Travels with Harry

When I think about my day spent campaigning in the cow counties with Nevada’s senior U.S. senator, the last thing I’ll remember will be politics

Today is Oct. 19. I am traveling in a dark-green Ford Explorer with two Secret Service agents, press secretary Tessa Hafen and her boss, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. We are about 28 miles from Winnemucca on the fourth leg of what will be a five-stop campaign road trip through rural Nevada. We will travel about 219 miles and visit Fallon, Fernley, Lovelock, Winnemucca and Battle Mountain.

As Nevada becomes more and more urbanized (90 percent of Nevadans now live in Reno or Las Vegas), many of these towns are reduced to mere reminders of a more prosperous time. Fallon is the only town that doesn’t feel like a hospital patient in need of a transfusion. In Lovelock, 30 percent of the population is more than 60 years old. In Battle Mountain, one in seven homes is vacant.

It has rained steadily since we left the Atlantis Resort Casino this morning. The drizzle is welcome in this parched state, and Reid has made a point of taking credit for it at the town hall meetings held at each of our stops, where his claim is invariably greeted with laughter.

Outside, sagebrush and low scrub brush turns golden, ochre, and deep green with occasional bursts of red as the rain washes away the Nevada dust, revealing the rich colors beneath. The sky is filled with low-lying clouds that shroud the nearby hillsides in a tapestry of gray.

Reid began the day at a union meeting in Fernley, followed by a stop at the a printing company, Webcore Printing. We’ll visit the Fernley Senior Center, a facility that serves about 65 meals a day and delivers another 40 or so meals to home-bound clients. Many at the center know Reid and greet him eagerly. His talking points cover the war in Iraq, health care, Yucca Mountain and, of course, John Kerry, for whom the senator gently but persuasively stumps.

The other stops are similar. Reid greets small crowds of enthused senior voters (dotted with the occasional young couples, business people and children). Now the senator rests next to me, his chin set atop his palm and his eyes closed. It’s a position that only a man accustomed to catching quick naps between long meetings can accomplish.

A Winnemucca resident greets his state’s senior senator, Harry Reid.

Photo By David Robert

Reid has served as a hospital trustee, state legislator, lieutenant governor, congressman and senator over four decades. His 18 years in the U.S. Senate have made him not only Nevada’s most powerful elected official, but also, so his campaign advertising contends, “the most powerful senator in Nevada history.”

In Reid’s race for another six years on Capitol Hill, according to polls released this morning, he has a 27-point lead over his conservative Republican opponent, Richard Ziser.

When asked about Ziser, Reid’s response is surprising, “I have never met the man,” he states. “I know about him, of course, but we have never made contact.”

Has Ziser challenged him to a debate?

“No, he hasn’t. And isn’t that interesting?” The soft-spoken Reid says this with eyebrows raised—as if to make the point that if he were 27 points behind in the polls you’d better believe he would challenge his opponent to a debate.

“At this late hour, it probably isn’t going to happen, but had [Ziser] challenged me, I would have been happy to debate him.”

En route to Winnemucca from Lovelock, a distance of about 68 miles, Reid chats the miles away. It is surreal to be campaigning here, where there are so few people. The town hall meetings are small (none had more than 75 people, and the meeting in Battle Mountain was attended by just a dozen people). One medium-sized meeting in Las Vegas would have generated more voters than all our stops combined. And yet Reid doesn’t seem even remotely out of step, nor does he have the attitude of a man who is wasting a day.

Once the rising young man of Nevada politics, Harry Reid is now closer to the age of those he greets at the Lovelock senior citizen center.

Photo By David Robert

Reid represents all of Nevada. To him, connecting with the elderly unemployed man in Lovelock and his old high-school friends from Battle Mountain is a duty, and he appears to enjoy seeing the wide open spaces and tiny towns he represents.

We chat about his family. He has been married 45 years and has five children (and 15 grandchildren). At some stops, he pretends he has to think hard for their names, but when I inquire privately, it is apparent he knows all their names and ages and that his fumbling is just a ruse.

In retrospect, hearing about the political issues affecting rural Nevada is not what I will remember most from this day. Nor will the highlight be visiting with community volunteers (some working hard to maintain services after the Bush administration’s massive cuts to rural programs), local politicians and seniors.

My memories will be of sitting next to Nevada’s most powerful senator in a dark-green Ford Explorer and hearing his stories: How he angered the residents of Fallon in the 1990s over water-related issues so much that they demonstrated against him. How his sons Rory (a Clark County commissioner) and Josh (running for the Salt Lake City Council) filled him with paternal pride.

I gained insight as he recounted his memories of working with former President Jimmy Carter, the late former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill and his friend and mentor, the late former governor of Nevada, Mike O’Callaghan.

I will recall this man by his story of his worst job ever—working in a service station in Cedar City, Utah. Or glazing doughnuts at the Cakebox Bakery—to this day he can’t stand the smell of glazed doughnuts. I will see his eyes dance when he recounts the Washington Post article describing Battle Mountain as “the armpit of America.” I will hear him sing the words to Hank Snow’s old country song “I’ve Been Everywhere” as we approach Winnemucca.

“You know,” the senator says, “Winnemucca is one of the places he mentions in that song.”

As Reid’s large contingent of staff and security sees him off to the Battle Mountain airport so he can attend an event in Las Vegas, the rain starts to fall harder than before, and the wind begins to howl. Fourteen hours after this trip began, as the senator’s plane becomes a tiny light in the starless night, it is time for me to trudge home.