Unusual Path to the Senate

Majority Leader Shares His Life Story

Posted May 5, 2008 at 4:46pm

Probably not too many Senators grew up in a shack made of railroad ties in a town where prostitution anchored the local economy. Or received death threats from mobsters. Or owe much of their political career to a high school teacher who became their best friend.


But for Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the above is all part of his path from tiny Searchlight, Nev., to his current post as Senate Majority Leader. Such events — mostly far removed from the legislative wrangling of Washington — are the subject of his new book, “The Good Fight,” which hit stores last week.


The soft-spoken, low-key legislator had an upbringing and early political career that was anything but routine, which might surprise even close followers of the Senate, not to mention his constituents in Nevada.


“I left Searchlight when I was a boy of 13 or 14 years old, and from high school until later in life I wanted to put Searchlight behind me,” Reid said in an interview. “I was embarrassed — we didn’t have hot water, no toilet. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I said, ‘I can’t run from Searchlight. It’s who I am.’ I put my arms around it, and I’ve been with it ever since.”


What Reid for a time wanted to leave behind in Searchlight included a father who drank too much and never finished eighth grade. Reid and his brother once had to beat up their dad to stop him from hitting their mom. (Incidentally, Reid also came to fisticuffs with his future father-in-law, who didn’t approve of Reid dating his daughter.)


Of his upbringing, Reid writes, “I loved my parents,” but “no child should be raised the way I was raised.” His father, a miner, killed himself in 1972.


Reid enjoyed sports growing up and played football and baseball (he went to college at Southern Utah on a football scholarship), but his true love was boxing. Mike O’Callaghan, Reid’s high school teacher and boxing coach, would go on to become Nevada’s governor and help Reid out repeatedly.


When Reid decided to attend law school at George Washington University, O’Callaghan, who at that point was chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party, called the state’s only Congressman and demanded Reid be given a job to help pay his bills. Sure enough, Reid became a Capitol Police officer.


During his law school years, Reid would study and attend classes from 6 a.m. until early afternoon, then work the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at the Capitol.


After graduating, Reid returned to Nevada and began his political career in 1968. He was elected lieutenant governor, with O’Callaghan as governor, in 1970. But it was electoral defeats, in races for the Senate in 1974 and for mayor of Las Vegas in 1976, that led to the most thrilling chapter of Reid’s career.


O’Callaghan was still governor in 1977, and he appointed Reid chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission — a job Reid accepted despite having “no idea whatsoever” what he was getting into.


Within a few months, Reid was offered a bribe by people with business before the commission. While participating in an FBI sting, an enraged Reid began choking the sting’s target and shouting, “You son of a bitch! You tried to bribe me!”


It was a scary business, Reid said, one he often thought of quitting. “But Mike O’Callaghan said if I quit I’d regret it the rest of my life, and he was right,” Reid said.


With each case of Reid taking on organized criminals, death threats began rolling in, and soon Reid’s family was under constant protection. It culminated when some enemies had Reid’s station wagon rigged to detonate its gas tank — a plot that failed.


“I came home that night to a family that had been living in terror for years,” Reid writes, “and it seemed now like it might be a permanent condition.”


Reid’s path to the Senate certainly isn’t that of a Kennedy or a Rockefeller, and going from a shack to the halls of Congress will shape a man’s outlook on the have-nots in society.


Although Reid said he doesn’t accept people using where they started in life as an excuse for failure, he sees government as a helping hand. “The closest thing to religion in my household growing up was [former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt],” Reid said. “FDR said there are three things you rely on –– your family, your God and your government.


“Well, on 9/11 the government did pretty well. With Katrina, it was a failure. I believe that’s what public service is about –– making sure government doesn’t fail.”


And although “The Good Fight” is short on talk of his career in the Senate, Reid said it should prove far more interesting for readers –– including those in Nevada.


“We’ve had 2.5 million people come to Nevada since I grew up there. In between elections, hundreds of thousands move to Nevada, and those people don’t know me,” he said. “This book is a way for them to understand their Senator.”