Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announces retirement

The Nevada senator is a formidable leader and champion of progressive issues.


One of the West’s most powerful politicians is leaving Capitol Hill. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, announced last week that he won’t seek re-election in 2016, ending three decades of service in Congress.

Reid was widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the next election, the probable target of the billionaire Koch brothers. Insiders began speculating last year that he might retire rather than face possible defeat.

Now, after a serious injury in January and illness in his family, the 75-year-old Reid has released a video announcing his decision. And he has a message for the new Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell: "Don't be too elated. I'm gonna be here for 22 months. And you know what I'm going to be doing? The same thing I've done since I first came to the Senate."

Sen. Harry Reid
Sen. Harry Reid's official portrait.

Quiet but blunt and iron-willed, the senator was, and is, formidable. “He was a little hard to speak with,” says Glenn Miller, a local environmentalist and professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, who once held a fundraiser for Reid. “You wonder why he had such immense respect -- it’s because he worked hard, understood the issues, was very smart, and thoroughly knew the Senate rules. He did very well for the environment of the state of Nevada, and we won’t see anything like him again.”

As majority leader, a post he held for 9 years, Reid was instrumental in carrying out Obama’s key domestic policies, such as health care reform and the stimulus bill, despite strong Republican opposition. He’s also been committed to immigration reform and raising the minimum wage.

The League of Conservation Voters gives him a lifetime score of 80 out of 100. “Sen. Reid has always been there to carry that torch of conservation and public lands protection,” says Miller. Reid sponsored several compromise wilderness bills, and was instrumental in the creation of Great Basin National Park, and in the Truckee River Accord that resulted in restoration of the river, wetlands and Pyramid Lake. He supported tribal solar and worked to make Nevada “the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy.” The proposed nuclear waste disposal site Yucca Mountain was taken off the table largely as a result of his opposition.  

Yet Reid wasn’t a thorough-going green. He was also the political architect of the proposal to pipe groundwater from eastern Nevada to Las Vegas. And given his state’s dependence on hardrock mining, he has long protected the industry from proposed royalties, and blocked every attempt to update the antiquated 1872 mining law, which doesn’t allow land managers to deny mining proposals even in sensitive locations, doesn’t protect groundwater from pollution, and sets no standards for mine reclamation.  “That’s the last piece of 1800s legislation on the books that needs to be revised,” says Miller. “Hopefully mining law reform will be back on the docket when the good senator retires.”

Harry Reid in law school
Harry Reid in law school. COURTESY HARRY REID.

HCN writer Jon Christensen characterized him this way in a 2004 story, “Go West, Democrats, in the path of Harry Reid”:

“Reid grew up in a backwater of the old West (Searchlight, Nevada), but came of age politically in a new West. The region was transformed after World War II by military spending, the interstate highway system, the rise of tourism and the growth of the region’s metropolitan cities. Those forces came together to make this the fastest-growing region in the country.

Las Vegas, where Reid focused his political career, has been caught up in this maelstrom of change. But Reid has also had to represent the rest of Nevada as well, the mining towns, ranches and farms and Indian reservations. He has learned to make important compromises on mining, water, grazing, wilderness, and with Native American tribes. What is most interesting about his compromises is that they are not haphazard. They flow out of his vision of the future."

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.”

What’s next for Reid after those 22 months go by? He has endorsed New York Sen. Charles Schumer as minority leader, and he has said that he will do everything possible to ensure that a Democrat fills his seat in the Senate—key to any chance of Democrats regaining the majority. The New York Times reports:

"In a race that has personal resonance for him, Reid has anointed a candidate, Catherine Cortez Masto, a former state attorney general who is now executive vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, as his successor, and said he would put his organizational and fund-raising machine behind her. That is the same apparatus that helped Reid win re-election in 2010 despite an enormous effort by national Republicans to defeat him."

Masto is “very straightforward and very good,” says Miller, but also “something of an unknown commodity,” noting that the Nevada environmental community hasn’t decided yet whether to back her. “As long as the governor (Brian Sandoval, R) doesn’t run, she has a better than even chance of winning. If the governor runs, nobody wins except the governor.”

Reid's childhood home
Reid's childhood home in Searchlight, Nevada. COURTESY HARRY REID

Last year, Reid moved from his hometown of Searchlight to Henderson, Nevada, closer to three of his sons. But he scoffs at the usual “spending more time with family” rationale for retirement, saying that he finds the euphemism “obnoxious.”

“He won’t just disappear,” says Laura Martin, communications director at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “This is the state that made him and he’ll continue to be a leader in other capacities.”

Jodi Peterson is High Country News’ managing editor. Follow her @Peterson_Jodi.

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