In Nevada, it's can't live with Harry Reid and can't live without him

What should every campaign-ending ad aim to accomplish?
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 2:39 AM

IN SEARCHLIGHT, NEV. The empty field on the edge of town tells the story of Harry Reid's life and the political troubles that could spell the end of his career.

Across the way from Harry Reid Elementary - where the laptops were bought with federal money - and next to Harry Reid Road sits a giant plot of rocks and scrub that was supposed to be a development called Cottonwood Lake Homes. Instead of the trailers favored by most town residents, Cottonwood Lake was planned as a gated community of suburban dream houses, with "different floorplans to accommodate all homebuyers."

Reid attended the subdivision's groundbreaking in 2005. He even helped developer Gary Wells resolve permit problems that delayed construction. But he couldn't prevent the 2008 collapse of Silver State Bank, which dried up credit for Cottonwood Lake Homes and helped drive Wells into bankruptcy.

"I just felt these guys were supposed to be watching our backs," Wells said of Reid and every other public official in Nevada and Washington. "Did he even know that Silver State Bank was in trouble? My God, why didn't he know?"

Gritty and stoic, Reid embodies Nevada's paradoxical relationship with the federal government, a can't-live-with-him, can't-live without-him dilemma that has turned his quest for a fifth Senate term into the fight of his long career.

Win or lose, most of Reid's elections have been decided by whisker-thin margins and his battle against tea party star Sharron Angle figures to be another. But the dynamics of this one are different. Never before has Nevada been so tired of Reid - and yet so dependent on him.

In 2006, when Democrats won control of the Senate and Reid was named majority leader, southern Nevada was at the peak of a historic growth spurt. He gained even more clout two years later, when Barack Obama was elected president and Democrats gained a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

But by then the boom in the desert had turned to dust. One of many Nevada business casualties, Silver State Bank collapsed two months before the 2008 election, dragged down by bad real estate loans. Houses stopped selling, jobs disappeared, and state and local governments slashed basic services as the economy cratered.

Reid responded by becoming Nevada's federal sugar daddy. The economic stimulus bill brought $1.5 billion to Nevada in Medicaid, education and transportation funding, and included a provision aimed at thwarting thousands of layoffs at Harrah's Entertainment, the state's largest private employer. Reid secured $83 million to save 1,400 teaching jobs, $35 million to bail out Las Vegas homeowners who can't pay their mortgages, and $13 million in lending assistance for small businesses.

The pace of announcements is quickening as Election Day draws closer. Last week, Reid joined representatives of a Chinese American consortium to announce a new wind-turbine plant in Henderson that promises to employ 1,000 people. And the 70-year-old senator attended the groundbreaking for a 515-mile electricity transmission line, financed by the Energy Department through the stimulus legislation.

Supporters speak of Reid's possible defeat with an air of disbelief. The miner's son didn't go off to Washington and forget where he came from. If anything, Reid has become too invested in his home state, and consequently receives an outsized share of the blame.

"My sense is people are confusing some of the issues," said Avis Pickens, a seventh-grade teacher from Las Vegas and Reid campaign volunteer. "It took years to get into this mess. It will take years to get out. Senator Reid means well and he tries hard, and right now that's what this state needs."

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company