From a hardscrabble childhood in Searchlight to the pinnacle of American power, Harry Reid has lived an epic American life. Now, as Nevada’s most legendary political career — and, at times, its most gaffe-prone, controversial and conservative-enraging — draws to a close, we look at some of the most significant moments in the life of Nevada’s essential politician
The big one
Uphill all the way
It took all of Harry Reid’s legislative skills to shepherd the Affordable Care Act to reality
By Jon Ralston
They should have called it Reidcare.
Beyond all the amendments he slipped into bills or the measures he entombed through parliamentary legerdemain, beyond his perennial stalling of Yucca Mountain, Harry Reid’s greatest legislative miracle may be passing President Barack Obama’s signature achievement in March 2010.
Remember what happened during that time, the same period during which Reid miraculously forced the stimulus package through Congress. The Affordable Care Act was introduced in September 2009, and Reid understood what he had warned the president about from Day One: No Republicans would come along.
So the majority leader knew he had no margin for error. I did a lot of reporting on this for a piece I penned last year, and what I found was that Reid did what he does best — learning what each member needed to be happy. As his communications chief Adam Jentleson told me, “He figures out what matters to people. Sometimes he will get to the person that a member listens to.”
Reid essentially had told the White House, I got this, and the president trusted him enough to make the deal. Reid had to navigate stormy waters after Ted Kennedy died on August 25 (his seat was temporarily filled by Democrat Paul Kirk), but he continued to steer the Obamacare ship toward the 60 votes needed to head off a GOP filibuster.
Getting POTUS face-time, AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Reid and the White House clashed during this time, as some at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. questioned his strategy of allowing Finance Chairman Max Baucus so much free rein. Unlike Reid, Baucus, a Democrat, thought he could bring some Republicans along. The majority leader let him find out for himself that he was wrong.
Reid then had one last play to get his last two votes from holdouts Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. In a move that encapsulates Harry Reid’s career, showing he will do almost anything to achieve his goal, he resorted to what amounted to legalized bribery.
Reid managed to slip in provisions giving hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid funds to the home states of Nelson and Landrieu, the so-called “Cornhusker Kickback” and “Louisiana Purchase,” respectively. (Nelson would later lose his gift in reconciliation with the House, but Reid already had secured his vote when it mattered.)
Reid also ensured independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman would vote for the final package by scuttling any talk of a public option in the Affordable Care Act. And on Christmas Eve 2009, the Senate passed the measure by 60-39, sending it to the House, where the Democrats then dominated.
Reid’s masterpiece almost fell apart when Scott Brown upset Martha Coakley to take Kennedy’s seat in a special election in January 2010, erasing the filibuster-proof majority. But the House agreed to pass the identical Senate bill and make any changes in a subsequent legislation, so the upper house would not have to vote again on a revised version of the bill.
If that had not happened, even Harry Reid probably could not have obtained the one Republican vote he would have needed to pass health-care reform. At least I don’t think so.
Reid was content to let the president bask in the limelight in March 2010, when he signed the still-controversial bill that would come to bear his name. But even President Obama knows that the proper nickname of the Affordable Care Act should be Reidcare.
With a little help from his friend
It took a figure almost as large as Harry Reid to recognize and nurture the young man’s potential
By Michael Green
Harry Reid didn’t meet the man who would change his political life until his senior year at Basic High School in Henderson. Mike O’Callaghan, the gruff Irishman who’d moved there from Idaho to teach social studies, would leave an indelible impression on Nevada’s political landscape himself.
He “would become my teacher and my best friend,” Reid said of O’Callaghan in his book The Good Fight (from which all the quotations in this account are drawn, unless otherwise noted). Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that without O’Callaghan, the chances are good that nobody would be talking about the importance of Harry Reid on the eve of his retirement from Nevada’s most remarkable political career.
O’Callaghan made an impression fast. The victim of Korean War mortar fire, he had an artificial leg that didn’t seem to slow him down a bit. O’Callaghan got mad at a bully who picked on some of the smaller kids at Basic, and invited the student to the Boys Club for a boxing match. According to Reid, “The brand-new teacher with one leg just cold-cocked him. ... Nobody messed with (O’Callaghan). And when he was around, nobody messed with the little guy, either. One of the many things he taught me was that the little guy was worth fighting for.” Reid literally believed O’Callaghan was worth fighting for: The teacher became his boxing coach.
After graduating from Basic, Reid headed to the College of Southern Utah, today Southern Utah University, in Cedar City. He had to work his way through school, but he had financial help, thanks again to O’Callaghan: His teacher raised money from some Henderson businessmen to help pay Reid’s way.
After Utah State, Reid planned to go to law school. O’Callaghan thought he should go to Washington, as many other young men from Nevada had done — about 50 Nevada attorneys went to law school while working under the patronage of Senator Pat McCarran, and other Nevada elected officials did much the same thing.
One of those people was Rep. Walter Baring. O’Callaghan wrote to him to ask him to get a job for Reid. Baring’s reply was negative, and spelled the would-be law student’s name wrong. O’Callaghan’s legendary temper knew few limitations and made no exception for elected officials; O’Callaghan called Baring, and chewed him out. Reid headed off to George Washington University to study law, with a job as a Capitol Hill policeman.
Reid returned to Nevada in September 1963, before he finished his degree, having petitioned to take the bar exam early. “Mike O’Callaghan met me at the airport in Reno,” Reid recalled. “In his hand was a $50 bill, a denomination of money I’d never seen before. It helped pay for my trip, and it allowed me to take the bar exam,” which Reid passed.
Sharing a moment with mentor Mike O’Callaghan. Photo courtesy North Las Vegas Library collection/UNLV Libraries Special Collections
Just as O’Callaghan had entered politics, so did Reid. He won election to the assembly in 1968. Two years later, O’Callaghan decided to run for governor and upset the favored candidates in the primary and general elections. Reid ran for lieutenant governor and won. “What an adventure it would be to serve side by side with Big Mike,” Reid said.
Big Mike involved Reid in everything. “I had two full-time jobs, being lieutenant governor and being a lawyer. And Mike would call at all times of the day and night,” Reid said. “It was because of him that I learned to use a phone in pitch darkness.”
O’Callaghan had a plan for their future. In 1974, Senator Alan Bible was retiring. O’Callaghan thought about running, with Reid moving up to run for governor. Then O’Callaghan decided against trying to go to Washington but told Reid, “Run for re-election, and I’ll resign before my term is over, and you’ll become governor.”
Instead, Reid ran to succeed Bible. Former Governor Paul Laxalt emerged from his brief political retirement, but it should have been hopeless for the Republican: Watergate and Richard Nixon had made the GOP damaged goods. In his book The Good Fight, Reid said, “My hot young pollster, Pat Caddell, told me in early October, ‘It’s impossible for you to lose.’ I showed him.”
In one of the most memorable gaffes in Nevada political history, Reid questioned the ethics of the Laxalt family’s finances, prompting Laxalt to point out his sister was a nun who had taken a vow of poverty. That moment, combined with conservative Northern Nevadans who preferred Laxalt, cost Reid the election by 611 votes, and set a precedent for close wins and losses that would follow Reid for a good bit of his political life.
Then Reid compounded his mistake. He held a press conference blaming the Northern Nevada media for his defeat, which earned him bad press and did nothing to help his future plans. In the book The First 100, Reid recalled, “I was young, impetuous, and I had never lost anything. I might as well have blamed (former Soviet premier) Nikita Khrushchev. It was just a sign of my immaturity. But it was one of the most character-building experiences of my life.”
He ran for mayor of Las Vegas, losing to Clark County Commissioner Bill Briare. “I woke the day after the mayoral election a 35-year-old has-been. I assumed that I was finished with political office.”
Reid had been a successful lawyer, and remained one. But his political fall had been rapid and striking. Then, “as had been the case so often in my life, Governor O’Callaghan extended a hand to me.” As Ralph Denton, a fellow Democrat who knew both of them, put it in his book A Liberal Conscience, “Mike didn’t give up on him. Mike knew what Harry was.”
O’Callaghan appointed Reid to chair the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1977. That position, already important, was about to become a hot seat. The FBI, the Justice Department and Nevada gaming agents were digging deeper into organized crime. Reid faced down Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and his allies at the Stardust and Fremont hotels. As commission chair, he took on the mob operators of other local hotels, including the Tropicana and the Aladdin, and approved Tony Spilotro for the Black Book, barring him from entering Nevada casinos.
Battling the mob kept Reid in the public eye, refurbished his image and eliminated the “has-been” description of him politically. It wasn’t always easy: When Tropicana mob operator Joe Agosto said he had a “Cleanface in my pocket,” the FBI publicly rebutted the claim, according to Ned Day's TV documentary "Mob on the Run," but the allegations still pop up — “the worst time in my family’s life,” Reid called it. One day, his wife, Landra, found some wires rigged in their car to blow it up, and the bomb squad had to come to his home.
Had Reid not suffered his back-to-back defeats and his circuitous route back to politics, he still might have become majority leader, but who can know? We do know this: At the worst political moment of Reid’s life, O’Callaghan, who died in 2004, knew Reid still had a future. Neither of them gave up.
Harry Reid’s impolitic tongue
From calling President Bush a loser to apology-worthy comments about President Obama, the senator has a history of wayward words
By Steve Sebelius
In the twilight of his political career, many insiders remarked at how free Harry Reid had become with his words. The benefits, they say, of not having to run for another term.
But they just don’t know Harry Reid.
Nevada’s senior senator has a long and distinguished history of saying sometimes-outrageous things, things that might seriously damage or even ruin a lesser politician, one who never developed the reservoir of goodwill that Reid has built up with his party’s base.
In 2002, Reid called President George W. Bush a “liar” (because Bush decided to move forward with the nuclear repository at Yucca Mountain despite a promise to decide the issue on science).
Asked about that comment in 2009, Reid was unapologetic: “I don’t know if that rhetoric is appropriate. That’s how I feel, and that’s how I felt,” Reid told then-Meet the Press host Tim Russert.
In 2005, speaking to class at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Reid called Bush a “loser.” He quickly called the White House to apologize for that remark, asking Karl Rove to convey his regrets to the traveling president.
In the book Game Change, journalists and authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann report Reid made a racially insensitive remark about then-Sen. Barack Obama.
“He [Reid] was wowed by Obama’s oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama — a ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,’” the passage reads.
Reid later apologized.
This year, Reid allegedly told congressional hopeful Jesse Sbaih that he could not win a race for Congress because Sbaih is a Muslim. Reid and his staff vehemently denied Reid made the statement, but Sbaih has not backed off his account. (Sbaih lost a Democratic primary to a Reid-endorsed candidate.)
Reid has been known to transform into a media critic on occasion, telling reporters how their concept of objectivity has robbed them of the ability to call a given situation accurately. And he’s been known to not hold back if a particular piece of journalism strikes him as unhelpful. He told this writer in 2013 that a column exonerating Rep. Joe Heck of responsibility for the failure of immigration legislation made Reid want to vomit.
In fact, on the immigration issue, Reid was once in agreement with Donald Trump! In 1993, Reid — repeatedly using the phrase “illegal aliens” — disdained the concept of birthright citizenship (the idea that children born on U.S. soil are American citizens by right, even if their parents entered the country illegally). In 2006, he said a bill he’d introduced on birthright citizenship was the low point of his long career in office.
For Republicans, that low point may have come in 2012, when Reid repeatedly said he’d learned from a source that Republican nominee Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes in 10 years. In 2015, asked about the charge by CNN’s Dana Bash, Reid merely shrugged and said, “He didn’t win, did he?”
Reid’s flair for free speaking can be downright entertaining at times, especially as he takes to the Senate floor to do rhetorical battle with favorite targets like the Koch Brothers, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Republicans whom he thinks aren’t doing their jobs.
Trump is a favorite target, too: Most recently, as criticism of Hillary Clinton’s campaign mounts for keeping her bout with pneumonia under wraps, Reid observed that the 70-year-old Trump wasn’t exactly “slim and trim.”
And Reid can go for the jugular when he believes he’s justified: In 2012, speaking at his annual Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, Reid accused utility NV Energy of killing members of an Indian tribe who live on a reservation close to the Reid Gardner power plant. The company recently announced it would close that plant ahead of schedule as it continues a transition to natural gas and green energy power production.
No one in the room is more nervous when Reid is speaking than his staff. They constantly tap at their smartphones, preparing their colleagues in real time for the fallout of whatever the boss has just uttered.
Once, while giving a speech on the Senate floor, Reid appeared to come quite close to profanity, which would definitely have been a violation of Senate decorum. He described something with which he disagreed as “a big crock of … potato soup.”
It could have been worse. With Reid, it could have been much, much worse.
The close call
How John Ensign became the ghost in the Reid machine
By Jon Ralston
It was the race Harry Reid believed he deserved to lose.
Reid, ascending the rungs in the Club of 100 for a dozen years, faced a challenge in 1998 from an upstart two-term GOP congressman named John Ensign, a veterinarian and gaming executive who had stunned Democratic Rep. Jim Bilbray during the 1994 Gingrich Revolution.
Reid, who had been in Washington since 1983, could not believe a sophomore such as Ensign would have the temerity to challenge him. After all, the senator had bided his time and glided through backrooms before calling in favors to get to the cusp of party leadership.
This was no small feat for the charismatically challenged senator from a small state. And now Ensign wanted to take that away from him.
And he almost did.
Ensign was everything Reid was not: telegenic, personable, smooth. The congressman also ran an almost flawless campaign, portraying Reid as a tax-and-spend liberal and benefitting from a flood of newcomers as well as fallout from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Reid could barely contain his disdain for his opponent, sneering at one Summerlin forum, “What does a veterinarian know about the Constitution?”
(Even then, there were Reidisms. When Ensign confronted Reid about the comment at a televised debate the following week, Reid said, among other things, “You know, I have cats and dogs. I like cats and dogs, and I like animals. And I like veterinarians.”)
Reid, as ever, had left little to chance. He recruited then-Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones to run for governor against former schools superintendent, banker and Southwest Gas CEO Kenny Guinn, a quixotic venture, but one that the senator knew would energize the Democratic female base.
Reid needed every little bit to go right. After a recount and questions about ballots in Washoe County, the incumbent emerged victorious — by 428 votes. The final numbers revealed perhaps the only flaw in Ensign’s campaign, but the one that cost him the contest:
Ensign had essentially neglected Washoe, which was then a heavily GOP county. And Reid out-performed the registration numbers, losing the county by only 2,000 votes. That killed Ensign.
After the election, Reid knew how fortunate he was to have won. He told people, including this reporter, that he would revamp his organization and the state Democratic Party. Like Scarlett on Tara, as God was his witness, he would never let this happen again.
Motivated by that near-death experience, by his next election, in 2004, Reid had brought in experienced political operatives, including his new right-hand, Rebecca Lambe, imported from Missouri. Reid would win easily in 2004 against a nonentity, conservative activist Richard Ziser. But that was just a test run for the eponymous machine that would save Reid in 2010 when the national GOP came gunning for him; and would have killed him if not for that machine, which helped hand the GOP a pistol loaded with a blank named Sharron Angle.
Ensign and Reid would go on to form a productive Senate partnership after the former took Richard Bryan’s seat in 2000, but ended his career in scandal in 2011. (Indeed, Reid is often heard to say he misses Ensign in the Senate.) But what happened in 1998 stayed with Reid and helped forever change the trajectory of Nevada in cycles to come.
The final campaign
Confidence and calculation
In 2010, Harry Reid’s opponents saw their best chance to unseat the majority leader — unaware that they had no chance at all
By Steve Sebelius
Man up, Harry Reid!”
That was the line of the night on October 14, 2010, the one and only debate between Nevada’s senior senator and Tea Party darling Sharron Angle, the woman who was destined to end Reid’s long career in the Senate.
An obviously rehearsed attack line, it echoed the shouts of outrage that had begun at a Tea Party rally near Reid’s hometown of Searchlight on March 27, 2010. And whether Angle knew it or not, it was the high point of a campaign that she’d lost before it ever began.
Reid is not known for his wide margins of victory — the nickname “Landslide Harry” was ironic. He’d lost his first run for U.S. Senate in 1974 by 611 votes, and came close to losing again in 1998 by just 428 votes. After a relatively easy campaign in 2004 (he defeated his opponent by more than 210,000 votes), Reid was facing a tough reelection.
Republicans in Nevada and nationwide hated him with a passion that belied his soft-spoken persona. People in the Silver State claimed he’d been changed by Washington, transformed from a pragmatic conservative Democrat into a progressive creature of the Beltway. National Republicans were stymied by Reid’s legislative skill and the victories it afforded Democrats (the Affordable Care Act, for example).
This was to be the year that Reid finally met his political end, when the last of his political lives ran out, when a Republican finally took the state back.
This was to be the year of revenge.
Reid started his reelection early by assembling one of the best political teams ever seen in the Silver State, one unrivaled since. (He’d already transformed the Nevada Democratic Party into a finely tuned machine that two years earlier had helped President Barack Obama win the state.)
Next, he set about choosing his opponent from the fertile field of Republicans, led by hotelier Sue Lowden and perennial candidate Danny Tarkanian, who smelled blood in the water.
Reid’s forces took out Lowden — considered the biggest threat — largely thanks to a bizarre remark she made at a forum about people bartering for health care as they did in the “olden days.” She refused to back away from the remark, which achieved legendary mock-worthiness when Democratic operative Phoebe Sweet delivered a live goat to a Lowden campaign office, ostensibly seeking health care.
In the GOP primary, everybody lost handily to former Reno Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who’d made inroads with the Tea Party as a pistol-packing grandmother itching to take on the man at the pinnacle of the Democratic establishment.
Angle’s general-election campaign started slowly, as Democrats pounded her with attack ads. (They had plenty of material; she’d told one interviewer that people may start turning to “Second Amendment remedies” if political change failed, and another that she’d been prepared for her Senate run the way Jesus, Moses and St. Paul were prepared for their God-given tasks. Later, she’d tell a classroom full of Hispanic students that some of them looked “a little bit Asian to me.”)
Still, polls of the Silver State showed Angle ahead, and her supporters — many of them political neophytes who knew very little about professional campaign management, and wore that ignorance as a badge of honor — were cheered. This could actually happen, they thought. This was going to be the year.
Reid was going down.
But Reid was not worried, outwardly or otherwise. One of the reasons: He had in his employ pollster Mark Mellman, one of the few researchers to ever figure out Nevada’s notoriously tough-to-crack electorate. By correctly modeling the early and Election Day turnout, Mellman was able to tell Reid he’d win by 6 percentage points. (This was told to me by a Reid supporter about six weeks before Election Day.)
As the campaign wore on, Angle became increasingly erratic, eschewing the media (she literally ran from them on several occasions) and airing an ad depicting scary looking Hispanic men creeping along a border fence. But Reid stuck to his well-crafted campaign plan, and kept his notorious penchant for gaffes under wraps.
And when November 2 came, Reid won by 41,000 votes, a margin of — wait for it — 5.74 percentage points.
Harry Reid had, in fact, manned up.
Postscript: After Reid announced in March 2015 that he’d not seek reelection to a sixth term, Rep. Joe Heck announced he’d run for the seat. A number of gadfly Republicans challenged him for the honor. Among them: Sharron Angle, who’d spent the six years since her loss to Reid heavily promoting her self-published book. (She and her supporters continue to insinuate — but not prove — that her loss was the result of some unspecified fraud.)
This time, Heck won handily, 65 percent to 23 percent. Nevada Republicans’ flirtation with Angle, it seemed, was at an end.
Faith and politics
‘How can I be a Mormon and a Democrat?’
Harry Reid threads another needle
By Michael Green
How he rolls: Reid’s tenure on Capitol Hill will end in January 2017. AP Photo/Harry Hamburg
Harry Reid is Mormon. That may shock and surprise many. Isn’t Reid the Democratic leader of the Senate, a brilliant legislative strategist who spends his days trying to defeat the Republicans, where most, but not all, of his fellow churchgoers find their political home?
Yes, that Harry Reid is also a faithful Mormon, and the story of how he found his faith, and what it means to him, traces the arc of his life in public service.
“In my home, we had no religion. None. Zero,” Reid noted in his book The Good Fight (from which the quotes in this story have been drawn, unless otherwise noted). The town, Searchlight, was barely surviving — it had no churches. Instead, his mother stitched a quotation — “We can. We will. We must.” — from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was president when Reid was born, “and that was my religion,” he said. (To be sure, Reid never left the church of FDR, either. His antipathy toward people with inherited wealth who lectured others on the merits of capitalism, which spilled onto the 2012 presidential election field, was born of his roots as an FDR Democrat.)
In fact, his only real morals lesson as a child — and Reid loves to tell the story — came from the local brothel owner. Reid and a friend stole some bottles that could be redeemed for cash, and Willie Martello, who owned a casino and a house of prostitution, saw them. Later he told Reid, “I didn’t get you in trouble because I think you could amount to something. Don’t you do stuff like that.” So, Reid told Politico earlier this year, “I learned a lot in honesty from a man who ran a whorehouse.”
At the time, Reid was going to Basic High School in Henderson, hitchhiking back and forth from Searchlight, which had no high school. His friend Ron McAllister “invited me to go to something called ‘seminary’ that happened every morning before school over at the Mormon church.” Reid had no idea what that meant, but McAllister said it was a great place to meet girls. So he went.
Reid attended nearly every morning for the rest of his freshman year, introduced to one of the key figures who would shape his personal life. The teacher, Marlan Walker, also taught Spanish at Basic, and Reid grew to admire and like him. “Seminary awakened my curiosity,” he said. “And very slowly, almost imperceptibly, something that can only be described as a spiritual hunger planted its seed in me.”
By the time he went to college in Cedar City, Reid had fallen in love with Landra Gould, who was Jewish. When they eloped, Walker performed their wedding ceremony at the Mormon church in Henderson, even though they weren’t church faithful at the time. The Reids moved on to Utah State, where Reid had earned an academic scholarship. The pair rented a basement apartment from a Mormon family. Landra Reid worked at a chemical company 50 miles away, and her Mormon bus driver asked if he and a fellow Mormon could come to the apartment and give the Reids religious instruction.
Reid said that “our choice was made so much easier by the people we’d met, who set an example for us,” starting with Walker. “And more and more, their faith became our faith. It felt good. And one day after a lesson, Landra said, ‘Do you think this would be good for us?’ We joined the church in February 1960.”
He found church members to be helpful and honest. His insurance agent, Dixie Leavitt, helped pay the bills for the birth of the Reids’ first child when it turned out that the policy Reid bought didn’t cover the pregnancy. “Dixie Leavitt answered with such profound decency that I will never forget it,” Reid said. The loyalty that Reid would become so famous for in political life was mirrored in private life, and these acts of kindness cemented him in his faith.
Politically, it was more common in those days for Mormons to belong to both parties; at the time of Reid’s election to Congress, about 30 percent of Utah Mormons voted Democratic; today it’s dropped to about 10 percent.
But, as Reid told the Washington Post, “It is not uncommon for members of the church to ask how I can be a Mormon and a Democrat. Some say my party affiliation puts me in the minority of our church members. But my answer is that if you look at the church membership over the years, Democrats have not always been the minority, and I believe we won’t be for long. I also say that my faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined. I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.”