Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid Dies at 82

LAS VEGAS (AP) -
Former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid tips his hat during a fundraiser for the Nevada Democratic Party, on Nov. 17, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)

Harry Reid, the former U.S. Senate majority leader and Nevada’s longest-serving member of Congress, has died. He was 82.

“Harry was a devout family man and deeply loyal friend,”  Landra Reid, his wife of 62 years, said. “We greatly appreciate the outpouring of support from so many over these past few years. ”

Harry Mason Reid, a combative former boxer-turned-lawyer, was widely acknowledged as one of toughest dealmakers in Congress, a conservative Democrat in an increasingly polarized chamber who vexed lawmakers of both parties with a brusque manner and this motto: “I would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight.”

Over a 34-year career in Washington, Reid thrived on behind-the-scenes wrangling and kept the Senate controlled by his party through two presidents — Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama — a crippling recession and the Republican takeover of the House after the 2010 elections.

“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.”

Reid retired in 2016 after an accident left him blind in one eye.

Reid was frequently underestimated, most recently in the 2010 elections when 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%, and returned to the pinnacle of his power. For Reid, it was legacy time.

“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 December that year. “But I don’t really care. I feel very comfortable with my place in history.”

Born in Searchlight, Nevada, Reid grew up in a small cabin without indoor plumbing.  He hitchhiked to Basic High School in Henderson, Nevada, 40 miles (64 kilometers) from home, where he met the wife he would marry in 1959, Landra Gould.

The future senator 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, Reid served in Congress longer than anyone else in Nevada history. He narrowly avoided defeat in a 1998 Senate race when he held off Republican John Ensign, then a House member, by 428 votes in a recount that stretched into January.

After his election as Senate majority leader in 2007, he 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 that, 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.

Obama in 2016 lauded Reid for his work in the Senate, declaring, “I could not have accomplished what I accomplished without him being at my side.”

Reid with Ezra Friedlander of the Friedlander Group.

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 almost 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 that make easy political targets, calling Social Security “one of the great government programs in history.”

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. He 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 then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, 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 they used to demonize the California Democrat and cast the legislation as a big-government power grab. Obama signed the measure into law in March 2010. But angered by the recession and inspired by the small-government tea party, voters the next year swept Democrats from the House majority.