paid off. He gained seniority on the Appropriations and Interior committees and continued McCarran’s tradition of delivering for his state, obtaining federal funding for water projects that contributed enormously to Nevada’s growth.

Bible served with two Senate Democratic leaders. One, Lyndon Johnson, whom Bible worshipped, used everything from cajolery to blackmail to keep his caucus in line, and did it brilliantly — especially with fellow presidential hopefuls like John Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington and Eugene McCarthy. Johnson’s successor in that post, Montana’s Mike Mansfield, was quiet and largely stayed behind the scenes.

Since entering the Senate, Reid has worked with several Democratic leaders, and he knows how to operate in the institution. In 1995, when Republicans sought a balanced-budget amendment, Reid dreamed up the rider that gave Democrats the ability to defeat it: making Social Security off-limits to budget cutters. As minority leader Reid is unlikely to emulate other Democratic senators who have run for the presidency or are thinking about it, and who are better known and better speakers. Reid’s models are more likely to resemble Bible and Mansfield — quiet, effective partisans who won respect and affection from all, even when they were being tough. Reid will be on the talk shows, but so will party stars like John Kerry, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, and war horses like Patrick Leahy and Carl Levin. Chances are Reid will have a hand in figuring out where they should go and what they should say.

To know Harry Reid, you need to know the Mormon Church. Reid’s family wasn’t religious, but while he was in college, Reid and his wife (who was raised Jewish) joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then, as now, the Mormon Church is a power in Nevada politics; the church’s conservatism is no secret.

That has sometimes vexed Reid. Although he is anti-choice on abortion, he abides by his party’s position and has often has stated that he doesn’t believe he has the right to legislate his personal views. He wasn’t the only Democrat to vote for the ban on “partial birth” abortions, but he was among the few who voted to keep the law banning overseas military facilities from performing abortions. Yet he also joined 57 other senators, including four fellow Mormons, in urging Bush to expand embryonic stem-cell research — a matter on which the Mormon Church has yet to take an official position.

Reid has reason to be cautious on choice. In 1990, a statewide ballot question asked Nevadans their opinion about choice, which they supported by a 63-37 margin. But the state’s population has nearly doubled since then, and a significant percentage of the new arrivals are seniors, who tend to be social conservatives. The vote would probably be closer today.

Being Mormon has also undeniably helped Reid as well. In 1998, he faced what his onetime Senate colleague from Nevada, Richard Bryan, called “a near-death experience.” In seeking his third term, Reid ran against John Ensign, who had just spent two terms in the House. (Two years later Ensign succeeded Bryan upon the latter’s retirement from the Senate.)

Ensign almost succeeded Reid, who beat him by 428 votes. Reid’s campaign apparently didn’t awaken Nevadans to his strength as a veteran senator positioned to help his state. (South Dakotans didn’t get that, either.) He certainly benefited when some Mormons normally inclined to vote for a conservative Republican like Ensign stayed with Reid. Today, Reid and Ensign have a close working relationship, despite their party differences.

Reid’s membership in a conservative church could be critical to his performance as minority leader. Just as he has tried to balance the sometimes conflicting needs of rural and urban Nevada, so he will try to find a way to balance the agendas of politics and religion. And who better to deflect the inevitable Republican attacks on Democratic values than a soft-spoken follower of a church that opposes the consumption of alcohol and tobacco — and works so closely with his Christian Republican colleagues?

Mormonism also played a factor in Reid’s education. He went to Southern Utah State College (now Southern Utah University), then majored in history and political science at Utah State. There he studied with Leonard Arrington, who spent a decade as the Mormon Church’s historian, trying to balance the church’s demands and the scholarly record. Arrington wrote that “a follower like me, trying to do a job under conflicting instructions or pressures, was like a mouse crossing the floor where elephants are dancing.”

Today, the elephants are dancing in the Senate — and in the House, the Supreme Court, most statehouses and the White House. Democrats received plenty of votes in the 2004 election, but the party needs to rebuild. Although Reid is not in the party symbolized by the elephant, he resembles a real elephant in his long memory, including knowledge of his state and his institution.

Grant Sawyer, a liberal two-term governor of Nevada, longtime Democratic national committeeman and sometime Reid opponent in local party disputes, was asked about Reid after he finished his first Senate term. Sawyer said then, “It would be a big mistake to underestimate Harry Reid.” That statement remains true today.

Michael Green is a professor of history at the Community College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas.

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