Commentary - December 29, 2021 - by Ray Hagar
The final public ceremony during Harry Reid's time on Earth came about two weeks ago, when Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport changed its name to Harry Reid International, in honor of the former U.S. Senate Majority Leader from Nevada.
Reid did not attend, represented instead by is eldest son, Rory Reid, the Nevada Democratic nominee for governor in 2010. Now, two weeks later, Sen. Reid has passed. He was 82.
Nevada Newsmakers' host Sam Shad interviewed some major political figures in Las Vegas the week of the airport ceremony. The guests, from both parties, agreed that renaming the gateway to Las Vegas after Reid was the right thing to do.
Sig Rogich, the well-known political consultant, called "king maker" for many years in Republican circles, summed up Reid's legacy in a concise yet eloquent way:
"Arguably, he is probably the most important elected official we have ever had in Nevada history," said Rogich, founder of R&R Partners and former U.S. Ambassador to Iceland.
"We've had some great ones, from Pat McCarran to Alan Bible to Howard Cannon, Paul Laxalt and others, Mike O'Callaghan. But I don't think anyone has ever really achieved as much for Nevada as Harry Reid has, when you look at it," Rogich continued.
"I mean, throw the partisanship aside and just look at what he was able to achieve," he said about Reid.
Rogich, an adviser to Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, was instrumental in securing Reid's final general-election victory in 2010 as the tip of the spear in forming "Republicans for Reid.".
Reid faced Republican Sharron Angle of Reno, champion of 'Tea Party' wing of the GOP. Some feared Reid, the polarizing figure that he was, may lose to Angle. If Angle won, Nevada would lose the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate. Goodbye to his clout. Goodbye to the millions in federal earmarks for Nevada.
That's when Rogich and other key Republicans, like State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, stepped in.
"(Arizona Sen.) John McCain was very close to me and I was to him," Rogich recalled. "He came to me one evening, we went to dinner and he said, 'You're going to have a big issue with the Colorado River potentially.' And he said, 'You better make sure that Harry's at that table.' And that kind of inspired me."
With Raggio's help, "It (Republicans for Reid) just evolved and I think it made a difference in the campaign."
Indeed, "Republicans for Reid" became the driving force of the campaign, siphoning wide swaths of GOP votes from Angle and giving Reid the backing of many wealthy and influential conservatives across the state -- including Reno Mayor Bob Cashell and former U.S. Rep. Jim Santini.
They understood how important it was to keep Harry Reid in the U.S. Senate.
"Sen. Reid brought a lot of good things to Nevada, across the state, earmarks in particular," Clark County Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick told Shad. "I think his legacy will be of all of the good things he did bring home to the state."
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom was a driving force behind the airport name change, going back to his days as a state senator representing Las Vegas. He spent countless hours working on the project. He faced opposition at first. Many Republicans disliked Reid even if they could not argue with the good he did for the Silver State.
"It was a sense of relief," Segerblom said about the day the name change become official. "But no good thing happens overnight."
"It look a long time," Segerblom said about the name-change campaign. "But actually, as it went on, the more people realized how significant it was and how important it was. When I first started there was a lot of controversy, but by the end, everyone agreed it was really appropriate."
The airport name change was a bipartisan effort, Segerblom said. That was appropriate for Reid's style of governance, he added.
"That's one thing people don't realize about Sen. Reid," Segerblom said. "If you called him up and said,"I have a problem,' he didn't say, 'Are you a Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal?' He would help and this went for the person who was trying to get welfare or a place to sleep to the (wealthy and influential)."
Reid got things done in the slow-moving world of politics, Segerblom said. He helped push the Affordable Care Act through Congress. A call to a banker by Reid saved the $9 billion "City Center" project on the Las Vegas Strip during the Great Recession.
"A lot of people realized that he was so influential," Segerblom said of Reid. "He would contact people and make things happen on things that no one else was able to do."
Reid was born and raised in a hardscrabble existence in dusty Searchlight, Nev., Segerblom noted.
His Mom supported the family by taking in laundry from the brothels in the area. His Dad was an alcoholic who died in his 30s.
Reid became a ferocious boxer under the tutelage of future Gov. Mike O'Callaghan. His fighter's mentality and never-give-up attitude pushed him to be Nevada's greatest politician.
"If you look down The Strip and across the state, you'll see people who came here with nothing, like he did, and now are millionaires and billionaires," Segerblom said. "And its because we all believed in this common thing -- that Nevada could be great."
Segerblom says Reid's life is like a movie script. Longtime Nevada journalist Jon Ralston, now the publisher of the Nevada Independent, is expected to soon publish a book on Reid's life.
"I tell people, you could never even dream what happened to Sen. Reid," Segerblom said about Reid's life story. "It's a true miracle. It just shows what a person can do with a lot of determination."
The media, too, will miss Reid. He was more accessible that others. He made a lot of appearances on trips from D.C. to Nevada, where he could be interviewed.
He would hang up abruptly during telephone conversations, leaving the other person hanging on the phone. He did this to people up and down the poltical foodchain -- from reporters to U.S. senators.
“We have good conversations,” former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nv., said while in office. “Harry will call me. I will call him. You know how Harry is. When he is done with the conversation, he just hangs up on you. I try to hang up on him before he hangs up on me and I always lose. It’s click. It’s over.”
In 2011, he gave a speech at the Nevada Legislature that included a call for the end of legal prostitution in Nevada's rural counties. It was received flatly by some lawmakers whose districts relied on taxes from the brothels. After the Capitol press corps keep pressing Reid on his prostitution stance in a news conference, he told reporters to "get a life."
He later admitted the speech didn't over over well.
“It is hard to acknowledge a move that was comparable to a pregnant high jumper, but that is what my move was,” Reid said. “It didn’t go over very well.”
In 2011, when Reid's favorite baseball player, the Washington Senators' Bryce Harper, responded to a sportswriter's question with, "That's a clown question bro," Reid used the phrase during a subsequent meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill.
"You could never find a politician like that anymore," Segerblom said. "They are all just so terrified of their shadow now. Reid was a fighter, willing to engage with anybody. He usually came out on top. He's been burned a lot of times by the press but he never gave up."
Rogich is correct. Harry Reid will be remembered as the most powerful politician ever to come out of Nevada. He gave a small state outsized influence in the federal government. He punched up for Nevada. He died a fighter.