Senator Harry Reid of Nevada

Senate's New Majority Whip:
Senator Harry Reid of Nevada

By: Christopher Smith, Salt Lake Tribune
Date: 9 June 2001

Although the new Senate majority whip was in demand by producers of every Washington TV political gabfest last weekend, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada managed to fly to Reno to attend the Mormon blessing of his grandson.

Just another among the many blessings being counted lately by the 61-year-old Reid, the person most responsible for wooing Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords out of the Republican Party and the nation's capital into a new political paradigm.

For Utah Mormons and Republicans, who traditionally are largely one and the same, there is no small irony in the role Reid played in tilting the Senate's delicate balance away from the GOP. With his ascension to majority whip, second-in-command to Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Reid has set a new high-water mark in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

No other member of the LDS Church has served in a higher leadership position in Congress.

Yet tempering that pride among the faithful is Reid's party affiliation. He is a Democrat, a party even Mormon Republican colleague Sen. Orrin Hatch has suggested is out of favor with the Almighty.

Reid's place in political history among Mormons comes with a footnote: Fellow church members are among his biggest detractors.

"The only aggravation I've had in politics as a member of the church has come from within the church," Reid told The Salt Lake Tribune in a 1998 interview. "Some people in the church write me letters about what a bad person I am; they've really tried to damage me."

Still, the LDS Church leadership considers Reid a key point man in Washington, seeking his help on numerous issues "on many occasions," says longtime associate Richard Bunker of Las Vegas.

"Some of the things that Harry has learned as a member of the church and some of the fundamental beliefs he has, [have] made it possible to do what he has done with the change in the Senate," said Bunker, a gaming industry consultant and active Mormon. "Here is a guy who is so low-key and a man of his word that is committed to good, decent things. People trust him."

The online news magazine "Salon" recently quoted Senate Democratic staffers referring to Reid as "the Jim Whisperer" for his missionary work on Jeffords, converting the reluctant Republican into an independent who caucuses with the Democrats.

"Plugging along for weeks, talking to Jeffords on the phone and the floor of the Senate, making him feel at ease among the Democrats, pushing him, prodding him was the Jim Whisperer," "Salon" reported in its profile of Reid. "And when no other Democrat would offer up a committee chairmanship to Jeffords should he leave the Republicans, it was Reid who gave up what would have been a job helming the Environment and Public Works Committee."

During a joint appearance on CNN last weekend, Hatch praised Reid for his unselfishness while joking he will be working to persuade Reid to switch parties and join the GOP.

"I wish more Democrats were like Harry Reid," said Hatch. "He does bend over backwards from time to time to make things work between the two parties."

Bunker muses over the national spotlight that has suddenly focused on the somewhat self-conscious senator from Searchlight, a southern Nevada mining camp that no longer exists. "You've seen more of Harry Reid in the past week than you've seen since he was elected [in 1986]," Bunker said.

Busy Schedule: Normally accessible to reporters, Reid's staff tried for three weeks to arrange an interview with The Tribune for this story but were unable to find time in the senator's schedule.

On paper, Reid's new job as majority party whip involves maintaining discipline and rounding up the troops for important votes. In reality, his role in Senate leadership will help steer the direction of the revamped 107th Congress.

Reid, who has served as an elders quorum president, high councilor and Sunday school superintendent, converted to Mormonism while attending Utah State University in 1960. He subsequently converted his wife Landra from Judaism to the Mormon faith and has raised his family in the church.

Yet his political positions sometimes set the hearts of staunch church members aflutter.

A recent story in The Las Vegas Sun newspaper, headlined "Casinos Are Elated Over Reid's Promotion," quoted state gambling officials praising Reid as the industry's biggest supporter who can fend off "relentless attacks from the religious right."

Reid's unabashed support of Nevada's gaming industry -- he has been derisively labeled "the Senator from [Nevada casino] Circus Circus" -- has seemed to put him at odds with Mormon teachings against gambling. In 1845, LDS President Brigham Young called gambling an "abomination."

In 1992, the LDS Church actively campaigned against a Utah ballot initiative to legalize pari-mutuel betting on horse races.

Those spiritual and political tenets have not stopped Reid from accepting substantial donations from gaming and associated industries, including a recent $10,000 contribution from the political action committee (PAC) funded by the Mirage and MGM Grand casinos, and $10,000 from the National Beer Wholesalers Association PAC. Mormon health codes discourage alcohol consumption.

Fine Line: "Gambling is a personal choice," Reid answered when asked by The Tribune in 1998 if a devout Mormon could promote gambling in Nevada with a clear conscience. "I do everything I can to protect Nevada's No. 1 industry but I have no obligation to protect gaming in other places."

Other prominent Mormons have worked as top executives for legalized gambling conglomerates. Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, was once the chief corporate public relations officer for Howard Hughes, who controlled extensive casino holdings in the gambling capital.

Yet it is Reid, who never worked for a casino, who gets the nasty letters from Mormon constituents blasting his support of the gaming industry.

Bunker says he knows well the fine line Reid walks. A descendant of Mormon pioneers sent to settle southwestern Utah and southern Nevada, the Brigham Young University graduate was a bishop in his Las Vegas ward while working in management of The Dunes, Aladdin and Circus Circus casinos before heading the state's most influential gaming lobby, the Nevada Resort Association.

When Reid was chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, Bunker headed the Gaming Control Board, the enforcement arm of the commission. The two were central figures in the crackdown on organized crime in Nevada in the 1970s.

"Like Harry, before I went on the Gaming Control Board, I asked the guy closest to [LDS Church] authorities here whether or not I should do it," Bunker said. "And he said absolutely. We need to have our people in where they can see what's going on and be able to control it. And that's what Mormons have done in politics here too."

As an example, Bunker points to Reid and Hatch working together to get four new federal judges seated in Nevada in spite of the judicial nomination gridlock during the Clinton administration.

"Orrin and Harry were able to get all four of those nominations approved for Nevada and two of those judges are Mormon," said Bunker. "You tell me that is not important for what we are trying to do."

There are currently 16 Mormons serving in Congress. Four are Democrats: Reid, Rep. Jim Matheson of Utah, Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Eni Faleomavaega, a nonvoting delegate from American Samoa. The remaining dozen are Republicans: Sens. Hatch, Bennett, Mike Crapo of Idaho and Gordon Smith of Oregon; Reps. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Chris Cannon and Jim Hansen of Utah, John Doolittle, Wally Herger and Buck McKeon of California, Ernest Istook of Oklahoma and Mike Simpson of Idaho.

Reid firmly rooted in Mormon faith
No other Latter-day Saint has served in higher role in Congress than Nevada Democrat

By: Tony Batt
Date: 8 September 2002
Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal

WASHINGTON -- When the transmission went out in his car, the young law student was ready to quit school and go back home to Nevada.

After all, he had a wife and two babies to support, and expenses in Washington, D.C., were eating him alive.

In desperation, he went to see the dean of George Washington University Law School to see if financial help might be available.

That's when he found out what President Truman meant when he said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

Almost 40 years later, the dean's ice cold response is embedded in his memory.

"Why don't you just drop out of school?" the dean asked.

But Harry Reid did not drop out of school.

As it turned out, he had one more option: his Mormon church.

The church paid for his transmission. Reid graduated, went on to become a millionaire lawyer and eventually, the majority whip of the United States Senate.

"I'm sorry to admit now I would have quit," Reid said. "I think I was looking for a way out."

Without the church, he said, "I don't think I would have made it out of law school or been able to do as well with my family."

It is widely known that Reid, 62, is the first Nevadan to ever ascend to a position in congressional leadership.

What is not so well known is that no other member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has ever served in a higher leadership role in Congress.

Reid was not born into a Mormon family and did not join the church until he was a student at Utah State University in Logan. After a rough and tumble upbringing in the mining town of Searchlight, Reid became an amateur boxer and has acknowledged getting "called out" from bars in his youth.

"I am, by nature, somebody that ... I was raised where you settled your differences physically, and I still have a little of that in me and I'm fighting that all the time. I don't want to be mean to people," he said.

"I think the church had a tremendous influence on my family's life and my life, and I hope it's been for the better."

Reid did not become familiar with the Mormon Church until he began attending high school in Henderson, 45 miles from Searchlight.

"I never went to church, ever -- not once in a while or occasionally -- but never," Reid said. "There was no church in Searchlight. There was no place to go to church. So I had no experience with religion at all."

As a new kid in Henderson, Reid wore clothes his mother bought out of a Sears & Roebuck catalog. "I'm sure I was, as I look back, kind of a hick," he said.

In spite of Reid's awkward appearance, a couple of Mormon classmates at Basic High School befriended him and helped him meet other people.

Then Reid took a course offered by the Mormon Church on Mormon history taught by a bishop named Marlan Walker. "He was mesmerizing. For the first time in my life, I heard the message of Jesus Christ," Reid wrote in "Why I Believe," a book written by prominent Mormons.

But Reid did not join the church until he was at Utah State.

After his sophomore year in college, he eloped with his wife, Landra, because her Jewish parents did not want her to marry someone outside the faith. They were married by Walker, who performed the ceremony for free in a Mormon chapel. By the time he graduated from college, Reid and his wife had been baptized as Latter-day Saints.

As a Democrat, Reid is unusual among Mormon politicians. For example, there are five Latter-day Saints in the Senate. All are Republicans except Reid.

The first time Reid's son Leif attended a Latter-day Saint church in Washington, D.C., a member asked him to attend a Young Republicans rally.

When Leif declined, and explained he was a Democrat, the church member replied, "I didn't know a Mormon could be a Democrat."

Despite the perception that Mormons are inextricably linked to the GOP, the senator said he believes voter registration between Democrats and Republicans in the church is fairly even.

Reid also insists it is easier for a Democrat to be a good Latter-day Saint than it is for a Republican to be a good Latter-day Saint.

"One of the reasons I feel so strongly about the philosophy of the Democratic Party is that we're concerned about people who have little," Reid said. "Look at the programs we've pushed: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Republicans opposed those, every one of them. ... I don't see how a person who cares about their fellow man could oppose these programs."

Another Latter-day Saint, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, disagrees.

"Let's put it this way. I think that's pure bunk," Hatch said.

Without Republicans to control federal spending by Democrats, Hatch said, the country would be far worse off economically.

"Look how they're spending now and how it's just like a bunch of drunken sailors around here," Hatch said. "All I can say is true religion means living within your means. True religion means doing what is in the best interest of the country as a whole. True religion, it seems to me, is being honest about what has to be done around here."

As a Mormon politician, Reid said the only criticism he has received has come from church members. Reid has never had any problems with the church leadership in Salt Lake City. Instead, the complaints have come primarily from Mormons in Reid's base of Southern Nevada.

Reid recalled an ugly incident during his last campaign in 1998 when he won re-election by 428 votes over Republican John Ensign, who in 2000 was elected to the Senate.

One of Reid's sons, whom the senator declined to name, attended a Halloween party at a Mormon church in Las Vegas. The event, called "Trunk or Treat," allows children to pick up candy from car trunks in the church parking lot. In one of the car trunks was a picture of Reid, with the devil.

"We have many very conservative people in the church, and I'm not a very conservative person in a lot of things," Reid said.

"Some people have difficulty separating their politics from their religion," he said. "And even though that group ... is a small group, they still have aggravated me over the years. ... They're pretty non-Christian, in my opinion."

Reid stirred his own controversy recently when he suggested two Nevada Republican state candidates who are Mormons may have defaced their own campaign signs. The signs for state Senate candidate Tom Christensen and Assembly candidate Garn Mabey were defaced with stickers that read "Mormon bigots."

"My guess is as good as any, but maybe some of Christensen's people figure that's a way to engender sympathy and get the Mormons to turn out for him," Reid said.

Christensen, who lost in the primary election, said he was surprised when a reporter told him what Reid had said.

"I didn't hear him say those comments, and I want to be careful even now about what I say," Christensen said. "If he did make those statements, they are totally groundless and baseless."

William Stoddard, an attorney who served as a bishop in Reid's Mormon ward in Las Vegas during the 1980s, said the senator has been an outstanding member of the church.

As evidence, Stoddard points to Reid's five children, all of whom are active church members. But Stoddard acknowledged there are some members of the church in Las Vegas who strongly disagree with Reid's politics.

"Some of them are unbending. They can't conceive that he can be a good guy because he has a different point of view," Stoddard said. "I don't know what one does about that."

In 1974, in what Reid has acknowledged was the nadir of his career, he lost his first race for the Senate by a scant 624 votes to former Republican Gov. Paul Laxalt.

Even though he was a Mormon like Reid, Ashley Hall, who would later serve as the city manager of Las Vegas, supported Laxalt.

"One of the best things that happened to Harry Reid was how he matured significantly between 1974 and when he was elected (to the House in 1982)," Hall said.

Hall said his relationship with Reid now is positive, although they still disagree frequently on politics.

"I have never had any qualms about his personal religious philosophy," Hall said of Reid. "I've never seen him out of character when it comes to religion. He is a true blue member of the church."

In Utah, church elders view Reid as a valuable asset.

Richard Davis, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, said church leaders in Salt Lake City were pleased last year when Reid became Senate majority whip.

"They don't want the Mormon Church to be regarded as a Republican church, and they have been sending quiet messages in recent years that it's OK to be a Democrat and a Mormon," said Davis, who also is Mormon. "That is the sort of thing where Harry Reid helps because he's devout."

But Reid appears to draw a line between his religious work and his job in the Senate.

Lamar Sleight, director of the Mormon office of international and government affairs in Washington, D.C., for the past 10 years, said the church has never asked Reid for help on legislation pending in Congress.

"The church jealously guards its political neutrality," Sleight said. "Occasionally, we'll get a call from Capitol Hill relative to a moral issue. They might ask us for our position and we'll put out a statement. But we don't go formally to (lawmakers)."

At the same time, the church knows Reid is in a position to help if needed, Stoddard said.

"For example, it would not surprise me that if there were problems in some country abroad where full-time (Mormon) missionaries were not being treated properly that he might exert some influence," Stoddard said. "My sense is that something like that probably has happened."

Reid describes his Mormon faith as a great disciplinary tool. He said he has tithed 10 percent of his income to the church since becoming a member.

"I've always had a job in the church," Reid said.

He teaches Sunday school to a singles class at a Mormon church in Washington, D.C. Reid and another church member also visit four Latter-day Saint families each month to make sure their needs are met.

"Harry Reid is a good example of how to use religion in politics because he doesn't use it in an overt way," said Davis, the BYU political science professor. "I wouldn't be surprised if he loses the Mormon vote."


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