United States Senate Minority Leader
Born December 2, 1939, in Searchlight, NV; son of Harry Sr. (a gold miner) and Inez (a laundry worker) Reid; married Landra Gould, 1959; children: Lana, Rory, Leif, Josh, Key. Religion: Mormon. Education: Utah State University, B.A., 1961; George Washington University, J.D., 1964.
Addresses: Office—528 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510. Website—http://www.reid.-senate.gov.
Police officer at U.S. Capitol, c. 1961-63; city attorney, Henderson, NV, 1964-66; Nevada state assemblyman, 1969-1970; Nevada lieutenant governor, 1970-74; ran for U.S. Senate but lost, 1974; chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, 1977-81; attorney in private practice, 1981-83; congressman, 1983-87; U.S. senator, 1987—; Senate Democratic Whip, 1998-2004; Senate Minority Leader, 2005—.
When Harry Reid was elected to lead the U.S. Senate's Democrats in November of 2004, his party was struggling and needed new direction. The Democrats had just lost the presidential race to George W. Bush and seen their former Senate leader lose his re-election campaign. At first glance, Reid might not have seemed like the obvious choice to take over the job. He is blunt, sometimes shy, not a gifted speaker, and more conservative than most Democrats on some social issues. But Reid, a savvy legislator skilled at making deals, quickly showed a willingness to joust with the president on core Democratic issues such as preserving Social Security. Also, Reid comes from Nevada, the sort of moderate-to-conservative swing state where Democrats need to win in order to make a national comeback. Most of all, for a party whose last two presidential candidates were criticized for not relating well to regular people, Reid is a humble leader with a tough, self-made life story.
Reid was born in 1939 in Searchlight, Nevada, a town so small that he had the same teacher for eight grades. His father, Harry Sr., was a gold miner with a limited education; his mother, Inez, did laundry, some of it from Searchlight's bordellos. Reid's home when he was growing up was made out of railroad ties. There was no indoor toilet or running water. In a town where most people had a nickname, sometimes a cruel one, Reid was known as "Pinky" (either for his pinkish skin tone or his reddish hair). There was no high school in Searchlight, so Reid hitchhiked every week to Henderson, 40 miles away, and spent the week with relatives there while he went to high school.
In Henderson, he became friends with Mike O'Callaghan, a high school teacher who taught him how to box and later became a key political ally. He also met his wife, Landra Gould. In 1959, when he was 20 and she was 19, they eloped. (Her parents had disapproved of their relationship because they were Jewish and he was not, but once the young couple called from Las Vegas with the news that they were married, the Goulds supported their daughter's decision.) Reid went to college in Utah, where he also boxed as an amateur middleweight. He and his wife converted to Mormonism while there (he was not raised in a religion), but they also observed Jewish holidays until the deaths of both of her parents.
After graduating from college in 1961, Reid moved to Washington, D.C. to attend George Washington University law school. Money was tight for him and his young family (his oldest son and only daughter were born in 1961 and 1962); he worked six days a week as a police officer at the U.S. Capitol. He returned to Henderson to practice law, and became the city government's attorney.
Reid was elected to the Nevada state assembly in 1968—beginning his term in 1969—where he criticized the telephone company for providing bad service, one of the issues that gave him a reputation as a consumer advocate. Two years later his friend O'Callaghan, who had also become successful in politics, decided to run for governor of Nevada and invited Reid, just 30 years old, to run for lieutenant governor; Reid accepted. O'Callaghan was considered unlikely to win, but he did and so did Reid. Four years later, Reid decided to run for U.S. Senate, but he ran a negative campaign and narrowly lost. "I was young and impulsive and attacked everybody," he told New Yorker writer Elsa Walsh. "Every day, we would get up and find out who we were going to attack that day."
O'Callaghan gave Reid a new, tougher job in 1977: he appointed him to head the Nevada Gaming Commission, which regulates the state's casinos. The commission was fighting to keep organized crime from taking over gambling in the state; Reid banned several mobsters from all of Nevada's casinos and closed some casinos entirely. When a man named Jack Gordon tried to bribe Reid with $12,000 to win approval of his gaming devices, Reid reported him to the FBI, which arranged a sting. They caught Gordon on tape about to hand Reid the money. Reid, furious that Gordon thought him corruptible, tried to choke Gordon until FBI agents stopped him. Two years later, Reid's wife discovered that the family car had been rigged with a bomb that failed to explode. Reid suspected Gordon of having the bomb planted, but no connection was ever proven.
After his term on the commission, Reid spent some more time as a lawyer in private practice, then ran for Congress in 1982. He won, taking office in 1983. He moved up to the Senate four years later. His website touts his work in the Senate on prescription drug costs and health care funding, securing more funds for military bases in Nevada, protecting scenic areas of Nevada such as Lake Tahoe and Red Rock Canyon, and increasing federal funding for education.
Reid became the Senate's Democratic whip, the number-two leader, in 1998 (after winning a third term in the Senate by less than 500 votes). The job of the whip is to gather votes for the party's priorities, and it fit Reid's talents. He "had long been adept at the hand-holding and favor-brokering that lubricate so much Senate business," wrote the Washington Post's Mark Leibovich. "Some senators are known for their constituency work, some for their campaign skills, some for their media savvy." Reid, Leibovich wrote, "is a floor-and-cloakroom guy," meaning someone whose power comes from persuading colleagues behind the scenes.
In 2001, Reid played a major role in convincing James Jeffords, a senator from Vermont, to leave the Republican Party to become an independent, and vote with the Democats, briefly giving the Democrats a majority in the Senate. Reid also gained attention for single-handedly conducting an eight-hour filibuster in 2003—speaking on the Senate floor in order to keep the Senate's Republican majority from scheduling bills and advancing its agenda before its Thanksgiving recess.
Reid's chance to become leader of the Senate Democrats came with the 2004 election, when Sen. Tom Daschle, then minority leader, lost his campaign for re-election (while Reid won another term with 61 percent of the vote). Reid had earned a good reputation as the minority whip, and he had explored running for the top post earlier, when Daschle was considering a run for president. By the morning after the election, Reid had lined up the support he needed.
Senate Democrats chose Reid to lead them even though he has more conservative views than most of them on some social issues: he is against gun control, abortion, and gay marriage. Since Nevada often votes Republican (Bush won it, 50 to 48 percent, in 2004), Reid is said to be sensitive to fellow Democrats from Republican-leaning states when they feel the need to follow to the wishes of their constituents, not the party. That helped make Reid a good choice for minority leader, some observers argued, since some Democratic senators up for reelection in 2006 are also from states that supported Bush, and Democrats need to expand their appeal if they want to win the presidency in 2008.
Reid strikes many observers as an unlikely leader because he is not a gifted public speaker or particularly charismatic. "I know my limitations," he told Walsh of the New Yorker. "I haven't gotten where I am by my good looks, my athletic ability, my great brain, my oratorical skills." Walsh agreed: "He is sixty-five, a trim man with short, graying hair and slightly stooped shoulders, and not someone who appears likely to jump up and down screaming," she wrote. "In public presentations, Reid is sometimes barely audible. In his haste to finish a speech, he sometimes mangles the text, and he is not much liked by television—he suffers from a certain charisma gap."
But, Walsh noted, the fact that Reid does not try hard to impress the media makes his fellow senators trust him more. Reid, she added, has done better than other Senate leaders at keeping his party united (at least in his first several months as leader). "He is in constant contact with colleagues, and even reserves a pocket in his suit for their written requests," Walsh wrote. She also quoted Reid's chief of staff, Susan McCue, as saying that her boss is always watching for someone's vulnerabilities in order to "disarm, to endear, to threaten, but most of all to instill fear."
The Washington Post's Mark Leibovich portrayed Reid as a rough, tough guy who would rather talk about fistfights and boxing matches from his youth than become more polished. Reid has worked with a media consultant, but he dismisses the therapy-like advice of certain consultants (who advise, for instance, that the Democrats need to seem like strong father figures, not weak ones). A session with a speech-making coach who tried to make him more conscious about hand motions and other non-verbal cues did not go well.
"I always would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight," Reid told reporters, as quoted by the Washington Post's Dan Morgan after he was officially elected minority leader in November of 2004. That seemed to summarize Reid's approach to dealing with Republicans: willing to attack them on some issues and compromise with them on others.
In the first few months of his leadership, Reid's blunt attacks on the president gained more attention than any deal-making. He has called President Bush a "loser," and "liar," and "King George." At one weekly news conference in May of 2005, he blamed the president for "a fictitious crisis on Social Security," "deficits that are absolutely unbelievable," "an intractable war in Iraq," "destroying public education," and leaving people "begging for prescription drugs," according to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. "It's either his way or no way," Reid complained about Bush at an appearance at an elementary school in Las Vegas, according to Walsh in the New Yorker.
Some of Reid's problems with Bush involve his decision to support storing nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain, Nevada, a plan Reid opposes. Bush appeared to oppose the plan in 2000, when running for president, but he approved it once he was president. Reid confronted Bush at an Oval Office meeting about the issue in early 2002 (at a time when most Democrats were being careful to support the president because of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks); that was the first time he called Bush a liar. Another dispute came up in April of 2005, when Reid claimed Bush told him he would stay out of a Senate debate over the use of the filibuster. Vice-President Dick Cheney soon declared that, as president of the Senate, he would vote to change the fili-buster rule if a Senate vote on it ended in a tie, infuriating Reid.
In March of 2005, Reid also called Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (whom many Democrats have exempted from partisan criticism) one of Washington's biggest "political hacks," according to Dan Balz of the Washington Post. Reid was angry that Greenspan had supported fellow Republican Bush's privatization plan for Social Security and had not opposed the president's deficit spending.
Republicans fought back. In February of 2005, the Republican National Committee (RNC) attacked the new minority leader as too partisan and brought up a 2003 Los Angeles Times article about how one of Reid's sons and his son-in-law had worked as lobbyists for groups seeking support from Reid. (After the article came out, Reid banned relatives from lobbying him.) Reid denounced the RNC's attack and the president on the Senate floor. But he had already received an invitation to a dinner at the White House that night, and he went anyway. When he arrived, the president assured Reid he had nothing to do with the attack. The material about Reid was later removed from the RNC's website, on orders from Bush strategist Karl Rove.
Sometimes, Reid's bluntness has even upset fellow Democrats. They were upset when he declared on the Senate floor that it would take a miracle for the Democrats to regain a majority in the Senate in 2006, and when he speculated that he could support out-spoken conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia for chief justice. Reid also reportedly had an argument with Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic candidate for president, about how best to oppose Bush in early 2005. But most early reviews of Reid's tenure as the Senate Democrats' leader were positive. Joe Klein of Time, for instance, noted that Reid had successfully opposed Bush's privatization plan for Social Security and convinced moderate Republicans to ally with Democrats to pass a major budget bill with grants for education, Medicaid, and cities.
In August of 2005, Reid was briefly hospitalized in Las Vegas for what was alternately described as a small stroke and a transient ischemic attack, a neurological dysfunction sometimes considered a warning sign for a stroke. It did not slow him down for long. Within a week, he was making a public appearance in North Las Vegas, where, in another reference to his past as a boxer, he joked that he felt ready to go a couple of rounds with the reporters there.
Reid surprised some observers in September of 2005 by announcing that he would vote against John Roberts, whom Bush had nominated to be chief justice of the Supreme Court. Reid said the arguments of civil rights and women's groups had swayed him. Reid declared that he had too many unanswered questions about Roberts (who, like most Supreme Court nominees, had declined to discuss how he would rule on specific issues). He also noted that Roberts had not distanced himself from remarks in his legal writings from when he was a lawyer for the Reagan Administration that some considered insensitive. However, Reid also declared that Democratic senators should vote their consciences, and many of them quickly announced they would support Roberts. Observers speculated that, since Roberts seemed destined to win Senate confirmation, Reid was using his vote to send a signal that Bush should choose a moderate as his second Supreme Court nominee.
By mid-fall of 2005, Reid was facing several tests as a leader, including how he and other Democratic senators would react to Bush's second Supreme Court nomination, how the Democrats would respond to a dip in Bush's popularity due to the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, and how his party would fare in the Senate races of 2006.
Reid still lives in Searchlight, Nevada, which now has two casinos and a population of about 600, up from about 200 when he was born. Reid's official Senate biography cites his ties to Searchlight to suggest that he is grounded in the strong "Nevada values" of "hard work, opportunity, and independence." Reid even wrote a book about his town, which was published in 1998 and titled Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail.
Some Nevadans have questioned Reid's use of his Searchlight tales for political effect. Las Vegas political analyst Jon Ralston told the Washington Post's Leibovich that Reid's "practiced, pale-faced-bumpkin-from-Searchlight act" masked a "ruthless" and "Machiavellian" politician. But most observers acknowledge Reid's tough-upbringing stories are legitimate. Reid's father, who suffered from alcoholism, depression, and several work-related injuries, including silicosis, a lung disease common in miners, committed suicide at the age of 58.
Reid and his wife lived in a double-wide trailer in Searchlight until about 2001, when they had a two-bedroom house built for them on 100 acres. The home is decorated in a Western mining theme, with a gate from an old Searchlight mine hanging on the wall; from the house, the remains of a mine where his father worked are visible.
"I'm the face of the Democratic Party today," he told cable news channel Las Vegas One, as quoted by the Washington Post's Charles Babington. "I'm not too sure that we need a show horse at this stage. I think maybe a workhorse may be what the country needs."
Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail, University of Nevada Press, 1998.
Knight-Ridder News Service, March 3, 2005.
New Yorker, August 8/15, 2005, pp. 42-49.
New York Times, November 14, 2004, p. A26; February 9, 2005, p. A16; August 20, 2005, p. A11; September 21, 2005.
Time, November 22, 2004, p. 60; March 28, 2005, p. 23.
Washington Post, June 7, 2001, p. A3; July 9, 2001, p. A15; March 3, 2002, p. B7; November 16, 2004, p. A3; November 17, 2004, p. A4; March 4, 2005, p. A6; March 6, 2005, p. A5; May 11, 2005, p. A4; July 17, 2005, p. D1; August 25, 2005, p. C3.
"Senator Reid," US Senator Harry Reid for Nevada, http://reid.senate.gov/biography.cfm (August 28, 2005).