Senator Harry Reid greets attendees of YearlyKos 2006
Senator Harry Reid grins and gestures to a supporter following a speech delivered at YearlyKos 2006 in Las Vegas, Nevada (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

In 1974, Neva­da Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor Har­ry Reid lost a close race for the Unit­ed States Sen­ate by less than sev­en hun­dred votes to Repub­li­can Paul Lax­alt, in what was one of the few big loss­es for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty that year. Democ­rats would go on to lose the Sil­ver State’s oth­er Sen­ate seat just eight years lat­er, with long­time Sen­a­tor Howard Can­non los­ing to Las Vegas cloth­ier Chic Hecht.

(Hecht was arguably the least dis­tin­guished mem­ber of the Repub­li­cans’ Class of 1982. He spoke with a lisp and was famous for say­ing he would not let Neva­da become a “nuclear sup­pos­i­to­ry.” He did not win reelection.)

Lax­alt secured a sec­ond term in 1980, but as the Rea­gan years began to draw to a close, he opt­ed to retire rather than face the vot­ers again.

See­ing an open­ing, Reid (by then a con­gress­man) jumped in and ran for the seat he had nar­row­ly lost twelve years pri­or. I met him at a $1,000 a head fundrais­er at Averell and Pamela Harriman’s George­town man­sion. Wash­ing­ton Sen­ate can­di­date Brock Adams didn’t want me to cov­er his event. An amused Janet Howard, Mrs. Harriman’s top aide, sug­gest­ed I come to the Reid event to see how Democ­rats were evening the play­ing field in the 1986 bat­tle for Sen­ate control.

Harry Reid speaks at Netroots Nation
Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Har­ry Reid address­es Net­roots Nation 2010 (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Har­ry Reid came from a hard­scrab­ble back­ground. His moth­er did wash­ing for local broth­els. His dad was a min­er who even­tu­al­ly took his own life. Both drank.

Harry’s first tick­et out was as a box­er. Yet, here he was, stand­ing between the Degas and the Renoir and talk­ing about work­ing Americans.

He brought it off, too, in a soft voice that con­veyed intensity.

Har­ry Reid would serve thir­ty years in the Sen­ate. His biggest achieve­ment for his state was arguably killing the U.S. Depart­ment of Ener­gy’s plans to use Yuc­ca Moun­tain as a repos­i­to­ry for “spent” but high­ly radioac­tive fuel rods from the nation’s nuclear pow­er plants — which he did almost single-handedly.

He did so much more, serv­ing his last ten years as Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic Leader while build­ing a for­mi­da­ble polit­i­cal machine at home in Nevada.

Reid was a work­horse, not a showhorse. He spurned the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. par­ty cir­cuit and left the talk­ing to Chuck Schumer, who would suc­ceed him as leader.

Behind the scenes, he worked hard.

Reid was the first col­league to sug­gest that rest­less fresh­man Illi­nois Sen­a­tor Barack Oba­ma run for pres­i­dent in 2008. Oba­ma was mem­o­rably sur­prised return­ing from a very brief meet­ing with the leader.

He was instru­men­tal in secur­ing pas­sage of Obama’s Amer­i­can Recov­ery and Rein­vest­ment Act, albeit with pri­vate irri­ta­tion that the new Pres­i­dent made too many con­ces­sions in futile bid for more Repub­li­can support.

He helped res­cue the Patient Pro­tec­tion and Afford­able Care Act from the inep­ti­tude of Sen­ate Finance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Max Bau­cus, who had let Sen­ate Repub­li­cans play him.

Nobody played Har­ry Reid. Know­ing that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty would be threat­ened in the 2014 midterms (and sure enough, Repub­li­cans picked up enough seats to gain con­trol that year amid low turnout), Reid brought his cau­cus togeth­er and engi­neered a rules change to exempt Cab­i­net and judi­cial nom­i­nees from the col­lec­tion of block­ing tac­tics known as the filibuster.

A rally sign saying Give 'Em Hell, Harry
One of the Give ‘Em Hell, Har­ry ral­ly signs giv­en to atten­dees of Year­lyKos 2006 in Las Vegas (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Reid was an improb­a­ble greenie.

He held onto sup­port from min­ers in Elko, but blocked util­i­ties’ bid to build four coal-fired pow­er plants in moun­tains of east­ern Nevada.

With a keen appre­ci­a­tion for his state’s nat­ur­al beau­ty — Neva­da is much more than Las Vegas and desert — he insti­gat­ed the cre­ation of Great Basin Nation­al Park. He also act­ed to keep clear the waters of Lake Tahoe.

Con­serv­ing pub­lic lands was a pas­sion of Rei­d’s. When he was first elect­ed, Neva­da had 70,000 acres of pro­tect­ed wild­lands. The total is now more than four mil­lion, includ­ing the Red Rock Canyon Nat­ur­al Area just out­side Vegas.

In the pub­lic lands act that was his vale­dic­to­ry achieve­ment, Reid (and Sen­a­tor Mur­ray) found room for addi­tions to our Alpine Lakes Wilder­ness and Wild & Scenic Riv­er des­ig­na­tion for the Mid­dle Fork-Sno­qualmie River.

Harry Reid shakes hands with Joan McCarter
Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Har­ry Reid shakes hands with Dai­ly Kos’ Joan McCarter after a Net­roots Nation keynote (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Reid became a friend and ally of Seat­tle busi­ness­man Tom Cam­pi­on in sav­ing the Arc­tic. An acci­dent with exer­cis­ing equip­ment left Reid most­ly blind in one eye, and he found him­self bat­tling can­cer not long after retir­ing from the Senate.

He stayed active behind the scenes, help­ing Democ­rats flip a Sen­ate seat and cap­ture the gov­er­nor­ship in 2018. Biden eked out a 20,000 vote win in 2020.

The Cam­pi­ons became such fans that they named their fam­i­ly dog “Har­ry Reid.” The real Har­ry was charmed.

Just before his pass­ing, Barack Oba­ma penned Reid a letter.

Its mes­sage: I would not have become Pres­i­dent with­out you.

An exag­ger­a­tion? I think not.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Adjacent posts