Citizen Reid

It was a long way to the top for Nevada’s dominant politician

The polls closed at 7 p.m. on June 4, 1975, and the Clark County voter registrar’s office was not long in producing returns. By 8:20 p.m., the count in the Las Vegas mayor’s race was 3,898 for former Nevada Lt. Gov. Harry Reid and 4,328 for his opponent, former county Commissioner Bill Briare. The trend was set, and Briare never lost his lead, finally winning 13,262 to 11,951.

The crowd of supporters at Reid’s headquarters was downcast, but Reid handled it gracefully.

“To be as successful as possible, he [Briare] will need the help and cooperation of every citizen to make the consolidation of governments here truly meaningful and effective,” Reid said. “I pledge my support to him.”

It was the end of Harry Reid’s political career. In executive suites and on the street, the conclusion was nearly unanimous—Reid was finished. In just seven months, he had lost both a U.S. Senate seat and the mayoralty, in both cases by blowing big early leads.

Yet on Nov. 16, 2004, a University of Nevada, Reno buildings and grounds worker named Bill Borges caught sight of a reporter and called out, “How about that Harry Reid, huh? Not bad!” Reid had been elected Democratic floor leader of the United States Senate that morning, and Borges was feeling home-state pride. “It’s just so impressive in a state of less than two million people.”

How did Reid do it? Plenty of politicians in Nevada are probably asking themselves that question. How did an introverted, unassuming guy with so few obvious advantages become the dominant political figure in the state when others with greater presence and assets faded?

Harry Reid rose—and fell—very fast. And then rose again. In a decade or so, he went from hospital trustee to city attorney to state legislator to lieutenant governor to U.S. Senate candidate—and then lost the senate race and the mayor’s race.

He’s a mild looking fellow, rather like character actors such as Hobart Cavanaugh who play bookkeepers or henpecked husbands. That image handicapped him with the national Democratic Party’s rank and file after the 2004 election, when they contemplated this nebbish taking on George Bush.

Had they looked deeper, they might have found a street fighter. One consequence of Reid’s mild appearance is that he’s constantly underestimated. The political highway is littered with the bodies of those who took Harry Reid too lightly. A mining lobbyist who crossed him soon found himself looking for work, and the head of Nevada’s Yucca Mountain campaign came close to the same fate. Reid once leaned on some federally licensed Nevada radio stations to tone down their conservative programming.

It can be observed that this is the kind of local infighting of which many politicians are capable. That doesn’t mean they’re ready to compete on the national stage in world-class battles. For more clues to whether Reid is up to the task of taking on George Bush, it is useful to look to his career history.

His first big step back into power after his two devastating political losses was not of his own making. It came from Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who in 1977 appointed Reid to chairman the Nevada Gaming Commission, the state’s top gambling regulator, at a time when the casino industry was hemorrhaging bad publicity.

Television stations still covered state government as a beat then. Casino executives examined every sentence out of the mouths of state regulators. While in some of Reid’s previous offices it was possible to move forward without doing much (and some did doubt his abilities), incompetence in this new job would show up fast.

Between elected posts in 1976, Reid chatted with reporter Dennis Myers.

Photo By Annie Opitz Olsen

It was an eventful time. There was a bomb under the hood of Reid’s car one day, fortunately discovered before it did its work. Much of the effort the state had put into clearing the underworld out of the casinos had been undone by a shadowy army behind front man Allan Glick. Reid offended a hood named Frank Rosenthal, who one day dogged Reid’s steps into the parking lot, haranguing him every step of the way. Reid’s honesty was so widely recognized that when a Kansas City hood was heard on a wiretap bragging that he’d bought off Nevada’s “Mr. Clean,” everyone immediately assumed he meant Reid, who reacted by demanding an investigation—of himself. (It cleared him.)

After four years of digging out mobsters, Reid’s public image was rebuilt. Not only did no one doubt his competence, but he was well wired into the casinos. After Nevada got a second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Reid won it. With two House terms, he was ready again for another try at the Senate. Reid, who once said that one of the lessons of the ‘74 campaign was that “Nevada isn’t as liberal as we thought,” nevertheless gambled again on his own assessment of the state’s politics, one not shared by most of the political professionals in the state.

Reid believed Nevada’s terrific urban growth was changing its politics, particularly on the environment. Politicians had always stayed on the good side of mining. Truth to tell, though, mining doesn’t really cut much ice in the state anymore. It’s important in the small counties, but economists say it’s only a blip on the state’s overall economy. Few politicians noticed this sea change, but Reid apparently did. It supported his heretical view that Nevada had become an environmentalist state.

Reid ran for the Senate in 1986 against the mining industry and as an environmentalist, even putting a pine tree on his campaign poster, and he did it against a former member of Congress who called himself “Mr. Minerals.” The pros thought Reid insane, but he won his gamble and the election, and he changed their view of what it takes to win in Nevada. In the next Senate race, fellow Democrat Richard Bryan had a scenic landscape on his campaign poster, and Gov. Bob Miller began running against the mining industry.

Nevada politicians, because of the state’s outlaw image, have always had difficulty breaking into national politics. Reid’s personal probity made him a different kind of Nevada senator, one seen by other members as fit for the national spotlight. He even did a turn as chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.

Reid’s appetite for issues took him into some odd alliances. Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, whose grandmother had responded to his drumming after she started slipping into Alzheimer’s, made contact with Reid and got him to sponsor an alternative-medicine amendment to a 1991 Older Americans Act, making music therapy an allowable expense in rest homes.

Reid is a master of triangulating and of figuring the political chess board several moves ahead. In 1990, foreseeing that the election of popular Republican Sue Wagner as lieutenant governor might make her a competitor to himself, Reid tried to recruit Clark County school board member Lois Tarkanian, wife of UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, to run as a Democrat against Wagner. Failing that, he coaxed Jeanne Ireland, wife of UNLV coach Bill Ireland, into the race (though she lost to Wagner).

Little wonder that this month when Reid recommended Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval, a rising GOP star, for a federal judgeship, political figures all over the state were trying to chart Reid’s thinking.

Reid became a skilled legislative player willing to play hard ball which may also give some indication of what Bush faces from him. When U.S. Representative James Hansen voted for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste site in Nevada (Hansen is from Utah, Nevada’s closest ally state in the Yucca battle), Reid waited in the tall grass for him. After Hansen got language into a budget bill prohibiting transport of nuclear waste to a tribal dump in Utah, Reid pounced and got the prohibition removed.

On a couple of occasions, Reid even went after his closest political friend and fellow senator from Nevada, Richard Bryan. Reid torpedoed one 1996 Bryan measure that was cosponsored in the House by a potential Reid opponent, John Ensign—"he didn’t want Ensign to do well,” said a former Bryan aide.

Reid’s persistence is legendary. He made luring Vermont Sen. James Jeffords away from the GOP a personal project, worrying the problem like a dog at a bone. He spent 17 years negotiating and drafting a single water agreement, which finally was enacted last month. “He has the patience of Job,” Michigan Sen. Deborah Stabenow once said.

While not a good speaker, Reid sometimes has a turn of phrase that can get to the heart of a dispute. In October 2001, Senate Republicans, in an effort to force Democrats to approve some judgeships, put a foreign-aid measure on hold at a time when the Bush administration was trying to win overseas support for anti-terrorism. Reid’s comment made the GOP maneuver sound like a throwback to Tammany—"This is not the time to horse-trade on judges"—while making the GOP look soft on terrorism.

History buff Reid arranged for a marker on the grave of a forgotten pioneer Nevada editor and brought U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois to Nevada to speak at the ceremony.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Reid will never be mistaken for a flaming liberal, but he understands the value of leading public opinion instead of following it, as in his willingness to buck the supposedly powerful mining lobby in his first campaign. Reid has blasted major public figures he considers arrogant, such as Ross Perot (at a time when others were tiptoeing around Perot) and Alan Greenspan.

And he runs for office to actually make change, not to turn the job into a sinecure. This means offending some people. “And don’t expect Reid … to look for the path of least resistance at home anytime soon,” wrote reporter Courtney Brenn in a perceptive 1994 assessment of Reid’s habit of offending entrenched interest groups. Reid told Brenn, “One of the real problems with government today is that we are unable to do anything, and one of the reasons for that is we tend to take the safe path.”

ABC News calls him a “centrist,” the New York Times calls him a “conservative with a reputation for steeliness,” the scholarly National Journal says his votes make him one of the “most conservative Democrats” in the Senate, Las Vegas City Life calls him the mining industry’s “bitch” (Reid made his peace with mining after 1986). Only in some Nevada circles and on some very right-wing Web sites is he considered a liberal.

In June 2001, he brought home a new prize—the post of assistant Democratic floor leader of the Senate, known as the party whip. As whip, Reid spent long hours on the Senate floor, freeing Democratic leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, to become a more public face of the party. Soon the two formed a tight alliance, and Daschle gave Reid his proxy: “He has full authority to make decisions on my behalf, but when he doesn’t believe he is in a position to make a decision, he comes to me.”

In 2001, Reid set Washington on its ear by winning Jeffords away from the Republicans. As part of the deal, Reid agreed to give up the chairmanship of the Senate Environment Committee to Jeffords. It was a costly deal for Nevada, but Reid’s fellow Democratic senators took note of his sacrifice.

While Reid was ably securing his position with his colleagues, first in the House and then in the Senate, he had less luck with the voters. Not until this year did he crack 51 percent of the vote in a statewide election; even in 1992, running against a little-known Elko rancher who got only 40 percent, Reid still got 51, with the rest going to other ballot lines. In 1998, Reid got a bad scare, coming within 428 votes of losing re-election to U.S. Rep. John Ensign.

Reid said, “It’ll never happen again,” and set about making sure. After Ensign was elected to the state’s other Senate seat, Reid became his best pal. “With Ensign and I, just everything has jelled,” Reid told Congressional Quarterly. This year, Ensign did no more than the absolute minimum necessary for Reid’s GOP opponent.

Reid also won over leading Nevada Republicans like former GOP national chairman Frank Fahrenkopf, now a prominent casino lobbyist in the nation’s capital.

Reid now has achieved some relative security in his seat, and the Democratic leader’s post may add some more—but that’s not certain. There is an assumption that, while large states can afford to dump high ranking party leaders, small states have a greater appreciation of seniority. Earlier this month, the national media were reporting that Daschle’s defeat was the first election loss by a party leader in 52 years. Few of them looked closely at that history.

In 1950, Senate Democratic leader Scott Lucas was defeated for re-election. He was from Illinois, a large state. He was replaced as Democratic leader by Ernest McFarland of Arizona, a small state. And McFarland was defeated for re-election in 1952. There are no guarantees, as Daschle’s fate showed.

When Reid became a candidate for Democratic leader after Daschle’s defeat, rank-and-file Democrats were alarmed by this mild, unassuming fellow. At the grass roots, Democrats are insistent on the Howard Dean strategy—start standing up to the conservatives. And they doubt Reid is the man for the job of confrontation. With the Internet becoming more important in politics, it is useful to look at a dialogue about Reid that took place on an influential Web log, Daily Kos, since it illustrates his problems.

One blogger wrote, “We are SCREWED if the Senate is given to Reid. He’s a good guy, yeah, but he’s not a son of a bitch. That’s what we need. … We can’t have the most powerful member of the Democratic Party in the federal government be a soft wuss who got his job by waiting for other people to die or lose their elections.”

Another wrote that Reid will get “steamrollered by the corporatists …”

Once considered the Dick Clark of Nevada for his longtime youthful appearance, Reid’s age has made him look more distinguished but also more bookkeeperish.

Photo By David Robert

“How can we defend women’s reproductive rights … if we have this conciliatory, anti-choice minority leader? … Harry Reid?? Give me an f’in break.”

“Without the presidency, Reid is the de facto party leader. Which means we are doomed.”

Others disagreed: “[I]n the West … most men and a lot of women are embarrassed to be called Democrats. Harry Reid as our face is important and will help in states that we need.”

“Sounds like a great choice to me, from the GOP’s own standards. The guy looks fair and nice to the media, and is a cast-iron bitch behind the scenes. Fits the job description, don’t you think?”

One took a middle ground: “You’re missing the point. The role of minority leader is not to affect a national election in four years. The point is to lead an effective opposition party. In four years, without opposition, Bush can further the destruction. … We should hold Reid’s feet to the fire. If he’s the new minority leader, then he better lead, dammit.”

Whether Reid would fit anyone’s idea of the kind of combatant many in the party now want is hard to judge. He is certainly not a Nancy Pelosi-type pugilist, relishing the partisan brawl. Yet the word tough keeps appearing in quotes about Reid by people like Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas. Bill Clinton once said, “You know, Harry Reid never lifts his voice, he talks real soft. And pretty soon you’re looking for your billfold.”

Reid, infuriated by Republican tactics in the Senate last year, staged a one-person filibuster to protest an upcoming GOP filibuster. The action puzzled the public but won him points with his caucus members weary of GOP high-handedness.

His rough tactics, such as his ambush of Utah’s Jim Hansen, have shown he knows how to employ the stick as well as the carrot. And he is deeply underawed by George Bush.

Nevertheless, there are other quotes. National Journal described his “nonthreatening approach.” Trent Lott said of him, “I think Harry comes off as soothing in some respects.” Those may be great qualities in a senator, but in a leader? Soothing?

DePauw University professor Ken Bode, former Washington Week in Review moderator who once managed a campaign against Reid, says the Nevada senator does not bring a record of accomplishment with him or a forceful personality: “He brings no particular stature to the job. … For most of the time he’s been in the Senate, there’s nothing you can point to that is Harry Reid except that he’s protected Nevada [from] Yucca Mountain and a few other procedural matters that have come his way. When he goes out and joins Nancy Pelosi and Terry McAuliffe, he joins them as the junior partner, and he shouldn’t be.”

There have been a lot of hyperbolic home-state press descriptions of Reid’s influence. It started when he became party whip. Soon there were sycophantic stories about him as “the highest ranking Nevadan in congressional history” or “the most powerful Nevadan in state history.” Actually, as whip, he seemed to lose power, at least if it power defined as legislative accomplishment.

Power is a funny thing—Nevada’s Paul Laxalt, as national Republican Party chairman and President Reagan’s chief legislative deputy, had power in his 12 years in the Senate, but he used it for almost nothing except putting some Nevadans in federal jobs and killing the MX missile system. Federal statutes are barren of a single major Laxalt piece of legislation. He was often called Nevada’s most powerful this or that while in office, but today he is regarded by historians as an insignificant legislator.

On the other hand, Nevada’s William Stewart, a U.S. senator for five terms, had enormous power and actually accomplished things with it. His Mining Law of 1872 is now in its second century as the nation’s basic mining exploration policy and he wrote the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting voting rights of racial minorities.

Merely having power isn’t power. Using it is. If Reid’s career were to end today and 50 years from now a graduate student wrote a thesis on him, the great achievements would likely be the creation of Great Basin National Park, the Truckee River Water Settlement, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, and a few other items—all of them either accomplished or in the pipeline before he ever entered the party leadership (indeed, one of them was accomplished before he even set foot in the Senate).

As party whip, Reid’s non-party accomplishments are few and far between, except for some more pork for Nevada—and someone with Reid’s interest in history (one of his sons is named after Nevada’s Sen. Key Pittman) likely wants to be remembered for more than just getting money for local airports.

Being whip is not necessarily a credential for being leader. The two positions have very different tasks and functions. There have been great Democratic leaders, such as Oscar Underwood, Joseph Robinson, Alben Barkley, Lyndon Johnson and Mike Mansfield. Whether Harry Reid as a party leader will be remembered as something more than another Tom Daschle is a task that lies before him. It will require more than some funding for sewer plants and adoring home state press clippings.