RENO, Nev. - In the halls of Congress, Sen. Harry Reid is proud to be known as a "Senator for the New West." For more than a decade, the two-term, senior Democratic senator from Nevada has been an anomaly: a senator from the Interior West who has staked his reputation not on property rights and fending off a dictatorial federal power, but on protecting the environment.
Reid takes credit for Nevada's
Forest Service wilderness bill, the creation of Great Basin
National Park, and a far-reaching settlement of conflicts over the
Truckee River, which is leading to restoration of the river,
wetlands and Pyramid Lake (HCN, 4/3/95). A mural-sized photograph
of the lake hangs in the senator's Washington
Reid has even tried to broker
compromises on grazing, mining and endangered species in a series
of attempts to allow rural ranching and mining to adapt to a new
environmental era. One result: In the scruffy towns dotting
Nevada's desert outback, many of Reid's rural constituents consider
him a traitor. "Sierra Harry" is the nicest epithet they tag him
This fall, Reid is running for re-election
and for his political life. His opponent, Republican Rep. John
Ensign, is a former veterinarian from Las Vegas who says the Sierra
Club - which has endorsed Reid - is an extremist group that wants
"to destroy mining" and bring "socialism" to the public lands.
"Modern environmentalists have become not about protecting the
environment," Ensign told a wise-use gathering in Reno earlier this
year. "They have become about big government and regulation and
putting things out of the hands of private citizens." But even more
important than Ensign's staunch defense of private-property rights
in front of a group dominated by disgruntled cattlemen and miners
is the fact that Ensign is a scion of a wealthy casino family. That
makes him well-known in Las Vegas, where he has twice won election
to the U.S. House in a district where the Democratic Party enjoys
an edge in voter registration.
Nov. 3 can be seen as a test of who really represents Nevada and
the New West. Is it Harry Reid, a 57-year-old liberal Democrat, who
was born and reared in a busted-down mining town in rural southern
Nevada, and who is economically moderate, socially tolerant and
environmentally passionate? Or John Ensign, a 40-year-old
conservative Republican, who grew up in the suburbs of northern
Nevada and Las Vegas, and is economically libertarian, socially
conservative and environmentally laissez-faire?
The race is tight. The Republican Party has declared Reid
"vulnerable" and is pumping millions of dollars into Nevada in an
attempt to win a veto-proof majority in the Senate this fall.
Republicans gained a slight edge in voter registration in Nevada
this fall - 367,395 Republicans to 353,332
It is urban voters who will cast the
decisive votes. The greater Las Vegas metropolitan area is home to
more than 60 percent of the state's population.
Most of the rest of the state's residents are clustered in the
suburban front range running from Reno through Lake Tahoe to Carson
City, Gardnerville and Minden. The state's rural counties are home
to less than 10 percent of the population, and, it is true, more
cows than people (see story page 9).
But it is
in the "cow counties," as they are called here, that the race to
represent Nevada and the New West comes into sharp
The devil in
In Fallon, a hot, dusty farming town 60
miles east of Reno, Ernie Schank, the leader of a farmers' group
called the Newlands Water Protective Association, accuses Reid of
"cultural genocide." He says Reid is responsible for policies that
are "dismantling the irrigation system, stripping water from the
land, abandoning farming, and leaving behind dust bowls."
Fallon calls itself "the oasis of Nevada." The
farming community was created in the image of the Old West when
Sen. Francis Newlands of Nevada wrote the bill that created the
U.S. Reclamation Service in 1903. The Newlands Project, which
diverts water from nearby Pyramid Lake to farms around Fallon, was
first on the list of federal projects to make the desert West
It took a dam and a canal to make the
blooming possible. Water was moved from the Truckee River 30 miles
away to the farms sprouting up in the desert around Fallon. At the
end of the Truckee River, however, Pyramid Lake, home of an ancient
but endangered fish, the cui-ui, and of the Pyramid Lake Paiute
Indian Tribe, dropped 80 feet. Formerly the recipient of Pyramid's
overflow, Winnemucca Lake, at one time a national wildlife refuge,
dried up. In short, the new farming oasis was created at the
expense of an old natural oasis.
Now, almost a
century later, Reid wants to reverse that situation. He sponsored
legislation to settle conflicts on the Truckee River and provide
more water for Pyramid Lake and Reno.
"I recognize I am the devil
in Fallon," he says. "I get blamed for everything that went wrong
there. They're living in the past," Reid says of the farmers and
ranchers who resist environmental changes. "The facts are the
facts. It's a New West. You can't bury your head in the sand."
Not surprisingly, the Old West isn't ready to
fade quietly into the sunset. Federal buildings have been bombed in
Nevada. A U.S. Forest Service district ranger's van was blown up in
his driveway in Carson City (HCN, 9/4/95).
has taken to the Senate floor to denounce the "demagogues of a West
that no longer exists." There is no more vocal advocate of a New
West in the U.S. Senate, where the Western bloc has long been
dominated by boosters of mining, agriculture and
Historian Leonard Arrington says Reid
embodies a new Western politics as he tries to move the region to a
more stable, more just, more progressive society. "The New West is
leaving behind the myths of rugged individualism and conflict that
characterized the Old West. The West has outgrown that," Arrington
Arrington was one of Reid's professors at
Utah State University, where Reid earned a bachelor's degree in
business and studied political science. They've kept in touch. Reid
pays tribute to his former teacher in a book he recently wrote
about the history of Searchlight, Nev., the hard-luck mining town
50 miles south of Las Vegas, where Reid was born in
"Searchlight was like
all mining camps," Reid writes. "When the tide goes out, when the
boom is over, the debris is all that is left. You see old
buildings, old gallows frames, old dumps, abandoned roads, the
debris left from the boom." Reid was born in a house made of
scavenged railroad ties in a dusty town of less than 200 souls,
overlooked by skeletal mining headframes and surrounded by the
outstretched arms of Joshua trees.
was a miner who worked traces of ore abandoned long ago by other
miners. His mother took in washing and
"When I say the West
has changed," Reid says, "I speak from personal experience. It's no
longer the way it used to be when I was growing up in Searchlight.
This isn't something I read about in a book." Reid tells people he
can't buy the myths of the Old West because he grew up in its
shattered remains. His father was an alcoholic and committed
suicide. But the son went through the refiner's fire and proved
Yet, on the surface, Reid is
mild-mannered to the point of blandness. He is older and thinner
and no longer looks like the boxer and football player he was in
high school and college. In any room he would disappear if he
weren't the senior senator from Nevada. But there is a steely set
to his eyes and jaw. He speaks in short, terse sentences. He knows
more than he lets on, and he says all he wants to say and no
Reid's political style is more like Al
Gore's than Bill Clinton's. He rarely shows passion, but has been
known to choke up about Nevada's environment. He says this, too,
can be traced back to growing up in the harsh southern Mojave
"You couldn't grow a
tree there," he says. "It would just die." When the Reids wanted to
escape the parched boneyard of Searchlight, they went either to the
Colorado River or to an oasis in the nearby mountains. Piute
Springs was a "place of my boyhood dreams," Reid says. It was a
cool blue swimming hole in a rock grotto shaded by thick willows.
"If you threw a rock in the spring, so many birds took off they
sounded like airplanes."
Many years later, Reid
took his wife to Piute Springs. "It was one of the big
disappointments of my life," he says. The grotto had been trashed.
The willows were dying. The spring was a trampled mud hole. The
dreamlike oasis was being sucked dry by the nightmare reality of a
desert plundered by heedless people.
A politician is shaped
may have grown up in the dying days of the Old West, but he came of
age in a New West and he rode into political power with the
changing of the guard.
He left home at 12 to
attend high school in Henderson, a post-war defense industry
boomtown next door to Las Vegas. His political career began almost
as soon as he left his family. He was elected senior class
president in a campaign run by his best friend, Ray Martinez, who
has been with Reid ever since as a campaign manager and chief of
Reid went to the College of Southern Utah
in Cedar City for two years before transferring to Utah State
University. Between his sophomore and junior years, he eloped with
his high school sweetheart, Landra Gould. In Logan, they rented a
home from Mormon missionaries and there they converted to
"We adjusted to
Utah better than some thought we should," Reid says, chuckling a
little at his own understatement. The couple's conversion was
"difficult," to say the least, for his wife's Orthodox Jewish
family. "But we thought it would be good for our family." Friends
say the Mormon church has given Reid what he lacked in his
childhood - a sense of family stability. But Reid doesn't talk much
about the subject. Family and church are at the center of his
private life and he says he believes in keeping them separate from
his public life.
Reid's interest in politics
intensified at Utah State, where he started the first Young
Democratic Club. After graduation, he went to George Washington
School of Law, where he also interned for a Nevada congressman and
worked part time as a cop at the Capitol.
soon as he returned to southern Nevada, Reid jumped into politics,
becoming one of the golden boys among a generation of rising
political stars in Las Vegas. He was appointed city attorney in
Henderson. He was elected to the Southern Nevada Memorial Hospital
board and then the state assembly. In 1970, at age 30, he won
election as the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history. He
served one term at the right hand of Democratic Gov. Mike
O'Callaghan, who had been his high school history teacher and
But four years later Reid
over-reached. He ran for the Senate and lost to Paul Laxalt, former
governor, son of a Basque sheepherder, and close friend of Ronald
Reagan, a representative of the Old West if ever there was one. The
next spring, Reid ran for mayor of Las Vegas and lost
Ray Martinez says those defeats taught
Reid a lesson. "He had never lost before. When you're young, you
feel invincible. He went back to the drawing board. He became a
real student of the issues and the legislative process."
Taking on organized
Reid practiced law in Las Vegas and laid
low for a few years. Then, in 1977, Gov. O'Callaghan appointed him
chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, thrusting him back in the
spotlight. Reid's job was to "take on" the mob in
"I needed somebody who
wouldn't be compromised," says O'Callaghan, now executive editor of
the Las Vegas Sun. "I needed somebody who loved the state and
understood it. He understood all of it."
Nevada in the late 1970s, the mob also represented the Old West.
The rules of the gangland jungle - survival of the most violent and
winner take all - threatened to prevent the creation of a community
that could grow and prosper on tourism. Reid helped chase the
hoodlums out of Las Vegas gambling and oversaw the consolidation of
control by corporations, many of which are publicly owned and
traded on the major stock exchanges.
of the gaming commission, Reid held the first public hearings on
gaming licenses in Nevada. He led a charge to put notorious
mobsters such as Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal and Tony "the Ant"
Spilotro (who were portrayed by Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro in the
movie Casino) into the Black Book, which bans people connected to
the mob from entering or working for casinos. Reid got into a
heated public exchange with Rosenthal at a hearing that denied the
bookmaker a license.
Reid was later the target
of a failed car bomb attempt.
The mob also
"tried to set him up," O'Callaghan says. When the FBI obtained a
wire tap of a blackballed mobster saying they had "Mr. Clean" in
their pocket, Reid was widely assumed to be "Mr. Clean." Reid said
the wise guy was just "trying to be a big shot."
The FBI conducted "the most extensive
investigations ever," O'Callaghan says, and Reid "came up clean."
The attempt backfired, and some Nevadans still refer to Reid as
After publicly taking on the mob,
Reid never looked back. In 1983, he was elected to an open seat in
the House of Representatives. Four years later, Laxalt retired and
Reid won his first term in the U.S. Senate by running as an
environmentalist. During the election campaign, he shepherded
legislation through Congress creating Great Basin National Park,
which surrounds majestic Wheeler Peak in eastern Nevada near the
looked upon at one time as nothing more than a garbage dump for the
rest of the country," Reid says. "Great Basin National Park put it
on the map. Now Nevada is more than the bright lights of Reno and
Las Vegas." At an election night victory party he told the press
that he would make water his primary issue. And his first letter to
constituents proclaimed: "Environment is job #1."
He kept his word by sponsoring negotiations and
legislation that settled a century-old dispute between California
and Nevada over water allocations from the Truckee River, and he
began an ongoing reform of the Newlands Project to restore wetlands
around Fallon and get more water to Pyramid Lake. He also pushed
legislation through Congress designating 733,400 acres of
wilderness in national forest on 10 high mountain ranges in
More recently, he brought Bill Clinton
and Al Gore to Lake Tahoe and secured a $300 million commitment
from the federal government to help clean up the alpine lake, which
is besieged by casinos, ski resorts, vacation homes and water
Reid says he believes "a fair balance can
be struck" between the new and the old in the West. "It will
require less pulling and more giving." He adds: "I don't think we
have to let go of anything. We can still have a strong, healthy,
vibrant ranching community, for example. But it just has to be on a
different basis than before."
The balance he
seeks has been elusive. Reid's efforts to broker compromises on
grazing and mining reform have foundered on partisan politics in
Congress. Early on in the Clinton administration, when Democrats
enjoyed a majority in the House of Representatives, Reid went out
on a limb to back a grazing reform bill in the Senate, only to have
Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt cave in to a filibuster by other
Western senators and let the bill die.
compromise mining reform bill in a House-Senate conference
committee fell apart when neither the mining industry nor
environmentalists were willing to settle on middle ground advocated
Environmentalists have also been
unhappy with Reid's support for compromise on the Endangered
Species Act. At the same time, they realize he is their best
Western ally in the Senate. Reid may be the only Western senator
who will sponsor a wilderness bill supported by
Reid says he wants to sponsor
a bill to designate 2 million acres of wilderness areas in the
sage-covered mountain ranges and remote deserts of Nevada. But he
doesn't want to split Nevada the way Utah has been split. So he has
invited ranchers and miners and environmentalists along on
helicopter rides to survey the lands and says they'll have to reach
a "general consensus' before he'll push wilderness legislation. In
the meantime, he's content to keep 5 million acres protected in
wilderness study areas.
It's early in the game,
but so far he seems to be drawing together a congenial
constituency. Although there are some firm statements of political
differences and some quiet vows of resistance to proposed
boundaries, everybody says they want to pass a wilderness bill
without going to war.
Wilderness is important so
that future generations "can experience the land as it used to be,"
says Reid, and so that Nevada doesn't become "a series of Piute
Springs," the ruined place of his childhood
The Piute Springs story has become a
standard part of Reid's stump speech at campaign events sponsored
by environmental groups in Nevada, which are all backing Reid to
the hilt. The Sierra Club is spending more than $100,000 on the
race and has a full-time campaign organizer working in Las Vegas.
Still, that's a drop in the bucket in a race that is on pace to set
a record for spending on an election in Nevada. The race is likely
to cost more than $6 million, not counting the money spent by the
Republican and Democratic parties and groups like the Sierra
Coming up: a close
Reid has never won an election by a big
margin, with the possible exception of that first high school race.
And this election looks to be no different. Republican John Ensign
initially trailed him in the polls but the gap has narrowed to a
Ensign will easily beat Reid in the
cow counties, but the race will be decided in Las Vegas and Reno,
and there, the campaign debates focus on Social Security, welfare
reform, health care costs and taxes. Though differences between the
two candidates are real, they seem no greater than the differences
between Republican and Democratic candidates vying to represent New
Jersey or California.
Although it is the urban
constituents who will decide who will represent Nevada in the New
West, it is the rural constituents who define what is at stake. And
although Reid knows that he doesn't need their votes, the core of
his identity as a "Senator for the New West" deeply depends on
defining how he relates to rural
"They may not know
it, but I'm the best friend they've got," Reid insists. "Being born
in Searchlight added a dimension to me that people who grew up in a
big city like Las Vegas don't have. I understand rural Nevada
better than anybody else in Congress in recent Nevada
"But no one has been
given more grief than I have. The longer they stymie responsible
change by digging in their heels, the harder new Westerners and
environmentalists will pull for greater control. The New West has
arrived, and it cannot be ignored."
Jon Christensen writes from Washoe Valley,