I did this profile of Harry Reid for The Progressive when Harry Reid was first appointed Senate Minority Leader. I don't think it was ever available on the internet but after what happened yesterday I thought people might be interested in it again.
Harry Reid and the Progressive Dilemma
by Stephen Elliott
An hour down the interstate, 54 miles southeast from Las Vegas on a new four-lane highway, sits the old mining town of Searchlight. It's a place much in the news recently, the birthplace and home of the new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. It's a sparse and rugged place with a population hovering around eight hundred. The houses are modest, many of them trailer homes. It's a place not unlike the America that elected George Bush. Rural, spacious, private. Somewhere that appreciates small government and smaller taxes, though it doesn't mind taking a handout once in a while.
I arrive in Searchlight on a cold afternoon in early January, two month's after the presidential election, the Democratic Party in disarray and on the defensive. At thirty-five degrees it's about as cold as it gets in this part of the state. I stand in front of the town's only casino staring west across the valley to where the crabgrass and cedar roll up into the mountain range separating the town from the city on the other side. It's a spectacular view and it's easy to see why the Senator loves Searchlight. He loves it so much that he mentions it every time he gives a speech, telling anyone who is willing to listen that his father was a hard rock miner and his mother took in laundry. And though their house "Didn't have hot water or an inside toilet, it was truly a family home to me and my three brothers." Reid continues to live here. He even wrote a scholarly book about the town: Searchlight The Camp That Didn't Fail, published by the University of Nevada Press.
There's a picture of the house the Senator was born in. A wooden shack with a stovepipe chimney, surrounded by empty desert, two phone polls off in the distance. There's another picture, a young Harry Reid, six or seven, in front of a larger wooden house built from railroad ties. Still another picture, undated, shows the father, Harry Reid Sr. standing against a series of vertical slats, a mop of dark hair rising from his head as if on fire, undershirt tucked into his pants, long thin arms in his pockets, a dog at his feet. Early in his political career Harry Reid's father would commit suicide.
There was no high school in Searchlight so Harry had to hitchhike to Basic High in nearby Henderson. There he met his wife, Landra Gould, and his mentor, a teacher named Mike O'Callaghan. His high school picture shows a clean cut and serious young man with a shiny forehead, hair combed carefully up along the sides with a wave across the front.
Reid returned to Henderson years later with a law degree and served as the City Attorney. He was elected to Nevada Assembly at the age of twenty-eight and two years later became the state's youngest Lieutenant Governor, winning as Mike O'Callaghan's running mate.
In 1977 he was appointed chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission where mob representative Joe Agosto claimed influence. Reid responded by calling Agosto a hoodlum. Toward the end of his tenure a bomb was found plugged into the engine of his family car. After that Harry Reid started his car by remote control.
I meet Jane Overy at the Searchlight Museum, a single room in the community center that also houses a meeting room and the town library. "He doesn't make a fuss when he comes," she tells me. "The only reason we know he's here sometimes is when we see his bodyguard. He doesn't walk around acting important. He's done the dead work. That's what they call it in the mines, the hard work that you do to get the prize." Jane, who oversaw the creation of the museum, explains when the town was founded it was nothing more than a mining claim fourteen miles from the Colorado River. It would have stayed that way if they hadn't discovered a water table a few hundred feet in the ground while digging for oil. She shows me a quote from one of the early miners possibly explaining the name of the town. "If there is gold in this rock," it says, "we'd need a searchlight to find it."
According to the Senator, Searchlight is the kind of place the Democrats are going to have to appeal to if they hope to take back power and cites an unwillingness by Democrats in the past to reach out. "You can't appeal to rural voters if you don't go to rural voters. We need as Democrats to not be afraid to go places outside the big cities." He points out that John Kerry lost disastrously in rural Nevada, and had he done better there he could have taken the state. "We don't need to change who we are or what we believe in, we just have to do it better."
By the time I leave Searchlight to return to the slick neon of Las Vegas it's gotten late and what's left of the sun is hidden by storm clouds. Coming upon Boulder Ridge I'm confronted by the headlights spilling over the pass from across the range. With the new road just completed, cutting the commute from Vegas to under an hour, it's only a matter of time before this little town that could is submerged beneath Vegas' endless sprawl. The mining town, like the Senator, like the Democratic Party, is going to have to change.
In Vegas near the garish Hard Rock motel and casino I meet with Jon Ralston, the political correspondent for the Las Vegas Sun. "He is a scary guy," Jon says of Reid. "He loves to meddle at all political levels. He's Machiavellian, ruthless. And he doesn't relate well with the media. He once wouldn't talk to me for two years because he didn't like something I wrote. People were surprised when he twice called the president a liar on Yucca Mountain but that's the way he is."
Michael Green, the Nevada political historian agrees and tells an old local joke that (former Senator) Richard Bryan "woke up in the morning wondering if he'd shaken everybody's hand. Harry Reid wakes up in the morning wondering if he's gotten back at all his enemies."
Asked to describe himself the Senator says, "I am just how I am. It's no secret. I'm very consistent. I don't skip around. I'm dependable." Most people that know him share the same opinions and even his detractors defend him as an honest broker.
An advisor from Reid's first Senate campaign, Joseph McCullough an English professor at UNLV, remembers the Senator as a man who sought counsel before making decisions. "He had a good team and he was genuinely interested in everyone's opinions. He wanted honest opinions on all the issues."
But despite his kind, soft features and quiet voice, the word most commonly used to describe the Senator is tough. He was an amateur boxer before entering politics. He's known as a no holds barred backroom dealer and is given most of the credit for engineering the defection of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords giving the Democrats a brief majority in the Senate. He's spoken of as a man capable of bringing people together as well as someone you do not cross.
The Democrats hope that the Senator's toughness will help them in fights where they are badly outnumbered. It should at least help in keeping the caucus in line and putting across a united front. But while there's a lot of agreement as to whom the Senator is and how he works, his political leanings and the impact he's likely to have as a leader of the Democratic Party are subject to debate.
Harry Reid is a pro-life converted Mormon vocal in his opposition to gay marriage, unlikely to appeal to the activist faction of the Party. Though he does not support a constitutional amendment (on the grounds that it interferes with state's rights) he did vote for the Defense of Marriage Act. He voted against a ban on assault weapons and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association. He voted to authorize force in Iraq. On his website the Senator does not offer much in the way of contrition for that vote. He argues that the world is a safer place without Saddam and stresses continuing the search for WMD, suggesting it's possible they were "smuggled out of the country."1 Regarding anti-war candidates like Howard Dean, who is hoping to chair the Democratic National Committee, Reid says, "I'm not sure Howard Dean is the answer to our problems. For right or wrong Howard Dean is recognized as part of the left, the anti-war crowd. I'm not sure we need more acrimony."3
Reid's positions on abortion, guns, and Iraq should make him anathema to many in the progressive community. But on closer inspection the Senator is more liberal than many give him credit for. With so many votes in the Senate turning on minutia, line items, and unwritten agreements, it's often hard to find just where a politician stands. But if one does some research they'll find Harry Reid to be a strong backer of Social Security, providing cover in fights over Republican budget proposals by insisting on inserting language protecting the program. He's also very popular with the unions commandeering a 100% voting record from the AFL-CIO. Though he voted for NAFTA he's voted against similar arrangements with Singapore and Chile and is rated 17% by the Cato institute, indicating a pro-fair trade voting record. Similarly he's rated 88% by the American Public Health Association indicative of a pro-public health record. Despite his socially conservative positions, when taken as a whole, according to On The Issues a non-partisan website documenting Senate voting records, Harry Reid is a left leaning populist.2
The first challenge for the Senator is not letting his constituents know that. Liberal is a bad word in a state where representatives of the Land Management Bureau are greeted at the door with guns and dogs. Nevada is a state that is closer to libertarian than anything else and Reid is going to have to walk that line to avoid Tom Dashle's fate. A sign in front of the Golden Nugget Casino in Searchlight reads: Harry Ried, Independent Like Nevada.
It's possible Harry Reid is the most liberal politician one could hope for to hold statewide office out of Nevada. The urban centers of Reno and Las Vegas are much more conservative then bedrock Democratic cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Because of Southern Nevada's exploding population state politicians have to introduce themselves to hundreds of thousands of new voters every time they run for office, making it nearly impossible for an elected official to build up the kind of political capital necessary to effect serious change. A Nevada politician can never really be certain of the prevailing political winds and often finds him/herself playing catchup, the exact predicament of the Democrats on the national stage.
But it's not at all certain that Harry Ried is the kind of politician who would want to make serious changes anyway. Despite being anti-abortion he's mostly quiet about it. And while supporting a constitutional amendment banning flag burning he doesn't talk much about that issue either. Recently he's hired media consultants to help him with his new image but in conversation he's still thoughtful and soft spoken.
"The big issue of the day is cooperation," Reid says. "The White House is controlled by the Republicans. They control the Senate. They control the House. We're a powerful minority. If they want to get something done they need to work with us. So if the President wants to do something about debt, education, jobs, let him work on it with us."
"I never planned on being the Senate Minority Leader," Reid tells me. "I worked with Senator Dashle for six years as the assistant to the leader so I know the job. The job is something I understand." But doing the job is one thing, carrying the mantle is something else altogether.
The day after the election TalkLeft.com posted a notice supporting Richard Durbin for minority leader. Alternet also posted a plea for Richard Durbin warning that Harry Reid could not be expected to fight pro-life Justices nominated to the Supreme Court under Bush. Alternet also pointed out that Durbin voted against the war in Iraq.
Despite an initial backlash, after Reid secured the post much of the furor died down. Of Harry Reid's selection Nancy Keenan president of NARAL, the primary political arm of the pro-choice movement, had only this to say: "We have worked with Senator Reid on improving women's access to birth control and other health options. He has also shown tremendous leadership blocking extreme judicial nominations. We will continue to work with him on these and other issues on which we find common ground." Susanne Martinez, Vice President for Public Policy at Planned Parenthood had a similar statement: "Senator Reid has done a lot of work to help advance our agenda and we consider him a friend on those issues. We basically look forward to working with him in his new roll." I had to wonder if we were talking about the same person. If the major pro-choice organizations are not willing to fight a pro-life Senator heading the Democratic Party it's hard to see where the opposition will come from.
With major fights coming up over the fate of Social Security and Republican appointed judges, all hovering under the long shadow of the war, progressives have settled into a wait and see attitude with the Senator. It's clear that the leadership has decided to stay focused on the common enemy, proving the old adage that nobody can unite the Democrats like the Republicans. And even Ralph Nader had kind words for the Senator, calling him a "Straight out defender of social security," and saying, "He (Harry Reid) may surprise people in a good way."4
In a recent press release the Senator makes the ambivalent promise to bring Searchlight values to his position; to bring a hard work, common-sense approach for unity and change. It's said that Harry Reid makes his big decisions breathing the dry air walking the quiet empty hills surrounding his hometown. It may be too soon to say what that means for the rest of us.
1. From the Senator's website
3. Mike Zigler, Vegas City Life, January 8th. In conversation with me the Senator denied making those statements against Dean and said he would support whoever the DNC Chair would be. He did admit that Howard Dean wouldn't be his first choice but followed that by saying he didn't know who his first choice would be. In a follow up with Mike Zigler, Mike assured me that he had the entire conversation on tape and that the quote was accurate. Howard Dean refused a request to comment on Harry Reid's selection.
4. Dissident Voice December 2004