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Harry Reid's Years On The Nevada Gaming Commission

Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Sen. Harry Reid and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Senator Harry Reid may not be the most colorful figure in Washington. But his career is far more interesting than your average politician.

Long before, he represented Nevada in the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid was a criminal attorney, city attorney, state Assemblyman and the state’s Lieutenant Governor.

But it’s his five years as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, during the late 70s, that is at the center of a new video being featured at the   Mob Museum.

“Facing Down the Mob: Harry Reid’s Years on the Nevada Gaming Commission,” documents Reid's efforts to put up a fight against some of the mob figures controlling Las Vegas casinos at the time, including Tony Spilatro and Frank 'Lefty' Rosenthal. 

The era and the fights between the mob and gaming officials were documented in the book "Casino" by Nicholas Pileggi, which became the award-winning Martin Scorsese movie by the same name.  

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content at the Mob Museum. He told KNPR's State of Nevada that the interview he conducted with Reid for the video was eye-opening in many ways.

"It is very much a visceral experience to see him recalling those years." he said, "It makes you think that until he did that interview he hadn't thought about some of the things recently that he talks about. And so, it's very fresh." 

Schumacher said one of the most revealing things about the interview was how naive Reid was about the mob and its control in Las Vegas at the time.

Reid's efforts to better regulate the casino industry put his life and the lives of his wife and five children in danger.

Schumacher said that is a fact of life from that era that many people forget. 

“Some people look back on mob years nostalgically, 'Oh Vegas was better in the old days," well it was better but there was also a chance that your car might get blown up," he said. 

Reid had devices installed in his car to detect bombs,

Author and associate professor of history at UNLV Michael Green also participated in making the video for the museum. 

He explained the context in which Reid was appointed to the commission by then-governor and long-time mentor Michael O'Callaghan. 

“I think he looked at Reid as someone who would do the right thing,” Green said "O'Callaghan had appointed a lot of younger people, a lot of tough people to the state gaming control board and the state gaming commission. And he certainly knew that Reid was a young, tough guy."

Green believes O'Callaghan also did not realize just how much heat would be directed at Reid and others for the efforts to regulate the mob.

“I think that they knew there were problems but I don’t think the state had really grasped the extent, the depth of the problems,” he said. 

In the movie "Casino," there is a character based in part on Harry Reid. It's played by Dick Smothers and the character is named simple "Senator," but Green said in truth the character is an amalgamation of a number of officials who worked to get the mob out of the casino business and is not based entirely on what happened.

In the end, it was Reid who approved Spilatro's place in Nevada's infamous Black Book. 

Reid said he has never seen the movie and Green understands why.

"Reid has a phenomenal memory, which I think political friends and political enemies would vouch for, he remembers it all, but I don't think he has any desire to sit and watch himself go through it." Green said.  

Schumacher believes Reid's time on the commission helped give him the tough skin he would need to navigate Washington, D.C., because if you can face down gangster who are threatening to kill you, politicians seem tame. 

“It gave him a thick skin, if he didn't already have one," he said, "I mean he faced a lot of pressure when he was on the gaming commission and it came in a variety of ways and one of those was threats against him and his family.”

Geoff Schumacher, director of contact, The Mob Museum; and Michael Green, author and associate professor of history, UNLV.

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