In His Own Words:
Senate Minority Leader
Looks Back & Looks Forward
By Valerie Miller
Read Our Digital Issue
Editorial Note: As the Nov. 8 general election approached, Senate Minority Leader and Nevada native son, Harry Reid, shared his thoughts on the then-upcoming race for the presidency, and the race to fill the retiring senator’s seat. In the days after Reid responded to Vegas Legal Magazine’s questions, Democrat (and former Nevada Attorney General) Catherine Cortez Masto defeated Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., for Reid’s soon-to-be-vacant seat, while Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump pulled off a historic upset against heavily favored Democratic opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
After Trump’s stunning victory, Reid made headlines yet again in his three decades of public service, saying this in a statement about the new president-elect: “I have personally been on the ballot in Nevada for 26 elections and I have never seen anything like the reaction to the election completed [Nov. 8]. The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.”
What follows are some of Reid’s thoughts leading up to the historic 2016 election. ~VLM
Vegas Legal Magazine: What do you think your legacy will be, and what do you think are the key accomplishments by which history will likely judge you?
Harry Reid: I don’t like talking myself up or going on about what I’ve done—someone else will have to do all that. But throughout my 34 years in Congress, one thing I am proud of is I have always told it like it is. Many people want to be remembered for the bills they passed or the speeches they gave, but I hope I’m remembered by people—no matter their politics—as a guy who stood for something and never wavered.
VLM: What will you be doing after retirement? What issues will you continue to be involved with?
HR: I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Congress. I wish I could stay here forever, but I’ve still got a couple of months left that can be used to do some work for Nevada and the American people.
After all of this is over, I hope to spend more time in Nevada. I have repeatedly said I will never be a lobbyist, and I never will. I would like to do something that benefits our country. I don’t know what that is yet. All I know is I’m sure not going to be hanging around the Senate cloakroom. I’m not going to try to run the Senate from afar.
VLM: Do you think any of your children will eventually follow in your footsteps to the U.S. Senate?
HR: All my children and grandchildren are extremely hard working and able. I will leave it up to them whether or not they want to pursue a career in politics. For me, I have loved every single political job I ever had. You can help people, you can express your views and make a difference. I just want my children to love what they do as much as I have.
VLM: What do you think about the current gridlock in Congress? Is there any solution that could bring Democrats and Republicans together?
HR: I consider all my senators as friends and even part of a family. I value every member of the Democratic caucus. But Republicans have certainly worked to hurt collegiality in Congress. Republicans spent the past eight years trying to block everything and anything that President Obama did. They degraded this institution—weakened it to play politics. Democrats have always tried to get something done, but Republicans just won’t have it. Republicans need to stop trying to appease the right wing of their party and actually work to get something done for the country.
VLM: Why do you feel that Catherine Cortez Masto would be the best replacement for you in the U.S. Senate? And, what do you think would happen if Masto was defeated by Republican Rep. Joe Heck?
HR: I have known Catherine for a long time and I think she will be an outstanding senator. She has worked for years to improve the lives of Nevadans. She is a woman of integrity. She is the polar opposite of Joe Heck. Her opponent is a carbon copy of Donald Trump.
Joe Heck acts like he cares about the Hispanic community—but he voted against DREAMERs and opposed immigration reform. He says he is for the middle class, but he does the bidding of the super-rich. Joe Heck is a fraud bought and sold by the Koch brothers. If he goes to Washington, he will act on Trump’s hateful agenda. So, I predict that Joe Heck is going to lose and we’re going to send the first Latina woman to the Senate this November. I think she will be very successful there.
VLM: You have been highly critical of Donald Trump, but what specifically are your biggest concerns about him, should he become president?
HR: Again and again, Donald Trump has proven himself unfit for the presidency. This man has bragged about sexually assaulting women. He is a racist demagogue with anti-American stances against Muslims, African-Americans, women, Latinos, people with disabilities, immigrants, veterans, and others. He won’t release his taxes; stiffs American workers; and acts like Putin’s puppet. Trump has learned the worst of politics from congressional Republicans. I can’t think of anyone more dangerous to the future of this country than Donald Trump. And congressional Republicans have fed his rise and been with him every step of the way.
VLM: What are your views on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s many controversies? The private email server investigation, the Benghazi attack and the Clinton Foundation’s business dealing while she was secretary of state?
HR: For the past 30 years, Republicans and right-wing organizations have spent millions of dollars denigrating Hillary Clinton. Republicans have been obsessed with it. Right-wing interests are determined to do everything they can to keep her out of the White House. The Kochs don’t want her to be president because she wouldn’t be their lackey. They have spent tens of millions this year alone working against Hillary, Catherine [Cortez Masto], and supporting opponents who do [their] bidding. Hillary is committed to advancing middle-class priorities and working for all Americans, and that drives the right wing crazy.
VLM: What are your thoughts about the present state (and the future of) the Affordable Car Act (Obamacare), which you fought so hard to pass? Do you see it eventually being replaced with a single-payer system, like Canada’s?
HR: No one has ever said that Obamacare is perfect, but it has helped millions of Americans. More than 20 million people now have insurance who didn’t have it before. People with pre-existing conditions are now covered. Still, Republicans have tried dozens and dozens of times to repeal it. And they have no alternative.
When Republicans are done having their tantrums, I hope they will come to the table and help us make the law better. We can’t just repeal it and go back to a time when insurance companies controlled everything. Healthcare is a necessity and we must do everything we can to make sure all Americans have access to affordable, quality healthcare.
VLM: You have served in Congress for 30 years, spanning the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Can you share some thoughts on working with each of those presidents?
HR: It has certainly been interesting working with all those different presidents. They have all loved their country immensely and have worked to make things better—but they had different ways of going about that.
Ronald Reagan was full of optimism and charm. George H.W. Bush was a good man and both Bushes served their country dutifully for decades. Bill Clinton was beloved by the country and now Hillary Clinton is running. She will be a fantastic president.
President Obama and I have had a great bond these past eight years. Republicans tried their hardest to block everything we tried to do together. I think books will be written about his presidency and the Republican’s unyielding obstructionism.
VLM: What kind of challenges do you think gaming in the Silver State will face in the future?
HR: Nevada’s number one industry is gaming and I have always fought for it. But what I don’t want to see is the spread of sports betting without any regulatory means. I have no doubt the Silver State’s gaming industry will continue to survive and thrive. I will do all that I can to keep fighting for the hundreds of thousands of Nevadans who work in gaming.
VLM: Your positions on various issues, including illegal immigration, have changed during your time in Congress. What caused your views on some of these issues to evolve?
HR: Immigration is an issue that is very close to me and I have spent more time on the Senate floor on this than any other issue. I heard stories from DREAMers that broke my heart and helped me understand what is at stake for all those who leave their home in hopes for the American Dream. My friend, DREAMer Astrid Silva, wrote me letters about her struggle and other people’s struggles. I felt an obligation to try and do everything I could and I did.
I have been in Congress for a long time and times change, [and] people learn and grow. There are things that I said and did before that I would approach differently now.
VLM: The defeat of the Yucca Mountain project will likely be remembered as one of your most successful battles on behalf of Nevada. Do you think the project will be revived after you leave office?
HR: The fate of the Yucca Mountain project has never been clearer: It is dead and always will be dead. It’s a flawed plan that Nevadans of all political stripes adamantly oppose, and I am glad that we were able to put a stop to it. Nevadans have made clear they don’t want nuclear waste shoved down our throats, and the Yucca Mountain project will never happen.
It turns out that Harry Reid’s political life story had one more chapter to add. The Democratic senate minority leader pulled off another victory on Election Day 2016, and this time, he wasn’t even on the ballot.
Nevada’s election night results on Nov. 8 proved to be a fitting sendoff for the soon-to-retire senate minority leader. The powerful “Reid Machine” had been in overdrive during election season, and propelled a “blue” wave of victories across the Silver State to cap a historic 30-year career in Congress. As a result, Democrats held on to Reid’s soon-to-be-vacated senate seat; picked up another seat in the House of Representatives; and grabbed control of the Nevada Legislature.
But the success of Harry Reid, in delivering Nevada was a rare bright spot for Democrats in an otherwise bleak election night that spilled into the following morning. As we’re well aware of now, dark horse Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump—a billionaire businessman with no political experience—stunned the world by beating Clinton and providing big coattails to keep Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.
In retrospect, Trump’s win made Reid’s accomplishments in the battleground state of Nevada all the more impressive. It prompted even critics of Reid and his liberal policies to offer up due praise for the man who managed to buck the “red” tide sweeping the country.
“We should learn how to do what Reid did,” radio talk show host Alan Stock said on his program, post-election. Stock advised Nevada Republicans to take notes on Reid’s success in turning out Democrats in early voting, because it resulted in an uphill climb for Nevada Republicans who traditionally get more Election Day voters.
Today, as Reid, 76, looks toward a quieter but no less fulfilling post-political life in Henderson—back here in his home state—there’s much to reflect on, ending this chapter of his life’s story with a victory in an election when he wasn’t even on the ballot.
Talk about winning against the odds.
The Making of the “Machine”
This Election Day, the biggest prize of all for Reid was, no doubt, the election of a Democrat – former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto – to fill his seat come January.
Cortez Masto defeated Congressman Joe Heck, R-Nev. To a certain extent, Heck did it to himself: he slipped in the polls after pulling his support from Trump in the wake of the October 2016 release of the Access Hollywood tape showing Trump using lewd language. But it was a battle for Heck, nonetheless, to go up against the “Reid Machine”…a force compared by some to the legendary “Daley Machine” of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley Sr., in the 1960s and 1970s.
“He uses a lot of data analytics,” says Nevada Democratic political consultant Dan Hart. “Reid is a trailblazer.”
But it wasn’t always that way. Hart says Reid created his Nevada Democratic apparatus after the senator’s razor-thin margin of victory in 1998 over then-Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev. “Reid only won re-election by 409 votes, and he thought he should have won by a lot more,” explains Hart, who is also a friend of the Reid family. “After that, he began to really ‘professionalize’ his approach. That was the turning to point where he went from being a candidate to an expert politician.”
Hart further contends that Reid’s post-1998, re-election self-analysis has a lot to do with the massive Democratic gains in Nevada. “(Reid) also saw the need for an effective Democratic Party.”
Before that 1998 campaign’s outcome, some of Reid’s top campaign staff dated back to his days at Basic High School in Henderson, Nev. At Basic, the teenage Harry Reid also met a young teacher—and a decorated Korean War veteran—who would become one of the most influential people in his life: Mike O’Callaghan. That future Nevada governor would become a political mentor and a sort of a surrogate father to Reid, and the two shared an unbreakable loyalty.
That loyalty is not surprising, as Reid never disowned his humble Nevada roots. He was born into a family with practically nothing, in the mining boomtown-gone-bust of Searchlight. That he went on to become the most powerful person in the U.S. Senate is amazing to even those who oppose his policies and political views.
“You know, he achieved great things and you got to give him hats-off and respect for the great things the guy achieved who was just a boxer and hard-scrapple kid from Searchlight,” says conservative-libertarian radio host Wayne Allyn Root.
A Rags to Riches Story
Reid hitchhiked to high school in Henderson from Searchlight. He relied on the kindness of those around him while growing up, and as a young man, Reid recalled his rough-and-tumble upbringing in his 2008 autobiography, The Good Fight: Hard Lessons from Searchlight to Washington.
“It’s an inspiring story, coming up from poverty, with the help of friends and hard work,” says Nevada historian Michael Green.
Young Harry Reid boxed as an amateur, and married his high school sweetheart Landra Gould. Together they had five children: Lana, Rory, Leif, Josh, and Key. Reid started out as Henderson’s city attorney and, by age 30 in 1970, became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history. (O’Callaghan would be elected governor at that time, too, but Nevada elects its governor and lieutenant governor separately.)
O’Callaghan later appointed Reid as the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. In that post, in the late 1970s and 1980s, Reid dealt with the last vestiges of the mob control in Las Vegas, eliciting, among other traumas, a bomb being placed in his car. It was defective and didn’t detonate; but another event of equal soul-shaking magnitude happened in Searchlight during Reid’s rise in 1972, when his father and namesake, Harry, committed suicide. The elder Reid had battled alcohol use for most of his life but was sober before shooting himself. The tragic death of his father would later move Sen. Harry Reid to support legislation to help prevent suicide, and aid survivors and their families.
How History Will Remember Harry Reid
One of Reid’s greatest victories for Nevada was preventing nuclear waste transportation to the Yucca Mountain repository. Reid joined forces with his former rival (and by then U.S. Senator) John Ensign to fight the administration of President George W. Bush and its efforts to establish the nuclear waste dump about 90 miles from Las Vegas. Reid is also credited with boosting Nevada’s solar and renewal-energy sector.
“He is the most powerful [political] person in the history of Nevada,” praises Nevada historian Michael Green, who is also a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Creating Great Basin Nation Park in 1986, and his protection of the mining industry have been among Reid’s other achievements on behalf of the Silver State.
But Reid’s natural fighting instinct wasn’t relegated to only Nevada. Nationally, Green reminds, Reid successfully fought back against a Republican amendment to cut Social Security benefits. “Overall, Reid and [former Senator] Pat McCarran are the most powerful people to represent Nevada in Washington.”
Nonetheless, Reid’s legacy gets mixed reviews from some Nevadans. Progressive Democrats and liberals give him higher marks while conservatives, Republicans and even some moderate “blue dog” Democrats have disapproved with the retiring senator’s more recent voting record. This is especially evident when talking about the then-senate majority leader’s role in getting so much of President Barack Obama’s agenda passed. Supporters and critics agree that the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, would not have been possible without Reid.
One such critic is the “Alan Stock Show” host and namesake, who argues that Reid’s drive to represent Nevada’s best interests shifted as he gained power. “When he became the head of the Democratic Party as the senate majority leader, the Democratic Party came into the forefront and Nevada became the background.”
But Hart sees it differently. “Reid was a loyal Democrat. If the president needed somebody to do something, [Reid] did it. He knew how to play ball.”
Root, an avid Donald Trump supporter and the author of the new book Angry White Male, thinks that’s not a good thing.
“[Reid] started out as a conservative Democrat, a very pro-gun conservative Democrat from Nevada. He was very different than other Democrats, and he wound up being the guy who carried the water for the most-liberal president in the history of America [Barack Obama],” says Root. “Now, I think he wound up doing terrible things to America. But, I know in [Reid’s] mind he was doing the best he could for Nevada. And I respect him for that.”
Hart says Reid truly believes in the policies he promotes. “I think he will be remembered as a fierce fighter for the principles and policies he believes in.”
The Reid legacy will endure, Hart adds. “I don’t think there is any match for him in the Nevada I know. I don’t think there are many who can compare to him nationally. He’s a national treasure.”
Green, however, does see some similarities in how Reid’s and McCarran’s legacies will be judged. He gives this basis for comparison: “McCarran put a lot of young men through law school, and got them elected [to public office]. Reid’s [legacy] depends on the Cortez Masto election and if he built a political organization in the [Nevada Democratic] party that survives him.”
Valerie Miller is an award-winning journalist based in Las Vegas. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.