The late U.S. senator Harry Reid, who rose from abject poverty in rural Nevada to become one of the most influential state and national leaders, died at home on Tuesday after a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
Harry Reid was born Harry Mason Reid Jr. on December 2, 1939, in Searchlight, Nevada, the third of four sons of Harry Reid, a rock miner, and Inez Orena (Jaynes) Reid, a laundress for local brothels. At that time, Searchlight was a small, impoverished town. Reid’s boyhood home was a shack with no indoor toilet, hot water, or telephone. His father died of suicide in 1972, at the age of 58, when Harry was 32 years old. His paternal grandmother was an English immigrant from Darlaston, Staffordshire.
Since Searchlight had no high school, Reid boarded with relatives 40 miles (64 km) away in Henderson to attend Basic High School, where he played football and was an amateur boxer. While at Basic High, he met future Nevada governor Mike O’Callaghan, a teacher there, and served as Reid’s boxing coach.
Reid attended Southern Utah University and graduated from Utah State University in 1961, where he double-majored in political science and history. He also minored in economics at Utah State’s School of Commerce and Business Administration. He then attended George Washington University Law School while working as a police officer for the United States Capitol Police, and he earned his Juris Doctor in 1964.
Harry Reid returned to Nevada after law school and served as Henderson city attorney before being elected to the Nevada Assembly for the multi-member fourth district of Clark County in 1968. In 1970, at age 30, Reid was chosen by O’Callaghan as his running mate for Lieutenant Governor of Nevada. Reid and O’Callaghan won their respective races, and Reid served as lieutenant governor from 1971 until 1974 when he ran for the U.S. Senate seat that Alan Bible was vacating. He lost by fewer than 700 votes to former governor Paul Laxalt. In 1975, Reid ran for mayor of Las Vegas and lost to Bill Briare.
Reid served as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission from 1977 to 1981. When Jack Gordon offered Reid a $12,000 bribe to approve new games for casinos, Reid brought in the FBI to tape Gordon’s bribery attempt and arrest him. After FBI agents interrupted the transaction, as prearranged, Reid lost his temper and attempted to choke Gordon, saying, “You son of a bitch, you tried to bribe me!” before agents stopped him.
Gordon was convicted in 1979 and sentenced to six months in prison. Reid presided over the 1979 hearing that refused to issue a gaming license to casino operator Frank Rosenthal because of his ties to organized crime groups such as the Chicago Outfit and particularly his close personal association with mobster Anthony Spilotro. Reid later stated that “Rosenthal was the only person I was ever afraid of.”
After the hearing, Rosenthal loudly and publicly confronted Reid, telling gathered reporters that he had performed many personal favors for Reid. Reid conceded under heated interrogation from Rosenthal that the two men had met for lunch at his Stardust Resort and Casino. He had asked Rosenthal to cover up undesirable news stories.
FBI wiretaps captured mobsters claiming that Reid was under their control, causing governor Robert List to feel pressure to ask Reid to resign. However, List believed Reid’s assertions that the accusations were baseless. In 1981, Reid’s wife found a bomb attached to the family station wagon; Reid suspected it was placed by Rosenthal or Gordon, although this has never been proven in court.
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
Before the 1980 Census, Nevada had only a single at-large member of the United States House of Representatives. Still, population growth in the 1970s resulted in the state picking up a second district. Reid won the Democratic nomination for the 1st district, based in Las Vegas, in 1982 and easily won the general election. He was re-elected in 1984.