A senator for the New West in the race of his life

  • Nevada

    Diane Sylvain
  • ROOTED: Harry Reid surveys BLM wilderness in Nevada

    Kit Miller photo
  • A RIVER DIVERTED: Derby Dam on the Truckee River

    Jon Christensen photo
  • Harry Reid in front of his boyhood home in Searchlight

    courtesy Leland Sandquist
  • OLD WEST: The town of Searchlight in the late 1930s

    courtesy Joyce Dickens Walker

Note: two sidebar articles, one with Nevada statistics and one titled "Beyond sagebrush politics: A prospering megalopolis steers Nevada," accompany this feature story.

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 office.

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 with.

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.

The election 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 Democrats.

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 focus.

The devil in Fallon

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 bloom.

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).

Reid 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 timber.

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 says.

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 1940.

"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.

His father was a miner who worked traces of ore abandoned long ago by other miners. His mother took in washing and ironing.

"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 strong.

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 more.

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 desert.

"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

Reid 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 staff.

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 Mormonism.

"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.

As 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 boxing coach.

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 again.

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 crime

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 Vegas.

"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."

In 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.

As chairman 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 "Mr. Clean."

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 Utah border.

"Nevada was 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 Nevada.

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 bikes.

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.

A 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 by Reid.

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 environmentalists.

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 delight.

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 Club.

Coming up: a close election

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 few points.

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 interests.

"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 history.

"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, Nevada.

High Country News Classifieds
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...