Harry Reid, the former Nevada senator who rose from a house built out of old railroad ties to become one of the most powerful figures in Democratic Party politics, died on Tuesday evening. He was 82.
The politician’s death was first reported by The Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston.
Reid died peacefully after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, his wife of 62 years, Landra Reid, said in a statement.
“We are so proud of the legacy he leaves behind both on the national stage and his beloved Nevada. Harry was deeply touched to see his decades of service to Nevada honored in recent weeks with the re-naming of Las Vegas’ airport in his honor,” she said.
“Harry was a devout family man and deeply loyal friend,” she added. “We greatly appreciate the outpouring of support from so many over these past few years. We are especially grateful for the doctors and nurses that cared for him. Please know that meant the world to him.”
Harry Reid served as Nevada’s senator from 1987 to 2017, leading the Democratic caucus from 2005 until his retirement. He was the Senate majority leader from 2007 to 2015 and then became minority leader when Republicans regained control of the chamber.
“Harry Reid was one of the most amazing individuals I have ever met,” said current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “He was tough-as-nails strong, but caring and compassionate, and always went out of his way to quietly help people who needed help.
“He was a boxer who came from humble origins, but he never forgot where he came from and used those boxing instincts to fearlessly fight those who were hurting the poor and the middle class,” Schumer added. “He was my leader, my mentor, one of my dearest friends. He’s gone, but he will walk by the sides of many of us in the Senate every single day.”
Despite formally retiring in 2017 and undergoing cancer treatment, Reid had remained active in politics, and the political machine he built in Nevada continues to be a significant influence in U.S. elections.
From A Small Town In Nevada
Reid was born in Searchlight, Nevada, a mining town about 60 miles south of Las Vegas. It had gone through a boom-and-bust cycle following the 19th century gold rush, and it was hit hard during the Great Depression, with only a brief reprieve during the construction of Hoover Dam in the 1930s.
Most of the jobs had gone and the mines were stripped of whatever gold they had by the time Reid was born in 1939.
He grew up in a house with no power or running water. His mother did laundry for nearby businesses, including casinos and brothels. His father, a miner, was abusive and suffered from mental health problems, and he eventually died by suicide.
As a teenager, Reid channeled his own anger into boxing. “The black eyes and soreness to me were badges of honor to wear the next day,” Reid wrote in his memoir, “and I’d fight every chance I got.”
But Reid also made it his mission to get educated, hitching rides to school in a town 40 miles away, where he would stay with relatives, because Searchlight had no school of its own.
Reid, who became class president, went on to attend college and earned a degree in politics and economics from Utah State University. But he would always say the most important thing that happened to him in school was meeting Landra, with whom he eloped in college.
From Washington To Nevada And Back Again
Reid studied law at George Washington University while working as an officer in the U.S. Capitol Police to help pay his bills.
With his law degree in hand, Reid returned to Nevada and served as city attorney in Henderson, then he ran for and won a seat in the Nevada state Assembly. Two years later, Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, a former high school teacher who had been Reid’s mentor and boxing coach, tapped him to serve as lieutenant governor.
Reid’s political career included highs and lows, and there were challenges that sometimes became personal. When he was serving as Nevada’s gaming commissioner, his efforts to help the FBI fight organized crime brought death threats. His wife once discovered an unexploded bomb in the family car.
Reid’s political career included some setbacks and election losses, but the boxer kept punching back ― and winning new seats, including one in the U.S. House and then, in 1986, the Senate.
Some 20 years later, he became leader of the Democratic Senate caucus, which meant he was serving as majority leader briefly during the Obama administration ― a period that brought passage of major legislation including the Affordable Care Act, which he later told one interviewer he considered his proudest legislative accomplishment.
A Skilled Negotiator And Unabashed Deal-Maker
Reid’s ability to get all 60 members of the Democratic caucus to vote yes on the ACA bill, despite their many political differences, was testimony to his skill as a negotiator as well as his firm belief that compromise for the sake of making progress was not merely acceptable ― it was admirable.
“God broke the mold after he made Senator Reid,” Jim Manley, who was a senior Reid aide from 2004 to 2010, told HuffPost. “He was one of kind. A very quiet, soft-spoken guy who was not afraid to mix things up, verbally or otherwise. He knew how to count votes ― which is why he got Obamacare done in the end.”
Although the health care bill may be Reid’s most indelible legislative legacy, his passions ran to many other issues. They included local and state causes, like blocking the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, as well as some of national concern ― especially when it came to the environment.
“[T]he No. 1 priority is climate change,” Reid told journalist Sam Stein in 2019. “There’s nothing that affects my children, grandchildren, and their children, right now, more than climate.”
Reid said addressing climate change was so important that it was worth changing Senate procedure in order to get rid of the filibuster, the legislative tool that allows just 40 of the chamber’s 100 members to block action.
And that wasn’t an entirely new position for Reid. Near the end of his term, while Barack Obama was president and Senate Republicans were using the filibuster to block the president’s nominees for agencies and the courts, Reid presided over a change of rules ― invoking a so-called “nuclear option” ― that eliminated filibusters for all but Supreme Court nominations.
Reid earlier in his career was known for more conservative positions, including opposition to abortion rights. But as Democratic Party leader, Reid fully supported Democratic positions on reproductive rights ― by, for example, fighting for Democratic nominees on the bench and insisting Republicans remove anti-abortion provisions from legislation.
A Political Career That Outlasted His Senate Term
Reid remained active in national politics even after leaving the Senate.
Ahead of the 2020 primary elections, Reid called on his home state to switch from the complicated caucus system to a presidential primary and advocated for the Western state to become the first in the country to vote.
Despite the fact that he came into politics as a centrist, he mentored aides who went on to become some of the most influential players in progressive politics, including top aides to Sen. Bernie Sanders (Faiz Shakir, Ari Rabin-Havt, Josh Orton) and Elizabeth Warren (Kristen Orthman), as well as Adam Jentlesen, a progressive writer who has pushed for abolishing the filibuster.
In 2002, Reid was one of several high-profile Senate leaders who voted to invade Iraq. He later became an outspoken critic of the war. In 2007, as majority leader, Reid held a rare all-night debate on Iraq — with cots near the Senate chamber — calling out Republicans who were opposed to a timetable for withdrawal.
“I should never have voted for that,” Reid told HuffPost in 2014. “But I accepted what [former Secretary of State] Colin Powell and the others said. But it took me just a matter of a few months to realize it was a bad mistake, and my record speaks for itself. I’ve spoken out against what was going on, not once, not twice, but lots of times. And I’m sorry that I was misled, but I was, and it was a mistake for me to vote for that war.”
Obama said that in lieu of a statement, he would release a letter he wrote for Landra Reid to read to her husband in his last days.
“I got the news that the health situation has taken a rough turn, and that it’s hard to talk on the phone. Which, let’s face it, is not that big of a change cause you never liked to talk on the phone anyway!” Obama wrote.
“Here’s what I want you to know. You were a great leader in the Senate, and early on you were more generous to me than I had any right to expect. I wouldn’t have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn’t have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination.
“Most of all, you’ve been a good friend. As different as we are, I think we both saw something of ourselves in each other ― a couple of outsiders who had defied the odds and knew how to take a punch and cared about the little guy. And you know what, we made for a pretty good team. Enjoy your family, and know you are loved by a lot of people, including me.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated the year the Senate voted to authorize the Iraq War.