Harry Reid, Nevada’s five-term senator and former Senate majority leader, died on Tuesday. He was 82 years old at the time.
Landra Reid, his wife, said he died surrounded by family after four years of pancreatic cancer treatment. Reid had pancreatic cancer surgery in May 2018 and announced in 2020 that he was in “complete remission” following experimental treatments.
“We are so proud of the legacy he leaves behind both on the national stage and his beloved Nevada,” she said in a statement.
His death was greeted with joy by his long-serving Senate colleagues.
“He’s gone but will walk by the sides of many of us in the Senate every day,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted.
Reid rose from poverty in the small mining town of Searchlight, Nevada, to become the Senate’s top Democrat. Reid, a chess master of Senate procedure and Nevada’s political kingmaker, left Congress in January 2017 but remained active in politics. Reid hand-picked Democratic Senate and governor candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, including now-Senator Jacky Rosen and current Governor Steve Sisolak.
Reid has been associated with Nevada politics for decades, having served in Congress for more than 30 years. This month, the international airport in Las Vegas was officially renamed after him.
Reid was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1983, where he served two terms before running for Senate in 1986. He rose through the ranks of Democratic leadership over the next three decades, eventually becoming the party’s top leader in the chamber in 2005.
As their parties took control of the Senate, he and Mitch McConnell traded the titles of majority and minority leader for just over a decade. The two men had a tumultuous relationship that was based on a grudging respect as well as antagonism. Despite years of bitter legislative battles, they considered each other friends.
Despite their strong political differences, the two senators had a lot in common, including having similar ambitions as children, as McConnell noted when Reid retired. “I wanted to pitch for the Dodgers and throw fastballs.” At Fenway Park, Harry aspired to play center field. Instead, we ended up as managers of two rowdy franchises,” he joked.
Mitch McConnell’s tribute to Harry Reid upon the latter’s retirement.
Reid compared their relationship to two lawyers — which both were prior to entering Congress — arguing opposite sides of a case. “I want everyone here to know that Mitch McConnell is my friend. … So everybody go ahead and make up all the stories you want about how we hate each other. Go ahead. But we don’t,” he said.
Reid was the Democratic Party’s leader for 12 years, making him one of the longest-serving party leaders in history. Reid oversaw many deals and failures during that time. He cited his work on suicide prevention, which was inspired by his father’s suicide; his push to pass the Congressional Review Act, which allows Congress to overturn recent executive branch regulations (McConnell later used this to rescind several late–Obama administration actions); and his fight against female genital mutilation (though he noted, “There’s a lot more that needs to be done. “Nearly nothing has been done by our government.”).
Reid’s most significant legislative achievement, however, was the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. Not only was the law the most significant overhaul of the US healthcare system since Medicare and Medicaid, but it also required a great deal of legislative maneuvering, much of it led by Reid and his House counterpart, Nancy Pelosi — particularly after Sen. Ted Kennedy died and was replaced by Republican Sen. Scott Brown in the middle of the process, effectively ending Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority.
Obamacare was a major legislative accomplishment for Reid, but it was also a personal one. As he retired in 2017, he said, “It would have been wonderful if we had something like that around to help my family when we were growing up.” He also mentioned that his father’s depression influenced his push for better healthcare.
Reid was also close to Obama, and in a CNN interview, he claimed credit for being the first to suggest to the then-Illinois senator that he run for president. “I summoned him to my office and told him he needed to look into it.” Reid told the network, “He was stunned because I was the first to suggest it to him.” “I got a call after he was re-elected saying, ‘As soon as he gets off the stand, he wants to talk to you.’ ‘You’re the reason I’m here,’ he said in one of the most moving phone calls he’d ever received.’
“I care about Obama. He changed the world,” he added.
In his farewell address, Reid said that working with the Obama administration as majority leader was a “dream job.”
On Tuesday, the former president shared a letter he had written Reid before his death.
“You were a great leader in the Senate, and early on you were more generous to me than I had any right to expect,” Obama wrote. “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.”
Reid’s decision to invoke the “nuclear option” in November 2013, allowing the Senate to move administration officials and judges forward with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes required for cloture at the time, may have had the most lasting impact on the Senate. Reid argued at the time that lowering the number of votes required to confirm federal judges and executive nominees was necessary to end Republican filibusters. (However, he later told CNN that he was inspired in part by New York Senator Chuck Schumer telling him that Republicans mocked him and said he’d never do it.) In some ways, the gamble paid off: after dropping the bomb in the Senate, Reid pushed Obama’s nominees for lifetime judgeships through, leaving Obama with 334 confirmed nominations, roughly the same number as former President George W. Bush had during his presidency.
The nuclear option, on the other hand, had its drawbacks, and there were critics of Reid’s decision from both parties at the time. That rule change was used by McConnell to confirm even the most controversial members of former President Donald Trump’s cabinet, as well as lower court judges. And, as many predicted, McConnell went nuclear in 2017, lowering the number of votes needed to confirm Supreme Court nominees, allowing Republicans to confirm Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett.
While Reid’s decision to go nuclear laid the groundwork for McConnell’s expansion, some liberals argued that Reid erred by not extending the rule change to the Supreme Court when Republicans refused to confirm Merrick Garland, whom Obama had nominated in 2016. Democrats like Schumer, who opposed going nuclear for executive branch nominees, came to regret the rule change after it was applied to Trump’s cabinet, were on the other side of the debate.
Even after Trump was elected, Reid defended the decision, writing in a December 2016 op-ed in the New York Times that “the rule change has been a victory for those who want to see a functioning, open, and transparent Senate.”
“I doubt any of us envisioned Donald J. Trump’s becoming the first president to take office under the new rules. But what was fair for President Obama is fair for President Trump,” he wrote.
Reid announced his retirement in 2016, handing over the reins to his longtime mentee, Schumer. “I want to be able to go out at the top of my game,” Reid told the New York Times at the time. I don’t want to be a 42-year-old trying to break into the major leagues as a designated hitter.”
Controversy and Fighting With Republicans
Reid could be brash and tough, displaying flashes of what drove him as an amateur boxer in his youth during political bouts, despite his soft-spoken demeanor. He was a constant Republican foe, often skirting the truth in order to attack the right. Reid famously claimed in a speech on the Senate floor during the 2012 presidential campaign that Mitt Romney, who had only released two years of tax returns, hadn’t paid any taxes in a decade.
That was a fabrication. Reid was unapologetic about it even years later. “Well, Romney didn’t win, did he?” Reid told CNN in 2016, when asked if he regretted making the accusation.
The Koch brothers, Republican megadonors, were one of Reid’s favorite targets and most despised foes. He gave long speeches to the Koch brothers, criticizing their dark money investments in politics as bad for the country and relishing the phrase “Republicans are addicted to Koch.” Friends said his obsession with the Kochs was both political and personal; he felt strongly that the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision loosening restrictions on money in politics was harming the country, and the Kochs were the most visible symbols of that harm.
But Reid wasn’t as harsh toward Sheldon Adelson, another Republican megadonor who just happened to hail from Nevada. Reid once argued to MSNBC that Adelson, unlike the Kochs, wasn’t “in this for money.” “He’s in it because he has certain ideological views,” he added. “His social views are in keeping with the Democrats on choice, on all kinds of things. So, Sheldon Adelson, don’t pick on him — he’s not in it to make money.”
Harry Reid Early Life
Reid’s life had been straight out of a movie script before he became a member of Congress. (He even inspired a scene in the film Casino, in which some of Reid’s own lines are used.) He was born in Searchlight, a small desert town, and grew up in a house without running water. He often recalled his father working as a miner and his mother as a washer for the local casinos and the 13 brothels that operated in the town of 250 people at the time.
Reid became an amateur boxer as he grew older, and he admitted later in life that he got into a lot of fights outside of the ring as well. He was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in 2018 for both his fighting career and his support of the sport while in the Senate.
He went to Utah State University for college and then George Washington University for law school. Reid supplemented his income while in law school by working as a Capitol police officer, guarding the building that he would later preside over.
Reid’s father committed suicide in 1972, a death that influenced much of his subsequent policymaking. He used his father’s suicide as justification for increased funding for research into depression and suicide prevention efforts, as well as for increased background checks for gun sales and the Affordable Care Act.
Reid was appointed chair of the Nevada Gaming Commission in the late 1970s, a powerful position that allowed him to oversee the state’s casinos, which at the time were heavily influenced by the mob. In 1978, a Las Vegas businessman named Jack Gordon attempted to bribe Reid into approving new gaming machines, which resulted in one of Reid’s most famous pre-political confrontations. Reid informed the FBI about the bribe and collaborated with them on a sting operation to catch Gordon. When Reid met with Gordon, much to the surprise of FBI agents, he became increasingly enraged and jumped across a table to choke him, screaming, “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” before agents dragged him away and arrested Gordon.
Landra, Reid’s wife, discovered a car bomb attached to the family’s station wagon’s gas tank three years later. Reid believed Gordon was to blame for the incident, which he detailed in his autobiography The Good Fight. Gordon was imprisoned for six months after the FBI sting Reid orchestrated, but he was never officially linked to the car bomb. It is still unknown who was to blame.
Reid’s colorful past came back to haunt him in 2015 in the form of a bizarre conspiracy theory. After an exercise band snapped and threw him backward, the Senate Majority Leader fell, breaking several ribs and injuring his face. He nearly lost sight in his right eye and returned to Capitol Hill wearing a large bandage that he later replaced with dark sunglasses as he recovered. (Reid and his wife later sued the exercise band’s manufacturer.)
Some conservative blogs and right-wing pundits, on the other hand, were skeptical of the exercise band story and offered an alternative based on speculation rather than evidence. According to one conservative blogger, Reid was beaten up by the mob for not following through on a promise, citing a friend who had visited Las Vegas and asked around. Rush Limbaugh also said Reid appeared to have been beaten up and that the exercise band story was false. In an attempt to disprove Reid’s story, Breitbart went so far as to reconstruct Reid’s bathroom in detail from sales photos of the property.
In a CNBC interview, Reid responded to the conspiracy theories, calling them ridiculous and blaming them primarily on Limbaugh. “Why would I make up a story about getting hurt in my own bathroom with my wife standing there?” he wondered.
Harry Reid’s Family
Landra, Reid’s wife, whom he met in high school and married at the age of 19, survives him. He has referred to her as his first love and the love of his life on numerous occasions. There are five children and 19 grandchildren between the two of them.
McConnell spoke extensively about Reid’s relationship with his wife during his Senate floor tribute to him in honor of his retirement. “His ideal night out remains a quiet night in with her,” McConnell explained. “Landra is his best friend, confidante, and high school sweetheart. She is his entire world. And that’s something for a kid who grew up with nothing.”
Landra’s father was against her marriage because she grew up Jewish (though she and Reid later converted to Mormonism). Reid punched his future father-in-law in the face at one point, and Landra and Reid ended up eloping, though Reid claims her family eventually accepted them.
Reid paid tribute to his wife in his own farewell speech on the Senate floor, saying, “She has been the being of my existence, in my personal life and my public life.” ‘The magic of first love is that it never ends,’ said [Benjamin] Disraeli, the great prime minister, in 1837. That is what I believe. My first love is her. It will never come to an end.”
Reid also shared advice he had given to young people who wanted to emulate his success in his speech. “My athletic prowess didn’t help me succeed in life.” Because of my good looks, I didn’t make it. It wasn’t because I’m a genius that I did it. I made it because I worked hard, and I always tell people that whatever they want to try to do, they should make sure they try as hard as they can. And I believe that is a lesson that everyone should learn,” he said.
“The little boy from Searchlight has had the opportunity to be a part of Nevada’s changing landscape. I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”