"The Jim Whisperer"

Harry Reid, the man most responsible for guiding Sen. Jim Jeffords to a new political identity, has a long history with party-switching.


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Jake Tapper
May 27, 2001 1:54AM (UTC)

There are many reasons for Vermont Sen. James Jeffords' Thursday transmogrification from Republican to Democrat-supporting independent: his liberal views on abortion and gay rights, education and the environment; the alienating tactics of President Bush and his political operatives.

And then there was the low-key assistant Democratic leader from Nevada whom one Democratic leadership aide referred to as "the Jim Whisperer." Sen. Harry Reid, after all, was the man who lobbied Jeffords for weeks, reassuring the Republican senator through the most dramatic party jump in recent memory.

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Reid worked his magic on Jeffords with lots of assistance from Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who sealed the deal when Jeffords was ready, as well as others from the Democratic Senate caucus, like Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. But plugging along for weeks, talking to Jeffords on the phone and the floor of the Senate, making him feel at ease among the Democrats, pushing him, prodding him, was the Jim Whisperer. And when no other Democrat would offer up a committee chairmanship to Jeffords should he leave the Republicans, it was Reid who gave up what would have been a job helming the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Reid, in the words of Nevada political observer Jon Ralston, is "the best and most ruthless deal-maker Nevada has ever seen." Any account of Reid's podunk-to-power life would include lots of mentions of "grit" and "pluck," though even those close to him acknowledge, one after the other, that he can also be aptly described as "ruthless."

That trait seems to come in particularly handy when the matter at hand is party-switching. Jeffords, for instance, isn't the first Republican Reid has helped talk into switching parties. Paradoxically, Reid won his 1986 Senate seat in no small part by slamming his Democrat-turned-Republican opponent for that very action, painting him as an opportunist with no party allegiance.

"His quiet demeanor and unflamboyant style disguises an amazingly determined politician," says Jim Mulhall, a Nevada Democratic political consultant.

All of it comes packaged in a quiet and laconic man, self-effacing and averse to media attention (and awkward before the press). "I'm not very good at talking about myself," Reid says in a Thursday interview. "I am who I am, and that's who I've always been, and I'm not going to change."

He even passes on a chance to explain how he convinced Jeffords to make such a historic flip. "That's between me and him," he says. And he's not popping open the champagne. "This is a time of somberness as far as I'm concerned. This is a big responsibility we're taking on. This isn't time for gloating."

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Born in a small cabin in Searchlight, Nev., raised by a hard-rock miner father with an eighth-grade education and a mother who was a high school dropout and did laundry for the town, Reid had to go to another town, Henderson, to attend Basic High School in the 1950s. He would board with locals in Henderson during the week and hitchhike home on weekends back to his family's modest Searchlight home, which lacked indoor plumbing.

Says his high school history teacher, Donal "Mike" O'Callaghan: "He's got a band of steel up his backbone there." O'Callaghan also served as senior class advisor when Reid was student body president, and was his boxing coach at the Henderson Boys Club. "It's the same way he was in the ring. You could knock him down, but he didn't stay down." And he had focus. "Lot of fighters come back to the corner so excited they don't listen," he says. "Not Harry. Even back in corner he'd be quiet. He would listen."

O'Callaghan attributes Reid's quiet, tough focus to the time he spent helping his father in the rock mines. "You don't go get a Band-Aid when your knuckles bleed, or if you hurt yourself. Especially since the nearest hospital [from Searchlight] was 60 miles away." After college, Reid worked his way through George Washington University Law School by working nights as a Capitol Hill police officer, a job arranged for him by O'Callaghan.

"I first met him in September 1963, when we'd just finished taking the Nevada Bar," says former Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., a friend and former colleague. "He just came right up and introduced himself to me." Did people usually introduce themselves at the bar exam? "No, it was very unusual," Bryan says. "But we became friends right away.

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"Harry is very good at cultivating relationships," Bryan says. "He's superb on the phone. He's not the guy who's the most comfortable on the stage or the public speaking platform, but he's great one on one."

A devout Mormon who married his high school sweetheart, Reid made his bones in Nevada politics in the 1960s, first as city attorney for Henderson, then as a member of the hospital board, then as a member of the state Assembly elected in 1968. In 1970, O'Callaghan ran for governor and Reid, then 30, ran with him. They won, and Reid became the youngest lieutenant governor in state history.

But then his good fortune started to turn. Returning to the office after watching Muhammed Ali work out one day in 1972, Reid was told his mother was on the phone. "Your pop shot himself," she said. His stoic, hard-drinking father, ailing from years in the mines and apparently depressed, was 58 when he committed suicide. Reid wouldn't speak publicly about the matter for almost a quarter of a century. Not long after, Reid's career started to stumble. He waged and lost a nasty campaign for Senate against Paul Laxalt in 1974. In a post-race press conference, Reid blamed the media, throwing a tantrum of sorts. A year later, he ran a rather lame mayoral campaign in Las Vegas, which he also lost.

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"Many people thought his political career was over," says Bryan.

But not O'Callaghan, who soon appointed Reid to head the Nevada Gaming Commission. Reid was generally considered a force for good in that crooked Vegas era -- "we are simply not going to play games with undesirables," he proclaimed in 1979, revoking the Aladdin Hotel of its gaming license. Likewise, Reid blackballed Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, immortalized in Martin Scorsese's "Casino," from ever again operating a casino, and was nearly the victim of a car bomb which, luckily, did not ignite.

Still, Vegas is nothing if not a neon testament to moral relativity, and during that time everyone -- from Frank Sinatra to Wayne Newton to Reid -- was under suspicion. A 1,088-page affidavit from the FBI and the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force turned up an alleged mobster who seemed to have been boasting that he had Reid "in his pocket." Reid fully cooperated with the FBI investigation, and his name was soon cleared.

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"That was just braggadocio on the part of a hood trying to impress another hood," O'Callaghan says. "I've never heard anyone question the integrity of that man."

Before long, Reid was back improving his profile with the local industry. He voted to give Frank Sinatra casino-operating rights and he also railed against IRS agents. "They're starting to look over everybody's shoulder, and that takes a lot of fun out of gaming," Reid said in 1981. A year later he won a new U.S. House seat.

Then, after Laxalt announced his retirement, Reid was running for Senate against a party-switcher, former Democrat Jim Santini. The race was close until Reid started hammering Santini for doing precisely what he recently helped convince a different Jim to do.

"Jim Santini wants a Senate seat and he'll do whatever it takes to get it," one lawyer on a Reid TV ad said. A different ad (that any future opponent of Jeffords might do well to crib) showed Santini at the side of then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, D-Mass. "That was then and now is now. Right, Jim?" the narrator smugly asked.

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Another Reid TV ad proclaimed: "Switching political parties can be embarrassing. Just ask Jim Santini."

Of Santini's switch, Reid says, "It elected me."

Then there was the case of Bob Ryan, a Republican state senator so conservative he was nicknamed "Mad Dog" in the Legislature. Reid, however, was able to convince Ryan to run for Clark County commissioner -- as a Democrat.

"He's a person I thought was in tune with the Democratic Party," Reid says. In some ways Ryan was conservative, Reid acknowledges, "but not always. We have some very conservative people in the Democratic Party," says Reid, who himself opposes abortion rights and is known to carefully navigate away from the Democratic Party when it veers too sharply to the left.

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"You have to be careful how you switch parties," Reid cautions. "If you do it as a matter of principle, it works," like Jeffords -- or like Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, or Strom Thumond, R-S.C., he says. "If you do it as matter of political opportunism, it fails," Reid says.

But Nevada political expert Ralston says that Mad Dog's conversion from rabid right-winger to Democrat was exactly a matter of political opportunism. "It was a classic Harry Reid maneuver, except it blew up in his face," Ralston says. "Ryan lost in the primary."

Regardless, the Jeffords maneuver worked out a bit better. Reid's remarkable gift at salesmanship worked wonders in the Senate long before the Jeffords bunny hop, of course. "He has a way of working people over so they cannot say no," says a senior Democratic Senate leadership aide. "It's a combination of twisting your arm and patting your back at the same time."

One former Reid aide says that Reid's rise to power derives from his ability "to entertain solutions that may seem ridiculous on the outset." He was once able to stave off a Senate action that would have promoted storing nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain by convincing Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. -- one of only two Republicans to join Reid's team on the matter -- that such a move would be bad for Colorado, since the waste would have to be driven through that state.

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However the laconic Westerner does it, Reid has managed to make the increasingly rancorous, partisan Senate work for him, largely through sheer doggedness. "He's not above spending all night working on a project," says O'Callaghan, currently the executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun. "He'll do that."

Bryan notes that during President Clinton's last term -- at a time when few Democrats were able to get their judicial nominees through the Judiciary Committee under Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah -- Reid's nominees somehow squeaked through. When New Jersey Democratic Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Bob Torricelli were feuding, Reid was the one sent to repair the breach. In previous years when Democratic Leader Daschle and Republican Leader Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi at times weren't even speaking, one former Senate staffer says, Senate business chugged along with Reid working with Lott as the Daschle-sent emissary.

And last year, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was leading the Commerce Committee markup of his bill that would ban Nevada betting on NCAA games, a bill opposed by Reid, "Reid did a masterful job," Bryan says. "He got the Democrats and [Sen. John] Ensign and they damn near killed McCain's own bill in McCain's own committee. I gotta tell you -- that is an impressive piece of work." A senior source in McCain's office attributes much of the near-defeat of the bill to the healthy campaign contributions given by the casino industry, but says "Harry Reid sure worked it, though, no doubt about that."

And then, of course, there's the Jeffords flip. The switch probably had more to do with Jeffords' fundamental liberal leanings -- and the clueless bullying by Bush and the Senate GOP -- but whatever tipping point needed to be reached, Reid helped Jeffords get there. One source close to Reid reports that for weeks he had been working on other possible targets -- Sens. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and McCain -- until Reid and Daschle realized Jeffords was the best place to focus their energies.

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It was by no means a new campaign, however. For the always-strategizing assistant Democratic leader, the thought of getting Jeffords to flip first occurred on Election Night 1996, standing in a Las Vegas television station and watching early (and incorrect) reports that then-Rep. Dick Swett, D-N.H., had defeated Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H. Assuming a 50-50 Senate, Reid turned to his press secretary, Jenny Backus.

"Do you think Jeffords would switch?" he asked.

"Yeah, maybe," she said.

Reid immediately called Daschle and raised the possibility. Swett turned out to be the loser, of course, and the topic passed.

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Now, by giving up his committee chairmanship to secure Jeffords' flip, Reid has secured greater power for himself than any other Nevadan has ever held in the capital. Significantly, Senate insiders say Reid will take control of the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee's Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee, from which he'll be able to dole out even more pork to his rapidly growing home state. Plus, with chairmanships and Senate control now theirs, political observers say that it seems unlikely that many Democrats will cross Reid on his opposition to Bush's big bid to make Nevada home to more nuclear waste, or on McCain's crusade against betting on the NCAA. Which can only help Reid solidify his base in Nevada, historically a struggle. (He won reelection in 1998 by a mere 428 votes -- after a 38-day-long recount.)

Reid pooh-poohs such talk, turning the discussion to how, with the Democrats controlling the Senate, Bush "will have to deal with us, and we will have to deal with him." The education bill will come up next, followed by the HMO patients bill of rights -- the one offered by McCain and Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., Reid says, not the Bush-backed compromise supported by Republican Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee and, interestingly, by Jeffords as well.

For the media-shy Reid, it's all an opportunity for greater national fame, which he got a taste of Friday morning. After Thursday's Caucus meeting, a triumphant Daschle was to walk down the majestic stone stairway outside the Senate, a clean photo op for Friday's newspapers that one Democratic aide called "a hero walk." Before Daschle walked down the stairs, he made sure Reid walked down with him, making sure he shared the photographic glory the next day.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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