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Sent on Mormon-News: 31May01

By Kent Larsen

LDS Senator Persuaded Jeffords to Switch

WASHINGTON, DC -- When Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords told Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott he was leaving the Republican party to become an independent and support the Democrats, he caused a political earthquake that rearranged the political landscape in the US. While a number of factors led to his decision, the careful, consistent persuasion of Nevada Senator Harry Reid, an LDS Church member and the Senate's Democratic whip, was critical, leading one aid to call him "The Jim Whisperer." But this wasn't Reid's first connection with a lawmaker who switched parties.

Jefford's reasons for leaving the Republicans are no doubt complex, but it was the Democrats that recognized his philosophical difficulties, and minority leader Tom Daschle made it clear to Jeffords at a critical point, that he was welcome. Over more than a month, Reid, along with Daschle and other Democrats who had a good relationship with Jeffords, worked on him, helping Jeffords feel comfortable among the Democrats and prodding him toward his decision.

Then, as a final inducement to solidify Jeffords' decision, Reid did what no other Democrat would -- he offered Jeffords the chairmanship of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which normally would belong to Reid after a change in control of the Senate. "Jim did not ask for this," said Jeffords friend Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd. "He did not negotiate for this. Harry Reid, to his great credit, offered him his committee, the environment committee. But this was not a question of a tit for tat as one might normally think."

The move seems even more amazing because that committee is critical to Reid's constituency. Nevada has for years been fighting the proposal to make Nevada's Yucca Mountain the nation's nuclear waste repository, and the Environment committee will first hear the legislation. But, as observes, the move may have actually put most Democrat's in Reid's debt, assuring that Yucca Mountain and other issues Reid cares about will go his way, "By giving up his committee chairmanship to secure Jeffords' flip, Reid has secured greater power for himself than any other Nevadan has ever held in the capital. ... With chairmanships and Senate control now theirs, political observers say that it seems unlikely that many Democrats will cross Reid on his opposition to Bush's big bid to make Nevada home to more nuclear waste, or on McCain's crusade against betting on the NCAA."

Reid grew up in the small town of Searchlight, Nevada, son of a hard-rock miner with an eighth-grade education and a laundress mother who was a high-school drop out. Searchlight was so small that Reid had to attend high school in Henderson, Nevada, where he boarded overnight with locals during the week and hitchhiked home for the weekends. Reid still managed to become student body president.

As a youth, Reid developed a quiet, tough focus, that his boxing coach attributes to the time he spent as a youth working with his father in the rock mines, "You don't go get a Band-Aid when your knuckles bleed, or if you hurt yourself. Especially since the nearest hospital [from Searchlight] was 60 miles away," says Donal "Mike" O'Callaghan, who was also his high school history teacher.

Reid worked as a Capitol Hill police officer in Washington DC as he worked his way through George Washington University Law School, and by September 1963 he was taking the bar in Nevada, where he met former Senator Richard Bryan, who became his friend and colleague. Bryan says Reid introduced himself at the exam, "I first met him in September 1963, when we'd just finished taking the Nevada Bar," says Bryan. "He just came right up and introduced himself to me. It was very unusual. But we became friends right away. Harry is very good at cultivating relationships," Bryan says. "He's superb on the phone. He's not the guy who's the most comfortable on the stage or the public speaking platform, but he's great one on one."

Reid married his high school sweetheart, and dove into Nevada politics, becoming city attorney for Henderson, then member of the hospital board, then as a member of the state Assembly, elected in 1968. Two years later he joined his fomer history teacher, O'Callaghan, in a run for the governor's mansion, and won. Reid became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history.

But two years later a personal tragedy put his political career into a tailspin. His 58-year-old stoic, hard-drinking father committed suicide. The suicide hit Reid hard. He didn't speak publicly about it for nearly 25 years. And it seemed to carry over into his political activities. He lost a nasty campaign for the Senate in 1974 to Paul Laxalt and a year later lost an attempt to become mayor of Los Vegas. "Many people thought his political career was over," says Bryan.

Falling back on his mentor, O'Callaghan, Reid accepted an appointment to head the Nevada Gaming Commission, where he was generally credited with making positive change in an era when Vegas was very crooked. "We are simply not going to play games with undesirables," he announced as he revoked the gaming license for the Aladdin Hotel. He then took on Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, who was immortalized in Martin Scorsese's "Casino," and banned him for life from operating a casino in Nevada. Soon afterwards, police discovered a car bomb in Reid's car, which had failed to ignite. The FBI also investigated Reid at this time after an alleged mobster claimed that he had Reid "in his pocket." Reid cooperated with the investigaton, and was cleared.

In 1982 Reid won a seat to the US House, and then, when Laxalt retired, ran for the Senate again. But he faced a nasty campaign against Jim Santini, a former Democrat who had switched to the Republican party. The race was close, until Reid started hammering on the fact that Santini had switched parties. Reid admits that the fact that Santini had switched parties made the difference, "It elected me," he said.

Later Reid persuaded a conservative Nevada state legislator, Bob Ryan, to switch to the Democratic Party, but Ryan lost his run for Clark County commissioner in the primary -- even Ryan's new party wouldn't vote for him. Reid learned something from the experience, "You have to be careful how you switch parties," he says. "If you do it as a matter of principle, it works. If you do it as matter of political opportunism, it fails."

In the Senate, Reid has risen to get a lot of power. He is now the Democratic Whip, the man who counts the number of votes the party has on an issue and often tries to persuade party members to stick with the party line on a vote. According to a senior aide, Reid is good at the latter, "He has a way of working people over so they cannot say no. It's a combination of twisting your arm and patting your back at the same time."

And he has been successful for Nevada causes. His work to keep the Senate from voting for a Clinton proposal to store nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain was remarkable because it hinged on Reid convincing Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, that the move would be bad for Colorado because the waste would have to move through his state. Reid also managed to somehow get Nevada judicial nominees through the Senate Judiciary Committee when Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman and fellow LDS Church member Orrin Hatch, were delaying Democratic appointments.

Surprisingly, Nevadans haven't been convinced that he is best for Nevada. Reid won his last election to the Senate in 1998 by just 428 votes. Now, with the Senate moving to Democratic control, Reid is likely to use his power to try and solidify his standing at home. And that power is considerable. He is as powerful a Senator as Nevada has ever had (he is also likely the most powerful Mormon in the US government). And, as the Democratic Whip, he is just a scandal away from being Majority Leader.


"The Jim Whisperer" 26May01 T2
By Jake Tapper
Harry Reid, the man most responsible for guiding Sen. Jim Jeffords to a new political identity, has a long history with party-switching.

Daschle, Reid Aided In Decision
Washington Post pgA01 25May01 T2
By Edward Walsh and Helen Dewar: Washington Post Staff Writers


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