Many people cried ‘Uncle’
Among elected Democrats in Nevada, he’s known affectionately as Uncle Harry. He’s revered and feared, often in the same moment. As an elected official, you are happy and relieved when your policy goal aligns with his, and you tread with trepidation when it doesn’t.
He knows who you are and where you came from. He knows your parents, your children, your spouse and your ex-spouse as well. He’s handed out campaign contributions every cycle, appointed lots of us to prestigious positions, and propelled many to a higher elected office.
Just about every Democratic official in Nevada has some level of personal relationship with Sen. Reid. When he’s in town, if you’re asked to show up at a community event with him, you put on your best suit and go. You certainly appear at any Democratic party dinner or meeting if he is the featured speaker as do most prominent or active Democrats, elected or not. And you make sure you share a few words with him if you can get close enough.
The odd thing is, most of us actually want to be there to see him. And not just because you never know what he’s going to say or do.
We’ve all been to many a Reid event over the years. We’ve marveled that every time there is a photo op, he’s willing to endure the picture line and is always gracious about the countless grip-and-grins. But we’re secretly thrilled to have another picture with the senator, even when he has to rip off our nametag and tell us to hold it out of view so we don’t look like we’re unacquainted.
Sure, he’s hung up on me every time we’ve had a phone conversation. He hangs up on everyone. But whenever I hear the words, “Please hold for Senator Reid,” I immediately get nervous. Have I said or done something recently I’m going to have to atone for? If the answer is no, I start wondering what he wants to talk about while I’m waiting for him to come on the line. Sometimes it’s nothing, a brief congratulatory call. Other times it’s more important, an appointment to a national commission. Sometimes he just wants to know what the political climate is like on the ground. But when he’s heard enough, he simply hangs up.
He’s known for being perhaps too direct, too unfiltered. In his biennial speech to the Nevada Legislature in 2011, he told us, seemingly out of the blue: “Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment—not as the last place where prostitution is still legal.” Those comments caused a stir, not because he wasn’t right, but because the Legislature had no interest or plans to abolish legalized prostitution. Three years later, in a speech to the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce, he doubled down on the issue: “The Legislature, they’re all a bunch of cowards. They were afraid to do anything about it.”
But that’s Sen. Reid. He says exactly what he wants to say in any given moment. And, if he doesn’t want to talk, he doesn’t. Last week, shortly after announcing his retirement, he cancelled his scheduled biennial speech on April 1 at this year’s legislative session, telling KNPR listeners he didn’t want to be in the same city as Cliven Bundy and his supporters.
It’s difficult to express what Sen. Reid has meant to the Democratic base and its elected representatives all these years. He’s the patriarch of our Democratic family, always loved, always admired, even when we disagree.
He’s been our leader, our mentor, our friend.
“Thank you” seems too meager a tribute to our irreplaceable Uncle, but those are really the only words left to say.