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Harry Reid, former Senate majority leader, dies at 82

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

  • Harry Reid, who led Senate Democrats for more than 15 years, has died. He was 82. 
  • Reid, known for his fiery politics and his often cynical view of Washington, was the main driving force behind the passing of the Affordable Care Act in the Senate. 
  • The former senator retired from his seat in 2017 after 34 years in Congress. 

Harry Reid, the Nevada politician who served as Senate majority leader for eight years and was one of the driving forces behind the Affordable Care Act, has died. He was 82.

Reid led the Senate Democratic caucus for more than 15 years. He was first elected to Congress in 1983 as a Nevada representative and became a senator in 1987. In 2001, he was named senate majority whip, becoming senate minority whip in 2003, and then serving as majority leader from 2007 to 2015. He retired as senate minority leader in 2017. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer confirmed Reid’s passing in a Tuesday tweet. 

“He’s gone but will walk by the sides of many of us in the Senate every day,” Schumer wrote. 

A cause of death was not immediately clear. 

Reid’s storied political career began when his former boxing coach Mike O’Callaghan tapped him as his running mate in the 1970 Nevada gubernatorial election. Reid served as his state’s lieutenant governor for four years before trying his hand at landing a Washington position. His first bid for Congress as a representative failed, however, and he stayed in Nevada as chairman of the state’s Gaming Commission, a job that landed him in hot water with Las Vegas mob bosses. During this time, Reid received multiple death threats and once found a bomb strapped to his family’s car. 

After leaving the position, Reid once again ran for Congress in 1983, becoming the representative for the state’s 1st district. Reid was one of two Nevada representatives in Congress — and the only Democrat. Four years later, he became the junior Nevada senator, a position he held on to for 30 years and ultimately earned him a spot in US history as one of three senators to ever serve as Senate majority leader for at least eight years. 

A bold lawmaker who would rarely turn down a challenge, Reid left his mark in Washington as one of the longest-lasting majority leaders in history. He also left behind a legacy of respect in the nation’s capital, among both Democrats and Republicans, whom he knew how to cater to — and how to infuriate. 

“As has been written since I left,” he once told The New York Times, “I was kind of a strange guy.” 

Before Harry Reid was a politician, he was a studious boy from the impoverished town of Searchlight, Nevada

GettyImages 674220534Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., Chairman of Senate Appropriations sub-committee on Legislative affairs, hearing listens to Secretary of Senate Jose Stewart on Feb. 6, 1992.

Photo by Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Reid grew up in a shack with no indoor toilet and no hot water. He told the New Yorker in 2005 that his younger brother Larry once broke his leg but the family couldn’t afford to take him to the doctor, so it never set. The third of four sons, Reid grew up with parents who drank heavily. His father, a miner, committed suicide at 58. 

“I always knew I wanted to get out of there,” he told the New Yorker of Searchlight, Nevada. “I knew that from the time I was a little kid.” 

Searchlight had “13 brothels,” but no high school, so a teenage Reid would hitchhike 40 miles to Henderson — the town he would ultimately retire and live his last days in — where he stayed with relatives as he attended high school. It was during his junior year that he met Landra Gould, a sophomore who would one day become his wife. Her parents at first were opposed to their dating, given that she was Jewish and he was not religious. Reid, a boxer, once even punched his future father-in-law in the face. The couple ultimately eloped during college, and her parents accepted their relationship soon after.

“She’s never changed. She’s 74 years old. She could win a beauty contest today. She is the nicest person. She has been a wonderful mother, a terrific wife to me. I wish there was a way I could express to everyone how fortunate I am,” Reid said about his wife in 2015. Together, they had four sons and one daughter. 

Reid put himself through college thanks to athletic scholarships, ultimately graduating from Utah State University with degrees in political science and history. He received his juris doctorate degree from the George Washington University Law School while working as a police officer for the US Capitol Police. 

Reid first jumped into national politics as his boxing teacher’s running mate

AP_040417010176U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, holds the Howard Cannon Lifetime Achievement Award after it was presented to him by actor Martin Sheen, right, during the Nevada State Democratic Party Annual Convention in Las Vegas on Saturday, April 17, 2004.

AP Photo/R. Marsh Starks

After law school, Reid served as Henderson city attorney and then joined the Nevada Assembly. In 1970, former Nevada Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, Reid’s boxing coach, asked him to run for lieutenant governor. He won. Reid also ran for other positions between then and his first Congress victory in 1983, including a run for Las Vegas mayor. By 1986, Reid was the Democratic nominee for the seat of retiring two-term incumbent Republican Sen. Paul Laxalt.

As senator, Reid served as the Democratic minority whip from 1999 to 2001 and from 2003 to 2005. He was majority whip from 2001 to 2003 and became minority leader in 2005. In 2007, he became majority leader, a position he maintained until 2015. In the aftermath of the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans regained control of the Senate in January 2015 and Reid became minority leader once again. Two months later, the Democratic leader announced his retirement in a video message. In a story detailing Reid’s departure, The Washington Post said he had been both the Senate’s “warrior and dealmaker.” 

Back then, Reid’s longtime rival, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, told the Post “if there’s one thing we know about Harry, he doesn’t give up easily.”

With an iron fist, Reid pushed through the Affordable Care Act in the Senate during the Obama era. According to The Post, he was a firm believer in the legislation because of his own experiences growing up. 

“My dad never had a chance. He was depressed always. He was reclusive,” he said. “I think everyone can understand a little bit of why I have been such an avid supporter of Obamacare.”

Reid was also a major advocate for conservation in Nevada, successfully securing the designation of approximately 5.1 million acres of federal land in his home state as protected land.

But part of Reid’s political legacy also brought him criticism from the Democrats who came after him. In 2013, faced with a gridlock over the Senate’s approval of then-President Barack Obama’s judicial nominees, Reid picked the “nuclear option” and changed Senate rules. From then on, the Senate could prevent the use of filibusters to block executive and judicial nominations, lowering the 60-vote threshold to a simple majority — except for Supreme Court nominations. 

When the Republicans took the Senate, McConnell changed the rules once again, making it so Supreme Court nominations only took a simple majority too. This came particularly handy to the GOP when they were able to muscle through the nominations of Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett despite near-unanimous Democratic opposition.

But, in a 2019 interview with The New York Times, Reid said he didn’t regret the move. 

“They can say what they want,” he told The Times. “We had over 100 judges that we couldn’t get approved, so I had no choice. Either Obama’s presidency would be a joke or Obama’s presidency would be one of fruition.”

Even after retirement, Reid couldn’t disconnect from Washington politics

AP_16343850784298Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speaks during during a ceremony to unveil his portrait, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016, in Washington.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Nearing the end of his final term, Reid began having health complications.

In 2015, an exercising accident left him blind in one eye and severely injured. For months after the incident, he claimed he was planning on running for reelection. But then, in 2015, he said he was ready for retirement. In May 2017, a colonoscopy revealed he had cancer, according to The Times. 

Back at home in Nevada, Reid stay remained tuned-in to the political world, jumping on calls with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who had once been his top lieutenant in the Senate. Occasionally, The Times reported, he would also talk to Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York who, like Durbin, was also his top lieutenant. 

Despite being out of office, Reid didn’t hold back in his criticism of then-President Donald Trump during a 2019 interview with The Times.

“I think he is without question the worst president we’ve ever had,” he told the news outlet. “We’ve had some bad ones, and there’s not even a close second to him.”

Shortly after President Joe Biden took office in 2021, Reid wrote in The Las Vegas Sun that the 36-year Senate veteran was being astute in pushing for a bold Democratic policy agenda.

“We know it is possible to reap the benefits of big investments in our infrastructure and our people because we have done it before, such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that I helped pass in 2009, FDR’s [Franklin D. Roosevelt’s] New Deal, and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society,” Reid said. “If we have the political will, we have the opportunity to improve the lives of millions of families today and build a stronger, better and more prosperous country for generations to come.”

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