Harry Reid had a long, hard fight to get to the top of Nevada politics, and he's had to struggle just as hard to stay there. Born December 2, 1939, in Searchlight, Nevada, Reid attended high school in Henderson, where one of his teachers was future Nevada governor Mike O'Callaghan. Reid was elected student body president and graduated with a college scholarship. At Utah State University, he was active in campus politics, serving as freshman class president and organizing the campus's first Young Democrats chapter.
After his move to Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s, Reid supported his wife and daughter by working full-time as a U.S. Capitol policeman while attending law school at George Washington University. It was a grueling existence. When a law school dean advised Reid to drop out, he stayed, and received permission from a Nevada court to take the bar exam early. He was admitted to practice before graduating.
Reid returned to Nevada and began a very fast rise in state politics, winning election to the Nevada State Assembly in 1968. In the assembly, he worked closely with fellow freshman Democrat Richard Bryan, where they introduced a flurry of consumer protection, anti-crime, and environmental protection measures.
By 1970, Reid was looking higher again. After conferring with O'Callaghan, now a former federal official planning a run for governor, Reid set his sights on the lieutenant governorship. O'Callaghan was successful in his bid for Nevada's highest office, and Reid won easily against a highly respected southern Nevadan, Robert Broadbent. During his years as lieutenant governor, Reid enjoyed a close working relationship with his former teacher. He completed numerous assignments for O'Callaghan in and out of the state, and widened his experience.
Reid entered the national political arena in 1974 with a run for the U.S. Senate. Events that year seemed to conspire against him. In the Democratic primary, he faced a surprisingly vigorous challenge from social activist Maya Miller. Popular former Republican Governor Paul Laxalt opposed him in the general election. Reid was battered by hostile news coverage in northern Nevada and his own Democratic Party was divided while the GOP united behind its candidate. In that Watergate year of Democratic success, Reid was the only Democrat to lose a previously Democratic senate seat (albeit by a slim 611 vote margin after a recount). It was his first defeat.
Reid quickly plunged into a race for mayor of Las Vegas. A win would revive his political fortunes, but it was felt that a loss would be catastrophic for his once bright career, and he lost. After one of the most impressive rises and fastest falls in state political history, Reid was out of office and saddled with $30,000 in senate campaign debts. Just as he was consigned to oblivion by nearly every Nevada political observer, Mike O'Callaghan came to his rescue, appointing Reid to chair the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1977. The post—Nevada's leading gambling regulator—was one of the state government's highest profiles and most sensitive positions.
For four years, Reid dealt with casino problems, including organized crime. Hoods threatened him and tried to bribe him. A bomb was planted in his car. The experience rebuilt his reputation while giving him entrée to casino support missing from his earlier political career. When he retired from the post, he was an easy winner of a new U.S. House seat, a job he had rejected in 1972.
In the House, party leaders took an interest in Reid, assigning him to the International Affairs Committee and promoting him in other ways. Reid joined the California caucus to gain contacts and he built a good record of accomplishment, notably the creation of Great Basin National Park, a goal that had eluded various Nevada leaders for most of the twentieth century.
In 1986 Reid tried again for the Senate, winning easily. In his campaign, he attacked the mining industry and ran as an environmentalist, both of which seemed insane to political veterans, but they paid off for him. As a senator, he successfully negotiated a settlement of the decades-old water wars on the Truckee River, a project that other politicians had tried and failed to accomplish. Reid sponsored talks among some of the parties and then pushed the agreements through Congress. Some observers regard it as his greatest achievement. Just as he went after the sacred cow of the mining industry in Nevada, he surprised people at the national level by harshly criticizing hallowed national figures like Ross Perot and Alan Greenspan.
Reid had a relatively easy 1992 reelection, but he was less fortunate in 1998. Facing an aggressive challenge from Representative John Ensign, his margin of victory was extremely narrow—401 votes out of 416,000 cast. A recount widened Reid's margin to 428 votes.
After going to Congress, Reid became a skilled legislative tactician and strategist, which, following his 1998 reelection, brought him into the leadership as assistant Democratic floor leader. The post required hard work and won him friends on both sides of the partisan aisle. Reid retained that kind of goodwill even after he lured Senator James Jeffords into dropping his Republican registration and voting with the Democratic caucus, briefly throwing the Senate majority to the Democrats.
In 2004, Democratic floor leader Tom Daschle was defeated for reelection and Reid moved up into that post. The bipartisan goodwill he had created as Daschle's assistant suddenly vanished. Reid became a lightening rod for the Republican Party while liberal Democrats criticized him for being too conservative.
Suddenly demonized by Republicans and lionized by Democrats, both of them overstating their cases, Reid frequently became the target of harsh criticism, a reflection of the current tone of politics, much of it fueled by the internet. He also found his own words scrutinized with an intensity he had previously not experienced. In July 2005, Reid said, "One of the things that's been interesting for me ... is that even when I was assistant leader, nobody really cared what I said. And certainly when I was just a senator, it was rare that anybody even wrote what I said. Now, people are even wondering what I'm thinking about. And so it's a lot different than it was before. I mean, who would think that somebody would cover a high school class I was talking to?"
In the 2006 election, the Democrats won the majority in the Senate, and Reid became majority leader. What, if anything, this national prominence will mean for Nevada or his legislative legacy is a story yet to be written.