Searching for Harry Reid
March 2005 Issue
An hour down the interstate, fifty-four miles southeast of Las Vegas on a new four-lane highway, sits the old mining town of Searchlight. It’s much in the news these days as the birthplace and home of the new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
In this sparse and rugged spot, with a population hovering around 800, the houses are modest, many of them trailer homes. It’s a place not unlike the America that elected George Bush. Rural and spacious. A place 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 months 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 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 are pictures of the house the Senator was born in. A wooden shack with a stovepipe chimney, surrounded by empty desert, two phone poles 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 his 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. Harry Reid’s father would commit suicide just as his son, the politician, was in the early days of his career.
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 from George Washington University and served as the city attorney. In 1968, he was elected to the 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, a board notoriously dominated by the mob. Reid was unfazed, calling mob representative Joe Agosto a hoodlum. Toward the end of his tenure, Reid narrowly escaped a hit after a bomb was found plugged into the engine of his family car. After that, Harry Reid took to starting 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 walk around acting important,” she tells me. “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.” Overy, 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 that possibly explains 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. He 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,” he says. “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,” he adds.
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’s endless sprawl. The mining town, like the Democratic Party, is going to have to change.
In Vegas near the garish Hard Rock Hotel and Casino I meet with Jon Ralston, the political correspondent for the Las Vegas Sun. “He is a scary guy,” Ralston 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, a Nevada political historian, agrees. He tells an old local joke that goes like this: 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 who know him share the same opinion, and even his detractors defend him as an honest broker.
An adviser from Reid’s first Senate campaign in 1986, Joseph McCullough, an English professor at UNLV, remembers him as a man who sought counsel before making decisions. “He had a good team and he was genuinely interested in everyone’s opinions,” McCullough says. “He wanted honest opinions on all the issues.”
But 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 that gave 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 be useful in keeping the caucus in line and putting across a united front. But while there’s a lot of agreement as to who 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 banning gay marriage (on the grounds that it interferes with states’ 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.” Regarding the likely new head of the Democratic National Commitee, Howard Dean, 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.”
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. He’s 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 percent voting record from the AFL-CIO. Though he voted for NAFTA, he’s voted against similar arrangements with Singapore and Chile. He earns 88 percent approval from the American Public Health Association. Despite his socially conservative positions, when taken as a whole, according to On the Issues, a nonpartisan website documenting Senate voting records, Harry Reid is a left-leaning populist.
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 Bureau of Land Management 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 Daschle’s fate. A sign in front of the Golden Nugget Casino in Searchlight reads: Harry Reid, 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 than 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 plays catchup, the exact predicament of the Democrats on the national stage.
But it’s not at all certain that Harry Reid 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.
“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.”
The day after Bush’s election, TalkLeft.com posted a notice supporting Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois for minority leader. Alternet also posted a plea for Richard Durbin, warning that Harry Reid could not be expected to fight anti-abortion Justices nominated to the Supreme Court under Bush. Alternet also pointed out that Durbin voted against the war in Iraq.
“I never planned on being the Senate Minority Leader,” Reid tells me. “I worked with Senator Daschle 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, wearing the mantle is something else altogether.
Despite an initial backlash, after Reid secured the post much of the furor died down. 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 role.”
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, progressives have settled into a wait-and-see attitude with the Senator. Even Ralph Nader had kind words for Reid, calling him a “straight-out defender of Social Security,” and saying, “he may surprise people in a good way.”
In a recent press release, the Senator makes the ambiguous promise to bring Searchlight values to his position: a hard-work, commonsense 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. In the new session, with the midterm elections already present in the near distance, those decisions will affect the nation in a way the founders of camp Searchlight could scarcely have imagined.
Stephen Elliott is the author of the novel “Happy Baby” and the political memoir “Looking Forward to It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process.”