Harry Reid's Long, Steady Accretion of Power & Wealth
By Adam O'Neal - April 24, 2014
The first of two parts
Last month, as the Senate was busy negotiating the final details of its Ukraine aid package, Majority Leader Harry Reid became temporarily distracted with a campaign finance issue. Since winning re-election in 2010, Reid’s campaign had purchased gifts for supporters and donors from vendors like Bed Bath & Beyond, Amazon, Nordstrom, and the Senate gift shop, among others. But one round of spending was directed to a less recognizable firm: Ryan Elisabeth, a jewelry line.
In 2012 and 2013, the campaign spent $31,267 purchasing gifts from the company, which is owned by Reid’s granddaughter, Ryan Elisabeth Reid. All told, she took in nearly seven times more cash than all vendors of donor gifts combined during that period of time.
Veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston first reported the news after receiving a tip about the expenditures. (Ryan Elisabeth’s last name did not appear on the FEC reports, and the senator’s office initially failed to confirm her identity.) While Sen. Reid does not appear to have broken the law, he understood that the purchases created a perception of favoritism. Lamenting the unwanted attention heaped on his granddaughter, he decided after the news broke that “it would be best to pay for her work out of my own pocket.”
This was not the first time that Reid had mixed family and politics -- or potentially run afoul of ethics rules.
Harry Reid has spent more than 40 years in government, starting as a small city’s attorney and eventually becoming the most powerful senator in the country. He has raised tens of millions of dollars in political contributions, established himself as an institution in Nevada politics along the way, and made himself a very wealthy man. His humble roots -- from growing up in a remote desert town to working six days a week as a Capitol police officer while in law school -- are legend in Washington and Nevada. Reid exhibits the toughness of a once destitute boy who completely transformed his life through determination, hard work -- and good luck.
Some who have watched Reid closely over the years, however, say that his political and economic ascendance has made him increasingly willing to use his power (and apparent electoral resilience) in ways that appear unsavory or nepotistic. The jewelry purchases are only the latest example.
David Damore -- a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor whose research focuses on Silver State politics -- has closely followed Reid for years. He said that the balance between helping family and constituents is a common tension for powerful politicians. “I’m going to put this politely: Their personal interests, they seem to see, represent the common good. They don’t differentiate those two.”
Another longtime Reid-watcher believes that the latest string of incidents, stretching over the last decade, is just a result of more coverage of Reid -- and not a product of him changing his style.
“As he’s become more known and a much higher dollar target for his critics, anything he does to assist his family now pegs on the radar,” said John L. Smith, a columnist who has written about Nevada politics for nearly as long as Reid has been in Washington. “I don’t think he’s changed his personal method of operation throughout his whole career.”
Smith added, “I can’t see him ever denying his family a break or an opportunity if he could provide it. I guess that’s just part of being a dad and a guy with a certain level of influence.”
Nowhere is Reid’s influence more profound than in his home state, where he has built a dizzying network of mutually beneficial political, personal, and business alliances. These associations benefit Reid, his family, his close friends, and, very often, the state that he loves. The sphere of influence took decades to create.
After returning from law school at the George Washington University, Reid was hired as city attorney in Henderson (the southern Nevada city where he had attended high school and met his wife, Landra). In 1966, he ran for a position on a local hospital’s board of trustees after, he recalled, being taken aback at the chairman of the board’s rudeness.
He won the election and two years later sought a promotion to the Nevada Assembly. While in the Assembly, Reid further developed relationships with important players in state politics and began honing his image as a strong consumer advocate. After two busy years introducing a record number of bills, Nevadans elected Reid to be their 25th lieutenant governor. (He ran on a ticket with Mike O’Callaghan, a close friend and mentor.)
At 31, the boy who had grown up in an alcoholic miner’s cabin stood just a heartbeat away from becoming his state’s most powerful politician. But Reid felt he could achieve even more.
He ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1974 but narrowly lost, despite the wide expectation that he would win. Reid later told The New Yorker, “Everything was in my favor. But I was young and impulsive and I attacked everybody.” A year later, he ran for mayor of Las Vegas and lost again, that time by a much wider margin. Reid collected himself, temporarily abandoning the pursuit of elective office, and worked as a lawyer in Las Vegas.
But he returned to public life in 1977 when O’Callaghan, still governor, appointed his former second-in-command to be chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. The job -- seen then as undesirable, difficult, and perhaps dangerous -- further burnished Reid’s reputation as a tough and honorable public servant. While running the Gaming Commission, Reid publicly jousted with mob bosses, tried to choke someone for attempting to bribe him (in front of FBI agents who were filming the sting), and dealt with the aftermath of his wife discovering a bomb attached to the family car.
By the time he decided to run for a newly created House seat in 1982, Reid had standing as a politician with uniquely strong integrity -- and guts. He had taken on a powerful telephone company as a freshman in the Nevada Assembly, while also sponsoring innovative air pollution legislation. Nevadans also closely associated him with O’Callaghan, by then a popular former governor nurturing a reformist legacy. Reid’s show of strength and resilience during his Gaming Commission tenure rounded out his picaresque political profile. Still relatively young, he spent just two terms in the House before graduating to the Senate in 1987. He has been there ever since.
But Reid’s political ascent didn’t stop when he arrived at the upper chamber. A savvy behind-the-scenes player, he became Democratic whip in 1999. After alternating between majority whip and minority whip for several years, his caucus elected him minority leader in 2005. Democrats took control of the Senate after the 2006 midterm elections, and Reid has served as majority leader ever since. For most of the past decade, he has been the most powerful lawmaker in the United States Senate. He is also indisputably the most powerful politician in Nevada -- Democratic or Republican.