He was an accomplished amateur boxer who’d rather dance. But Harry Reid was fond of reminding his opponents that he knew how to fight, too.
That skill took him far — from poverty in Searchlight, Nevada, to the pinnacle of the U.S. Senate.
“I don’t have people saying ‘he’s the greatest speaker,’ ‘he’s handsome,’ ‘he’s a man about town,’” Reid told The New York Times in 2010 after a hard-fought reelection victory. “But I don’t really care. I feel very comfortable with my place in history.”
Reid, who died Tuesday at 82 after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, was one of Congress’ most skilled negotiators, thriving on the behind-the-scenes wrangling that frustrated many of his predecessors. As majority leader from 2007 to 2015, he kept the Senate in Democratic hands through a volatile era of polarizing health care and economic policy, recession and war, and with a Republican and then a Democratic president.
“If Harry said he would do something, he did it,” President Joe Biden said in a statement after the death of his longtime Senate colleague. “If he gave you his word, you could bank on it. That’s how he got things done for the good of the country for decades.”
Not a showman, Reid sometimes got 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 hack” and misstated 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 “light-skinned” and having “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
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Reid made an unproven political claim he refused to detract. During the 2012 presidential election he said on the Senate floor that GOP candidate and fellow Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints member Mitt Romney had not paid taxes for a decade. Romney denied that, and fact-checkers at the time found no evidence to support Reid’s claim.
He was frequently underestimated. In his 2010 bid for reelection he looked like the underdog to tea party favorite Sharron Angle. Ambitious Democrats, assuming his defeat, began angling for his leadership post. But Reid defeated Angle, 50% to 45%.
Reid reluctantly retired rather than seek reelection in 2016 after an accident while he was exercising left him blind in one eye. His life after public office included a fellowship at 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 Ohio Republican and former congressional rival remembered Reid on Tuesday as “a fighter until the end.”
Former President Bill Clinton, in a statement, called Reid “a canny and tough negotiator who was never afraid to make an unpopular decision if it meant getting something done that was right for the country.” Obama released a letter he sent recently to Reid telling the ailing Democrat that “I wouldn’t have been president if it hadn’t been for your encouragement and support.”
Reid was born Dec. 2, 1939, the son of an alcoholic hard-rock miner who killed himself at 58 and a mother who served as a laundress in a bordello. He grew up in a small cabin without indoor plumbing and swam with other children at a local brothel.
He hitchhiked to Basic High School in Henderson, 40 miles from his Searchlight home, where he met the woman he would marry, Landra Gould, in 1959; she and their five children survive him. At Utah State University, the couple became members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He put himself through George Washington University law school by working nights as a U.S. Capitol police officer.
At age 28, Reid was elected to the Nevada Assembly and at age 30 became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history as Gov. Mike O’Callaghan’s running mate in 1970. Elected to the U.S. House in 1982 and 1984 and to the U.S. Senate from 1986, Reid served in Congress longer than anyone else in Nevada history. In 1998 he held off Republican Rep. John Ensign by 428 votes after a recount that stretched into January.
After his election as Senate majority leader in 2007, Reid was credited with putting Nevada on the political map by pushing to move the state’s caucuses to February, at the start of presidential nominating season. That forced each national party to pour resources into a state which, while home to the country’s fastest growth over the past two decades, still only had six votes in the Electoral College.
Reid’s extensive network of campaign workers and volunteers twice helped deliver the state for Obama.
The most influential politician in Nevada for more than a decade, Reid steered hundreds of millions of dollars to the state and was credited with single-handedly blocking construction of a nuclear waste storage facility at Yucca Mountain outside Las Vegas.
He often went out of his way to defend social programs, calling Social Security “one of the great government programs in history″ and championing suicide prevention with the story of his own father. He stirred controversy in 2010 when he said in a speech on the floor of the Nevada legislature it was time to end legal prostitution in the state.
Reid’s political moderation meant he was never politically secure in his home state or entirely trusted in the increasingly polarized Senate. Democrats grumbled about his votes for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, for a ban on so-called partial-birth abortion and against resolutions endorsing Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
He also voted against most gun-control bills and in 2013, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, dropped a proposed ban on assault weapons from the Democrats’ gun control legislation. The package, he said, would not pass with the ban attached.
Reid’s Senate particularly chafed members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats. When Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi muscled Obama’s health care overhaul through the House in 2009, a different version passed the Senate and the reconciliation process floundered long enough for Republicans to turn it into an election-year weapon to demonize Pelosi and cast the legislation as a big-government power grab.
Obama signed the measure into law in March 2010. But angered by the Great Recession and inspired by the small-government tea party, voters swept Democrats from the House majority.
Reid hand-picked a Democratic candidate, former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, who won the election to replace him in 2016. He built a political machine in the state that helped Democrats win a series of key elections in 2016 and 2018.
On his way out of office, he repeatedly lambasted President Donald Trump, calling him at one point “a sociopath” and “a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate.”
Reid brushed off verbal tussles with the seen-it-all calm of a political veteran. After all, he had faced one of those before he ever got to Washington. As head of the Nevada Gaming Commission investigating organized crime, Reid became the target of a car bomb in 1980. Police called it an attempted homicide. Reid blamed Jack Gordon, who went to prison for trying to bribe him in a sting operation over illegal efforts to bring new games to casinos in 1978.
An accomplished amateur boxer in his teens, Reid often was seen ringside at title fights in Las Vegas. He said meeting Muhammad Ali was one of his greatest thrills. He also was a big baseball fan and could recite details about the careers of individual players.
His Mormon faith meant Reid sometimes sided with Nevada’s social conservatives. Besides defending gun rights and opposing abortion, he said he believed marriage should be between a man and a woman but that states should decide whether it’s legal for same-sex couples to marry.
On the other hand, Reid enjoyed strong support from environmentalists on most issues, earning praise for turning Nevada from one of the states with the least federally protected wilderness to one of the most during his tenure in the Senate.
Legislation he authored in 1986 established Nevada’s first and only national park, Great Basin National Park on the Utah line. Reid also pushed Obama to create Basin and Range and Gold Butte national monuments in 2015 and 2016, protecting about 1 million acres of rugged desert, mountains and valleys.
In 1997, he persuaded Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to host an environmental summit at Lake Tahoe. Two decades later, he persuaded Obama to make a similar visit. Obama praised Reid’s environmental efforts at the time and declared, “I could not have accomplished what I accomplished without him being at my side.”
Reid waged 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 lengthy farewell address on the Senate floor in 2016, his Nevada colleague Republican Dean Heller declared: “It’s been said that it’s better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both. And as me and my colleagues here today and those in the gallery probably agree with me, no individual in American politics embodies that sentiment today more than my colleague from Nevada, Harry Mason Reid.”