LAS VEGAS (AP) – He was an accomplished amateur boxer who preferred to dance. But Harry Reid liked to remind his opponents that he also knew how to fight.
That ability took him far, from poverty in Searchlight, Nevada, to the head of the US Senate.
“I don’t have people who say, ‘he’s the best speaker,’ ‘he’s handsome,’ ‘he’s a man for the city,'” Reid told the New York Times in 2010 after a hard-won re-election victory. “But I do not care. I feel very comfortable with my place in history. “
Reid, who died Tuesday at the age of 82 after a four year battle with pancreatic cancer, was one of the most capable negotiators in Congress and thrived behind the scenes that frustrated many of his predecessors. As the majority leader from 2007 to 2015, he kept the Senate in Democratic hands in a volatile era of polarizing health and economic policy, recession and war, with a Republican and then a Democratic president.
“If Harry said he was going to do something, he did it,” President Joe Biden said in a statement following the death of his longtime Senate colleague. “If he has given you his word, you can count on it. So for decades he did things for the good of the country. “
Reid is not a showman and sometimes gets in his own way on the national political stage. He once called President George W. Bush a “loser,” criticized Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan as a “political hacker,” and misrepresented the condition of ailing Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was then dying of brain cancer . He apologized to President Barack Obama for calling him “fair-skinned” and “having no Negro dialect unless he wanted one”.
Reid made an unproven political claim that he was unwilling to refuse. During the 2012 presidential election, he said in the Senate that Mitt Romney, GOP candidate and Latter-day Saint Church member, had not paid taxes in a decade. Romney denied this, and the fact-checkers of the time found no evidence to support Reid’s claim.
He was often underestimated. When he was re-elected in 2010, he looked like the underdog of tea party favorite Sharron Angle. Ambitious Democrats, accepting his defeat, began looking for his leadership position. But Reid beat Angle, 50% to 45%.
Reid reluctantly retired in 2016 instead of running for re-election after an accident while training left him blind in one eye. His post-public life included a scholarship to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, law school, and a role leading a new think tank at the school with former House Speaker John Boehner. The Republican and former congressional rival from Ohio remembered Reid Tuesday as a “fighter to the end”.
Former President Bill Clinton said in a statement Reid was “a crafty and tenacious negotiator who was never afraid of making an unpopular decision when it came to doing something that was right for the country”. Obama recently published a letter to Reid telling the ailing Democrat, “I would not have become president if it hadn’t been for your encouragement and support.”
Reid was born on December 2, 1939, the son of an alcoholic hard rock miner who killed himself at the age of 58 and a mother who served as a laundress in a brothel. He grew up in a small hut with no plumbing and swam with other children in a local brothel.
He hitchhiked to Henderson Basic High School, 40 miles from his Searchlight home, where in 1959 he met the woman he was going to marry, Landra Gould; she and her five children survive. At Utah State University, the couple became members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He graduated from George Washington University law school by night time coping for the US Capitol.
Reid was elected to the Nevada Convention at the age of 28 and the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history to serve as Vice President to Governor Mike O’Callaghan in 1970. In 1982 and 1984 to and from the US House of Representatives Elected to the US Senate in 1986, Reid served in Congress longer than anyone in Nevada’s history. In 1998, he held Republican MP John Ensign with 428 votes after a recount well into January.
Following his election as Senate majority leader in 2007, Reid was credited with putting Nevada on the political map by pushing for the state’s factions to be moved to February at the start of the presidential candidacy season. That forced every national party to pour resources into a state that has seen the fastest growth in the country in the past two decades, but still only had six votes in the electoral college.
Reid’s extensive network of campaign workers and volunteers helped turn the state over to Obama twice.
Reid, Nevada’s most influential politician for more than a decade, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the state and was single-handedly blocked from building a nuclear waste storage facility on Yucca Mountain outside of Las Vegas.
He often went out of his way to defend social programs, calling social security “one of the greatest government programs in history,” and using his own father’s story to advocate suicide prevention. He sparked controversy in 2010 when he said in a speech to the Nevada Parliament that it was time to end legal prostitution in the state.
Reid’s political moderation meant he was never politically safe in his home state or fully trusted the increasingly polarized Senate. The Democrats scolded his votes for the 2002 Iraq War resolution, banning so-called partial abortion, and opposing resolutions that backed Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
He also voted against most gun control bills, dropping a proposed ban on assault weapons from the Democratic Gun Act in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The package, he said, would not pass with the attached ban.
Reid’s Senate particularly angered House members, both Republicans and Democrats. When Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pushed Obama’s health care reform through the House of Representatives in 2009, a different version passed the Senate and the reconciliation process stalled long enough for Republicans to turn it into a weapon in election year to target Pelosi and demonize legislation as the seizure of power by the great government.
Obama signed the move in March 2010. But angry with the Great Recession and inspired by the small government’s tea party, voters swept the Democrats out of the House of Representatives majority.
Reid selected a hand-picked Democratic candidate, former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto, who won the election in her place in 2016. He built a political machine in the state that helped the Democrats win a number of important elections in 2016 and 2018.
On his way out of office, he repeatedly berated President Donald Trump, calling him “a sociopath” and “a sex offender who lost the referendum and fueled his election campaign with bigotry and hatred”.
Reid defeated verbal arguments with the manageable calm of a political veteran. After all, he had seen one of them before he got to Washington. As the head of the Nevada Gaming Commission, which investigates organized crime, Reid was the target of a car bomb in 1980. The police called it an attempted murder. Reid charged Jack Gordon, who was jailed for trying to bribe him in a stab operation in 1978 for illegal efforts to bring new games to casinos.
An accomplished amateur boxer in his youth, Reid was often seen at the ring in Las Vegas championships. He said meeting Muhammad Ali was one of his greatest thrills. He was also a huge baseball fan and could recite details about the careers of individual players.
His Mormon beliefs meant that Reid sometimes sided with the social conservatives in Nevada. In addition to defending gun rights and resisting abortion, he said he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman, but states should decide whether it is legal for same-sex couples to get married.
Reid, on the other hand, enjoyed strong support from environmentalists on most issues, and earned praise for transforming Nevada from one of the states with the least federally protected wilderness into one of the strongest during his tenure in the Senate.
A law he drafted in 1986 established Nevada’s first and only national park, the Great Basin National Park on the Utah border. Reid also urged Obama in 2015 and 2016 to build the Basin and Range and Gold Butte National Monuments, which protect approximately 1 million acres of rugged desert, mountains and valleys.
In 1997, he persuaded Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to host an environmental summit on Lake Tahoe. Two decades later, he persuaded Obama to make a similar visit. At the time, Obama praised Reid’s environmental efforts and said: “Without him by my side, I would not have achieved what I have achieved.”
Reid led an ongoing battle against the coal industry and promoted renewable energy, but frustrated conservationists by fending off federal mining law reforms opposed by his allies in Nevada’s gold mining industry.
Following Reid’s long Senate farewell speech in 2016, Nevada republican colleague Dean Heller said, “It has been said that if you can’t be both, it’s better to be feared than loved. And since I and my colleagues here and in the gallery will probably agree, no individual in American politics today embodies this feeling more than my colleague from Nevada, Harry Mason Reid. “
Kellman, an Associated Press writer in Jerusalem, reported on Congress during Reid’s tenure as Senate majority leader. Contributors to this report were AP authors Michelle L. Price in New York and Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada.