In high school, he found a mentor in social studies teacher Mike O’Callaghan, who also taught him to box. O’Callaghan went on to become governor of Nevada for two terms. Reid went on to get a law degree from George Washington University. While attending law school, he worked full time as a U.S. Capitol police officer to support the young family he was raising with his wife (and high school sweetheart) Landra. When he graduated in 1964, the family returned to Nevada and Reid’s political star started rising—from State Assembly to lieutenant governor (serving with O’Callaghan), and then falling with failed runs for U.S. Senate and then Las Vegas mayor. Then in 1977, O’Callaghan put him in charge of the Nevada Gaming Commission. He made powerful enemies in the position and nearly got Landra killed when the family station wagon was rigged with a bomb. Thankfully, that bomb was a dud. In 1982, Nevada got a second U.S. congressional seat and Reid went to the House. In 1986 he moved up to the Senate, replacing the retired Paul Laxalt who he had unsuccessfully challenged years before.
His achievements at the Senate are massive. As majority leader, up against the most unprincipled evil genius to rise to leadership—Mitch McConnell—Reid faced an all-out assault when President Barack Obama was elected with a Senate majority. Obama acknowledged Reid’s essential help in securing his legacy in a letter he sent at the request of Landra, when the end was nearing.
Here’s what I want you to know. You were a great leader in the Senate, and early on you were more generous to me than I had any right to expect. I wouldn’t have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn’t have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination …
The world is better ‘cause of what you’ve done. Not bad for a skinny, poor kid from Searchlight.
It’s all true. The Affordable Care Act passed on Dec. 24, 2010 because Reid didn’t give up negotiating. An incredibly touching Twitter thread from Natalie Ravitz, a former staffer to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and retired Sen. Barbara Boxer, demonstrates both his tenacity in getting that done and the incredible generosity of spirit that has made the people who knew him and worked with him ferociously loyal. The thread details his support for her in the immediate aftermath of the plane crash that killed Wellstone, his wife and daughter and campaign staffers, including Ravitz’s boyfriend, and the personal support he provided in the remainder of her career working in the Senate. You won’t come out of that story with dry eyes.
Nor will you watching this, probably the highlight of my personal career and a testament to the power of the grassroots combined with a leader who knew when to listen. In the summer of 2010, Reid was scheduled to come to Netroots Nation in Las Vegas. The negotiations on his appearance were fraught as we were in the middle of two big political fights: justice for Dreamers and ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Clinton-era policy that forced LGBTQ service members to stay in the closet. We knew Lt. Dan Choi would be there, and we knew he was intent on making his point. Here’s how it went down on the stage in Las Vegas, and how Reid kept his promise.
I was on that stage with Reid for that moment, and have to say that I have never seen a more real, genuine, emotional response from a politician on a public stage. I’ll never forget it.
Reid went on to do much more, including besting McConnell in his blockade of Obama’s executive and lower court nominees. In 2014, Reid succeeded in marshaling the Democratic caucus—no small feat—in carving out a filibuster exception for those nominees. President Joe Biden right now is building a phenomenal judicial appointment record, installing the most demographically and professionally diverse set of lower court judges ever. That wouldn’t be happening without Reid’s acceptance of the reality of what the modern Republican Party had become, and his determination to oppose it.
Despite the controversy that created—by Republicans playing the refs and crying crocodile tears over “norms and traditions,” Reid didn’t look back with any regrets. What he regretted was of far more consequence: his support for the Iraq war.
After Reid’s cancer diagnosis became public, Daily Kos’s Community Quilt crew leapt into action. It was a particularly fitting tribute: Netroots Nation might not have come to be if not for Reid—he committed to coming to the very first convention in Las Vegas in 2006 (back when it was Yearly Kos), and his presence made us force to be reckoned with. While he was there, he signed one of the quilt blocks, part of the “From Red to Blue” quilt created by the Reed sisters.
Reid sent me a thank you note after receiving that quilt. “It is something that will be in my family forever,” he wrote. “The two Reeds who did this are to be complimented.”
“I do remember my first trip to the first Yearly Kos convention,” he wrote. “And, yes, I remember Lt. Dan Choi. Because of the setting that day, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ got a vote.”
That’s what we did. That’s what he did. Rest in power, Sen. Reid. Rest in the knowledge that you made this country better.