Harry Reid died just days before the end of 2021 and just days after the airport in Las Vegas, McCarran International, become Harry Reid International in his honor. Harry was unwell and isolating, so he could not be there, but he said it was the greatest honor of his life.
Reid was a veteran of 50 years of Nevada politics. He served in the state senate, as lieutenant governor, chairman of the Gaming Commission, and as a U.S. representative and senator in Washington, D.C. He ended his career as the majority leader of the United States Senate. It was the highest position any Nevadan ever held. Paul Laxalt may have been close as best friend of President Ronald Reagan, but even if Harry could not beat Paul at the ballot box, he beat him in the Senate.
Harry Reid was a native Nevadan. He was born in Searchlight in 1939. The obituaries, and there are hundreds, describe the abject, Dickensian poverty of his youth. As the story goes, Reid was raised in a two-room shack without indoor plumbing. By modern standards, it was primitive and impoverished, but by the standards of the day, it was not so unusual.
My family comes from Dayton, Nevada. Like Searchlight, in 1939 there were only a couple of hundred citizens. Our house, like most of the houses in town, did not have running water. The walls were thin, only a layer of newspaper between the inner and outer walls to keep out the cold. Electricity had only come to town a few of years before. My mother, like her mother and grandmother, went to one-room schools. Also, like Harry’s family, few ever went to the doctor. Not only was the nearest doctor miles away, but they could not afford it.
In 1939, Nevada was mostly a rural state. Its population, the smallest in the nation, was spread over a large territory, the fifth largest state in the country. After the Second World War, Nevada started to change. As Las Vegas, Reno, and the gaming industry grew, the state become much more urban. Towns like Searchlight and Dayton were marginalized, but their legacy remained in the person of Harry Reid and others.
Harry said he was embarrassed by his upbringing for most of his life and he may have been, but he honored it in everything he did. That was Harry’s real value for Nevada: He was one of us. He was forged in the time before the Las Vegas Strip became famous. Reid’s Nevada was the Nevada of Searchlight, Elko, Dayton, Hawthorne, Yerington, Winnemucca, Beatty, Tonopah, Pioche, and Eureka. His constituents worked on cattle ranches and in mines, drove trucks and operated Chinese restaurants in small towns nuzzled up against a highway.
It goes without saying that Harry Reid also represented the big casino companies and the casino workers. He represented Nevadans in whatever form they came and he was responsive to them, to us. When we called, Harry answered the phone; he listened to our concerns and did what he could to help us. We called on him when we were threatened with a Yucca Mountain waste dump and no one seemed to care what Nevadans thought about hosting dangerous nuclear waste. But with Harry’s help, we dodged that bullet. In Reno, we called Harry when the Port of Oakland expanded, generating hundreds more outgoing trains. On their way east, those trains would have divided Reno in half, virtually stopping north-south communication. Reno needed the tracks to be lowered below ground and with Harry’s help they were. Las Vegas called Reid when it needed help finishing the expansion of its airport; Jim Murren and MGM called him during the Great Recession when MGM was sinking under the weight of CityCenter’s debt.
Many other Nevadans called him during his 50 years of public service, and he took their calls. With his power in Washington, Harry was able to help. During his last campaign in Nevada, Harry Reid was opposed by Sharron Angle, a Tea Party Republican. Angle was a serious enough threat for leading Republicans to form a “Republicans for Reid” campaign. Those Republicans did not want to lose Harry’s power. I had a falling out with one of my relatives who supported Angle over that election. He called Reid “Dirty Harry,” a name given him by Rush Limbaugh. Reid was not loved by everyone; in fact, he was a very polarizing figure wielding his power to further the Democrats’ agenda. I had two arguments: 1) Why would you trade the most powerful position in the Senate for a freshman would have no power and promised to vote no on everything; and 2) Harry always takes the call. It was after the battle over lowering the tracks in Reno, and I knew personally that without Reid, Southern Pacific Railroad would have crammed its agenda down Reno’s throat.
Harry Reid is given credit for being the most powerful and influential politician ever to come from the Silver State. But his accomplishments go far beyond what he did for Nevada. He was a national political and deal maker. Even Mitch McConnell paid homage to his importance while acknowledging their differences.
For me, the most important thing Harry did was give voice to my family. He came from the same place, and although he fought his way into the Senate and leadership of his party, Harry Reid always remained Harry Reid from Searchlight. He did not forget a world of two-room shacks without plumbing. He was one of us.