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Harry Reid, Part 2

Richard Bryan, left, Harry Reid, center, campaigning at UNR circa 2010
Associated Press
Richard Bryan, left, campaigns with Harry Reid, center, at a stop at UNR during Reid’s 2010 Senate re-election campaign.

Last time, we were talking about Harry Reid. He and I had something else in common: we both lost elections in 1974. Both of us got over it.

In Harry’s case, Mike O’Callaghan appointed him Gaming Commission chair in 1977. He didn’t expect the job to be that hard. As it turned out, I became attorney general two years later, and we wound up dealing with exorcising the demons of organized crime. Harry got a lot more attention, and a lot more grief — death threats, confrontations with mob figures like Frank Rosenthal, and accusations from mobster Joe Agosto that he was bought and paid for. Harry responded by calling him a small-time hoodlum trying to reach the big time and that he hoped someday Agosto would get what he deserved. Federal and state officials cleared Harry.

After those four years, running for Congress seemed much easier. The 1980 census led to Nevada getting a second House seat. He ran for the southern Nevada seat in 1982 while I was running for governor. We both won, and he and his family were off to DC. In his four years in the House, his greatest accomplishment was probably pushing through passage of Great Basin National Park in White Pine County. Senators Alan Bible and Howard Cannon had tried for years and been unable to overcome opposition from mining and ranching interests, and Congressman Walter Baring. Harry did a lot of negotiating and got help from his Nevada House colleague Barbara Vucanovich — it helped that she was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. He was really proud the day the park was dedicated.

By then, Harry was in the Senate. Paul Laxalt retired after two terms. He recruited an old friend of Harry’s and mine, former congressman Jim Santini, to switch to the Republican Party and run. Harry won, got to the Senate, and never looked back.

Harry served for five terms and represented Nevada in Congress longer than any other person (Nevada trivia buffs, the runner-up was John Percival Jones, a senator from 1873 to 1903. Harry was in the Senate the same amount of time but had those four years in the House). Harry may have done more than any other person we have sent back there.

I was there for two terms, so I got to see him in action. There’s an old saying in the Senate that you can be a workhorse or a showhorse. Harry was a workhorse. He worked hard on behalf of his state, and he worked hard to learn how to survive and succeed in the Senate. He got into the leadership, heading the Democratic policy committee and moving up to whip, or assistant leader, as he began his third term. When Tom Daschle lost his reelection bid in 2004, Harry succeeded him as Senate Democratic leader. In 2007, he became majority leader and remained so until 2015, when Republicans regained control. He had an accident while exercising early that year and lost the sight in his right eye. He said having to lie around for two months forced him to think about his future, and he decided to retire when his term ended. We’ll have more to say about what he did in those thirty-four years in Congress next time.

Missed Part 1? Listen and/or read it: