Harry Reid died at home on Tuesday evening following a battle with cancer. His rise through the ranks of state politics to the apex of Washington—a rise that made him the most influential Nevadan in United States history—revealed the toughness of the boxer he had been as a student at Basic High School in Henderson, the nearest high school to his hometown of Searchlight, where Reid grew up in poverty without indoor plumbing or a telephone.
Reid served as city attorney for Henderson and was elected to the Assembly in 1968. When his former boxing coach, Mike O’Callaghan ran for governor, he chose his onetime pupil to run as his lieutenant, a post Reid held from 1971-1975. He ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate and for mayor of Las Vegas before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1982. That began a meteoric rise in Washington that has been unequaled by any Nevadan to this day.
When Republican Senator Paul Laxalt announced his retirement in 1986, Reid emerged as the Democratic nominee for the open seat. He beat former Democrat Jim Santini by 5-1/2 points and began a run in the upper chamber that surpassed all expectations. His toughest electoral challenge occurred in 1998 when Republican John Ensign essentially battled him to a tie that bitter recounts eventually settled in Reid’s favor by about 400 votes. Ensign later served as Nevada’s junior senator and Reid welcomed his former rival warmly as the pair teamed up regularly on issues of importance to the state.
In 2005, Reid became the leader of the Senate Democratic Caucus. When the Democrats took the majority the following year, Reid became the Senate Majority Leader, a post he used to boost his own profile — and that of his state— until the Republicans took back the majority in 2014 and Reid announced his own retirement when his fifth term ended in 2016.
A controversial figure whose stranglehold on the Democratic Party of Nevada continued after his own service—the fracture in today’s Nevada Democrats is still described as a war between the “Harry Reid machine” vs the Democratic Socialists who are officially in charge—Reid was better known for inside maneuvering and keeping his caucus in line than for particular causes or ideology. His pragmatism earned him a reputation among even some Democrats as an unprincipled opportunist, but his early and ferocious support for a promising and inexperienced new colleague named Barack Obama cemented Reid’s stature in the upper chamber when Obama went on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency in 2008 and Reid served as an devoted advocate for Obama’s agenda, most notably shepherding the passage of Obamacare through a skeptical Senate.
Supporting a long-shot candidate against heavy favorite Hillary Clinton was precisely the kind of wily move the former stick-and-move counterpuncher Reid had been as a boxer in his younger days. Yesterday, Obama shared a letter he had written to Reid’s wife Landra that included a simple truth: “I wouldn’t have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn’t have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination.”
When Harry Reid was nearing the end, his wife Landra asked some of us to share letters that she could read to him. In lieu of a statement, here’s what I wrote to my friend: pic.twitter.com/o6Ll6rzpAX
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 29, 2021
Reid’s 30-year career in the US Senate included a fair share of controversy, including ill-chosen remarks from a Senator who liked to be portrayed as plain-spoken. was marred by controversy and power during his tenure as US Senator. In Game Change, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann reported that Reid had privately said that
Obama, as a black candidate, could be successful thanks, in part, to his “light-skinned” appearance and speaking patterns “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
“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,’ ” Halperin and Heilemann say.
“Reid was convinced, in fact, that Obama’s race would help him more than hurt him in a bid for the Democratic nomination,” they write.
After the remarks were revealed, Reid apologized. Reid also was regularly accused of using his extraordinary power to enrich himself and his allies. After he successfully fought for funding for a bridge over the Colorado River in the 2006 transportation bill, it was revealed that he owned 160 acres near the Arizona side of the bridge. Reid was also accused of several acts that would benefit his strong supporter and friend Harvey Whittemore, an attorney and lobbyist who used his son E. Leif Reid, a former prosecutor in Reno, as his personal attorney.
According to an investigative series by the Los Angeles Times about an elaborate golf resort Whittemore hoped to build, “Over the last four years, Reid has used his influence in Washington to help the developer, Nevada super-lobbyist Whittemore, clear obstacles from Coyote Springs’ path.” Whittemore was eventually sentenced to two years after being found guilty in 2013 of steering over $100,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Reid.
Recently, McCarran Airport in Las Vegas was named after Reid.
According to Commissioner Tick Segerblom who spearheaded this project: “It means so much because I’ve been pushing this for quite some time… but since Black Lives Matter and all the Confederate statues from around the country have been going down … it’s just lots of things happening, and I view this as part of that. Truthfully, Harry has done more for the state of Nevada than anyone has done, or probably ever will do.”