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

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."

But there's another side of Nevada, the one deeply resentful that the federal government controls 86 percent of state land and has plenty of say in how it can be used. Many voters who are supporting Angle view the state's current economic problems as an offshoot of that chokehold.

In his one debate with Angle, Reid ticked off a list of major projects underway in Nevada that he credited to federal policies that he helped shape. Angle shot back, "Harry Reid, it's not your job to create jobs, it's your job to create policies that create the confidence for the private sector to create those jobs."

In Angle's Nevada, the gambling industry and its union jobs - the state's economic "lifeblood," according to Reid - would receive no special treatment. Reid reminds voters at campaign appearances about the phone calls he made to lenders to keep construction going at CityCenter, a huge hotel-casino complex on the Las Vegas Strip that was completed at the height of the downturn.

Angle told a conservative radio host in July that Reid's intervention in CityCenter was like "shifting the chairs on the Titanic."

'The Good Fight'

Reid's life growing up in a house built of railroad ties, shooting rabbits for supper and swimming in the pool at the local brothel conjures a bygone era of the frontier West.

In his memoir, "The Good Fight," he recalls with pride how he saved up in high school to buy his mother a set of teeth. In 1972, soon after Reid won his first statewide election, his father committed suicide.

No other sitting senator has been accused of corruption by a mobster on a federal wiretap, or discovered a bomb under the hood of the family car, low moments of Reid's late-1970s tenure as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

But Reid has been unable to convert his past into the sort of folksy image that might prove resistant to a voter backlash. His halting speaking style and penchant for blunders is what many voters know best, such as when he recently named two dead senators, Edward M. Kennedy and Robert C. Byrd, as the greatest living Americans. Should he scrape by on Election Day, he will have won despite a favorability rating in the 30s.

"He's always been very misunderstood," said Richard Bunker, a longtime friend and former gambling regulator and casino executive.

"One on one, he's really good," Bunker said. "In groups, it's difficult. I don't know that he's ever accomplished what he wanted to accomplish, as far as being a charismatic kind of person, a great speaker and all that. That has somewhat eluded him. But he is so fundamentally strong, if people would just look at him and try to understand him, he really is a decent guy."

Reid has held public office in Nevada for more than 40 years but has little experience in this environment. "It's the economy," the senator said in an interview last week in Las Vegas. "I've never had a race when the economy was bad."

For most of his adult life, Reid's objective was to keep growth happening. After his 1982 election to the House, he worked with Bunker and other state leaders to build the infrastructure needed to support the development of Las Vegas into a tourist mecca and retirement oasis.

He has steered federal money to Nevada's major airports. He killed a gambling tax proposed by President Bill Clinton. He landed seats on key committees.

"I've always known that the Number One responsibility I've had is to create jobs," Reid said. "But you see, it's been so hard for all of us here in Nevada because we were at the top of the food chain. Buy a home, get a job, invest in real estate - there was no place better. Bango. We were up so high we had further to fall than anyone else. And we fell."

When Nevada's unemployment and foreclosure rates soared to national highs, Reid switched to rescue mode, piloting through the Senate bills that included the stimulus legislation, expanded unemployment benefits and emergency cash for states.

But while there are signs of life in Las Vegas, the once-roaring construction sector has shed tens of thousands of jobs that Nevada economists warn may never come back.

"We were growth junkies," said Billy Vassiliadis, a Reid adviser and the owner of the R & R Partners advertising agency, which represents the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. "How do we replace an entire industry? I'm not sure we've come to grips with it, because we've never had to before."

A battle in Searchlight

The senator built a rather ordinary home in Searchlight that he powers with solar panels and a windmill. He even has a camper parked on the lot, a sure sign of Searchlight authenticity. But Reid is no sure thing, even in his home town.

One Reid stalwart here is Verlie Doing, who owns the Searchlight Nugget casino and has known Reid for more than 40 years. Doing is circulating a letter to residents that boasts of the "drastic improvements" Reid has brought to Searchlight, all on the federal dime.

The list includes two new lanes for Highway 95; a new wastewater facility and sewer system improvements; two new wells and an arsenic treatment plant; and preservation money for the Bow ranch.

Diane Kendall, a local real estate agent, doesn't care about any of it. "I don't see one thing that Harry's done for us," she said.

Feisty and blunt, Kendall has known Reid her whole life. Her parents were close friends of his parents and held the wake for Reid's father. But the two families had a falling-out, for reasons Kendall won't disclose, and she became an early Angle backer. A tea party rally she helped organize in Searchlight a few months ago featured Sarah Palin as a guest speaker and drew thousands.

Kendall is countering Doing's letter with one of her own, making the case for Angle. "Despite all of his so-called accomplishments, the lifestyle around here hasn't changed," she said.

Wells, the Cottonwood Lake Homes developer, is a Republican, but he isn't sure that voting Reid out of office is the right remedy for Searchlight or Nevada. He still owns a trailer in town, up the road from the failed development. He's thinking about opening a small restaurant if the economy improves.

"What happened to me and to other people in Nevada is a sad thing. It brings out a lot of sour feelings," Wells said. "But let's not do something we might regret."

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