Harry Reid's Long Coattails
Second of two parts
Harry Reid is the most powerful man in the U.S. Senate. He’s also the most influential politician in Nevada -- maybe in the state’s history. Reid maintains he’s used this clout to help his state, which is manifestly true. But Reid’s political standing has provided a distinct advantage for his family, friends, and donors.
Former Nevada congresswoman Shelley Berkley’s relationship with Reid has spanned six decades -- from when she volunteered for his 1968 state Assembly campaign to when he supported her unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid in 2012. Though Berkley has left politics and can now speak frankly, she still offers nothing but praise and admiration for Reid. Berkley told RCP, “With the exception of his family, there is nothing more important to him than the state of Nevada.”
But Reid often sees Nevada’s interests as being intertwined with his family’s.
In 2003, the Los Angeles Times reported that his four sons and his son-in-law collectively represented almost every major industry in the state (gambling, mining, real estate, tourism, and more). The paper’s investigation strongly suggested that their relationship with Reid proved beneficial for their lobbying efforts. “So pervasive are the ties among Reid, members of his family and Nevada's leading industries and institutions that it's difficult to find a significant field in which such a relationship does not exist,” the story stated. The article cited approximately 20 special interests related to Reid’s kin, as well as legislation Reid supported that benefited the special interests.
Reid initially defended the practice of family members lobbying his office, saying that their activities are “very transparent.” However, he later relented and banned members of his family from personally lobbying members of his staff -- though colleagues at the firms they represented were still able to contact Reid’s office.
Reid’s aides view this differently. “Senator Reid has an official, long-standing policy of not allowing family members to lobby him,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson noted, “and in 2007 he wrote the law which codified it for all members of Congress.”
Reid is easily the most influential Democrat in the state, and he remains interested in primary elections -- and some say that his involvement has helped one son in particular.
State Democrats “never have meaningful primaries,” simply because Reid “just won’t allow it,” according to David Damore. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas political science professor added that without Reid’s blessing, candidates could still run, but their resources would be severely limited.
Asked to comment on whether Reid has enormous influence in Nevada Democratic primaries and in choosing candidates, Jentleson responded, “Senator Reid has always fought for Nevada, will keep fighting for Nevada and will never apologize for fighting for Nevada.”
Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, who is running for state attorney general this year, told RCP that Reid “really helped to guide my political career in a lot of ways.” Asked if he consulted with the senator before deciding on his latest run, Miller replied, “He was one of the people that I called to get a sense of whether or not that office would make sense for my political career.”
Although Reid’s office disputes it, some Nevada political observers believed he became especially involved in Nevada’s lieutenant governor primary this year with an eye toward his own re-election race in 2016. Whether Brian Sandoval, the state’s popular Republican governor, challenges Reid for his Senate seat in 2016 may depend on whether the lieutenant governor who would succeed him is a Republican. By quickly endorsing Democratic Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, Reid appears to have helped the Democrat with the best shot at thwarting Sandoval.
Of the majority leader’s sons, only Rory (his eldest) has held elective office. Rory ran unopposed for Nevada Democratic Party chairman in 1999 before serving on the Clark County Commission from 2003 to 2011. He also ran for governor in 2010. During both the 2002 County Commission race and the 2010 gubernatorial primary, the specter of Sen. Reid’s influence hung over other Democrats.
In 2002, then-state Sen. Dina Titus, now a congresswoman, became interested in running for Clark County commissioner. “The moment she found out Rory Reid was going to run, she stepped aside,” said Steve Sebelius, a longtime Nevada political journalist. “She didn’t want to cross Harry Reid. As a consequence of that, she earned a little bit of goodwill.” According to Sebelius, Titus later defied Reid, a rare move, when she decided to run for Congress against his wishes. (Rep. Titus’ office did not immediately respond to RCP’s request for comment.)
In 2010, Rory Reid coasted to the Democratic nomination for governor. But father didn’t help son much beyond the primary. Both Rory and Harry appeared on the ballot in 2010, when the elder Reid was distinctly vulnerable as Tea Party-fueled anti-incumbent sentiment gained momentum nationwide. Many analysts at the time concluded that Sen. Reid’s presence on the ballot hurt Rory. (And Rory may have agreed: His campaign logo simply said, “Rory 2010.”)
A well-funded campaign and a lifetime observing politics from up close wasn’t enough, though: Sandoval, a former federal judge, easily beat Rory. Fast-forward to 2014, and the Nevada Democratic Party has chosen not to field a serious challenger to Sandoval’s re-election.
Rory paid a $25,000 fine after Secretary of State Miller discovered he had skirted campaign finance rules by obscuring the source of $900,000 in campaign donations through shell organizations. (Miller told RCP that Sen. Reid never discussed the case with him, and Reid’s office said that the senator “read those news stories” at the time.) At the time, Rory asserted that settling the case was meant to point out that the system was unclear in many ways and that he had not committed an intentional wrongdoing. Rory has since declared his retirement from elected office, opting to focus on his local television show and work as a lawyer.
Reid’s other sons -- Josh, Leif, and Key -- had kept lower profiles than their older brother, quietly working as attorneys in private practice. Aside from the Los Angeles Times piece, they mostly kept out of the national spotlight, and only appeared occasionally in local media. From time to time, however, they make news. In 2003, then-Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican who developed a warm relationship with Reid, placed Leif on a short list of recommendations for a federal judge position. Reid’s then-spokeswoman, Tessa Hafen, said, “This was entirely Senator Ensign's decision.” Reid’s current press aides note that several Senate Republicans publicly endorsed Ensign’s decision, including former Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Orrin Hatch, who called Leif Reid a "very competent young man” who would make an “excellent judge." In any event, President Bush decided against nominating Leif.
It would not be the last time a Reid son made news while pursuing legal work in the public sector. In 2011, Josh became interested in a position his father had once held, Henderson city attorney. But he did not meet the minimum requirements in an original job posting: 10 years of experience as a lawyer, plus five years “which must have been with a public agency.” Josh had just shy of 10 years’ experience and none with a public agency. The city attorney position pays about $199,000 per year, plus benefits -- more than Harry Reid makes in the Senate -- and could serve as a solid launch pad for a political career, as it did for Reid in the 1960s. (Josh has denied having any interest in pursuing elected office.)
Veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston reported that Harry Reid made several calls to city officials on his son’s behalf. Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen, father of former Reid spokeswoman Tessa Hafen, said the senator told him that he “would find nobody more academically qualified than Josh.” Sen. Reid also called at least one city council member. (Earlier this month, Ralston wrote, “Reid has refused to talk to me for three years because of perceived slights against his children, including my exposing that he lobbied a local city council to help land his son Josh a city attorney’s post.”)
The city council altered the qualifications for the position, and Josh Reid met the new requirements. The city said it had modified them to widen the applicant pool. Among the six semi-finalists, he was the only one who had not met the original qualifications. The council voted unanimously to confirm him as city attorney in November 2011. One town resident at the council meeting called the move “disgusting.”
Reid’s Senate office counters by pointing out that Josh was approved by an open and unanimous vote of the council. It notes that Henderson’s former mayor said every candidate had someone lobby for them and cites words of Councilwoman Debra March: “He is an attorney with an impressive business-related legal practice and that’s a valuable trait, I think, to have in the city.”
The most recent news involving the Reid family came last month, when he reimbursed his campaign for spending over $31,000 on jewelry made by his granddaughter’s company. RealClearPolitics also reported that Ryan Elisabeth Reid’s Brooklyn-based theater company had received financial help from several of Reid’s political donors. Many of the foundations cited later distanced themselves from the young woman, saying they had not yet made donations. Ralston later reported that Rory Reid, who is still influential in Las Vegas, had also been involved in seeking donations for the granddaughter (who is his daughter). The Reids’ alleged use of political clout to help out family members now appears to span three generations.
It would be impossible to describe everyone who has a close association with Harry Reid and potentially stands to gain from it. Some, however, stand out.
Harvey Whittemore -- a former lobbyist and wealthy land developer who has given to Democrats and Republicans -- might be Reid’s best-known donor. At one time the most powerful lobbyist in Nevada, Whittemore has given or helped raise large sums of cash for the senator. He also developed a strong personal friendship with him. As such, Whittemore’s name has surfaced in the press throughout the years, usually alongside Reid’s. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported on the closeness of the two men’s relationship. According to the article, Reid “used his influence in Washington to help the developer” clear several large obstacles to a major development project. He even proposed allowing Whittemore to avoid millions in fees (which Whittemore eventually agreed to pay).
A Reid spokesman said at the time, “There is a reason every major Republican and Democratic officeholder in Nevada has fought for Coyote Springs -- it will create jobs and make the state an even better place to live and raise a family.”
While Reid had helped move the project forward, Whittemore gave tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign and leadership fund. The lobbyist also helped two of Reid’s sons’ legal careers; Leif even acted as his personal attorney. Although Whittemore had a strong relationship with Ensign and then-Rep. Jim Gibbons, both Republicans, his friendship with Reid was “deeply rooted,” according to the Times.
“You have to understand how close the Whittemore and Reid families are,” Whittemore told the newspaper. “My relationship with Sen. Reid goes back decades.” Reid concurred with that assessment. And the senator pushed back, saying that he always acted in Nevada’s interest. The story eventually died down.
A few months later, on Feb. 19, 2007, Reid met Whittemore for lunch at the Four Seasons hotel in Las Vegas. The developer promised him he would raise $150,000 for his re-election campaign by March 31. But a few days before the deadline, Whittemore hadn’t been able to do so. Instead, he gave reimbursements to employees who made donations to Reid -- a blatantly illegal practice. Reid, unaware of the scheme, wrote Whittemore a personal note to thank him for bundling the contribution: “Dear Harvey, you are a man of your word. You also are my friend for today and for all tomorrows.”
A federal prosecutor read Reid’s note at Whittemore’s 2013 trial, where he was charged with making campaign contributions in the name of another person, making excessive contributions, and lying to the FBI and the Federal Election Commission. Reid said in an interview shortly before the verdict was announced, “I appreciate the Whittemore family. Over the years, they have helped me and I appreciate it very, very much. I’m sorry this problem has arisen.” A federal judge sentenced Whittemore to two years in prison and fined him $100,000. Reid’s office told RCP that he is no longer in contact with Whittemore.
The land development has since floundered. Although a golf course has been built, major construction has come to a halt. The master-planned community that Reid championed as good for Nevada remains unbuilt. Worse, several of Whittemore’s partners sued him for tens of millions of dollars, accusing him of embezzling funds. It’s unclear if the project will ever be completed. Asked if the senator expects the development to be built, his office said he has “no idea.”
Although Whittemore drew the most attention, others with criminal histories have donated to Reid. Attorney and developer Peter Palivos gave him $1,000 last year, in addition to a donation to Ryan Elisabeth’s theater group. In 2005, Palivos was sentenced to one year and one day in prison and fined $40,000 for failing to cooperate in a political corruption investigation. Reid did not return Palivos’ contribution.
“You are talking about an issue that is over a decade old so we will not be returning his donation,” Jentleson told RCP. “As to how this fits into the story, I am at a loss. I utterly fail to see how one donation among thousands totaling millions of dollars can be credibly held up as evidence of a trend.”
Reid’s fundraising network is so prolific that he has even been tied to donors traditionally associated with Republicans. After the Jack Abramoff scandal became national news in 2004, it was revealed that Reid had received $60,000 from Abramoff's firm, PAC, and Indian casino clients. His office immediately returned the money. He said in an interview shortly afterward, “I haven't done anything that is even close to being wrong” and Reid later authored new ethics legislation as a response to the Abramoff scandal.
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Reid has over the years developed responses to suggestions that he uses his power inappropriately to benefit friends, family, or himself. He often criticizes scrutiny of his family’s involvement in politics as an inappropriate attack. When found to have transgressed (even if it was unintentional), Reid insists that it was a result of ambiguities in the rules, not any unethical behavior on his part. Any suggestion otherwise is taken as an insult, and Reid is known to grow testy with reporters who inquire about possible scandals.
He also explains that any decision that appears to unfairly help himself or a friend is merely coincidental. He has always asserted that his decisions are made purely for the good of his state.
No one can deny Reid has been good to Nevada.
His status as majority leader enables him to directly help the Silver State in ways that no local politician can. Reid has effectively stopped Yucca Mountain from becoming a nuclear waste disposal site by ensuring the project remains unfunded -- a bipartisan priority in the state. Virtually every person interviewed for this piece brought up Yucca Mountain when asked about Reid’s influence.
Further, Reid’s ability to bring federal dollars to the state is only limited by Nevada’s willingness to put up matching funds. University grants, highway expansions, and myriad infrastructure projects can all be traced to the senior senator. He has supported or lobbied for Nevadans to be appointed to head critical federal agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Bureau of Land Management. Even for an issue as small as saving a remote post office, Reid will intervene on behalf of his state.
As is typical of Reid, his role in securing such prizes is low-key and involves behind-the-scenes work. His actions have led some of the state’s establishment Republicans to support his previous re-election campaigns. Reid is also a modern hero in the state’s Democratic Party, which he helped modernize.
Still, not all Nevadans appreciate him. His nearly half-century in politics has made him a polarizing figure locally as well as across the country. His partisan, sometimes controversial comments have led many to not just dislike Reid but despise him. And after more than 30 years in Washington, he remains a complicated, contradictory politician. While he has undoubtedly helped his state, he has also helped himself, his family, and his friends. The various controversies, as well as Nevada’s political composition, have put Reid in difficult campaigns before. But if he runs in 2016, as he plans to, he will likely face his most formidable opponent yet in Gov. Sandoval.
“Here’s a guy who has been in the public eye in Nevada for a long time. As time goes on, about half the people hate your guts, about half the people like you. That’s where Reid’s at,” said John L. Smith, a longtime chronicler of Nevada politics, informally surveying the conditions of Reid’s re-election. “He’s got half the state that flinches, and the other half that thinks he’s a swell guy. That’s a close race when he does run.”