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
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 Salon.com 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
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"
Salon.com 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