The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tributes from Democrats’ liberal flank reveal a soft spot for ‘fighter’ Reid

Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid in 2011. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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It was the 1960s, and Harry M. Reid was decades away from becoming one of the top Democrats in Washington.

He was a private lawyer in Nevada arguing the case of “Barbara,” a young Las Vegas prostitute who had fallen behind on her rent after losing her partner in a tragic car accident. After being evicted by an angry landlord, Barbara hauled all of her possessions off to a warehouse while trying to rebuild her life. When she went to retrieve them, most of her things were wet, broken or gone. Among the items lost: pictures of her dead lover. She reached out to Reid, who took on her case despite his colleagues questioning his decision to help “a woman with loose morals.” He won.

Barbara’s case, retold by Reid in his 2008 memoir “The Good Fight,” was what one former Reid staffer cited as an early example of the late senator’s worldview, one that ultimately made him a mentor to many liberal Democrats.

“Everyone else was like, ‘You’re crazy, why are you doing this for this woman?’ It’s because Harry Reid hated bullies,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, who worked as a Senate staffer for Reid and later became Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) deputy presidential campaign manager. “He hated bullies and people ... who had unearned stature that used that stature to bully others. He could not stand that. And I think that was [a] link to the left.”

Tributes poured in for Reid, who died Tuesday at 82, from across the Democratic spectrum, among them liberals who’ve described Reid as one of theirs, and also as a guide. They and others frequently used “fighter” to describe the former boxer.

“Sen. Reid did more than just fight for working people, he refused to back down,” tweeted Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the Progressive Caucus. “That was clear year after year and issue after issue — from immigration reform and health care to protecting public lands and protecting our democracy. He always put people first.”

“Harry Reid was the kind of fighter I love: a fighter who knows how to win,” tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who was first called to Washington by Reid to oversee the bank bailout in 2008. “Harry never wavered in his commitment to do what’s right.”

Grief over the loss of a leader with a deft personal touch was evident in conversations with former staff members and colleagues Wednesday.

Sanders, who picked a number of key campaign staffers from Reid’s old congressional office, said he will never forget the kindness with which Reid welcomed him into the Senate. It was Reid who had encouraged him to run for the Senate.

“What I can say, on a very personal level, was that Harry Reid was extremely kind to me, not just as a progressive, but as an independent,” Sanders said in an emotional interview. “I came into the Senate in 2006, and the treatment I received from him and the Democratic leadership in the Senate was totally different from what had happened when I was elected to the House ... I was greeted with open arms.”

“Sometimes, in a quiet or difficult moment, Harry Reid would reach out,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted. “It was like he knew. His counsel, encouragement, kindness, and generosity was so deeply moving. It was sincere. And I will never forget it.”

Raised in poverty in a house built of railroad ties, the Nevada Democrat lost his first race for Senate, then 12 years later eked out a win for the same seat. After surviving his 1998 reelection by just 421 votes, Reid jumped into Democratic leadership and became a soft-spoken force, punctuated by an eight-year run as majority leader.

Reid’s own evolution through five decades of politics charts the transformation of the Senate, and in many ways, the national political environment. He went from being a conservative western Democrat — pro-gun, antiabortion, an initial supporter of Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation — to a liberal icon who blew up the Senate’s cherished filibuster rules to confirm more liberal judges for President Barack Obama to key federal courts.

And, in that time, he became a mentor to a generation of liberal Democrats who have fanned out to work for the current leaders of the Democrats’ left flank, key among them Sanders and Warren.

“I don’t think any part of the Democratic Party would look like what it looks like now without Harry Reid,” Rabin-Havt said. “He shaped a lot of pieces of the Democratic Party in ways people don’t know.”

Former aides cited his early support for Warren’s ambitions — he reportedly encouraged her to consider a run for president late in his Senate career — as proof of his fealty to the liberal flank of the party.

Over the years, Sanders and Reid worked on a number of issues, most notably the inclusion of funding for community health centers in the Affordable Care Act, something Sanders had pushed for. Without Reid’s help, Americans wouldn’t have seen “the kind of extraordinary expansion in community health services” of the last few years, Sanders said.

Sanders remembers him constantly making strong speeches on the Senate floor in defense of the needs of working families. He had no need to create a media storm or heighten the dramatics to get things done, Sanders said.

“Based on his own personal life ... He had a very strong sense of class consciousness and very much resented the origins of the wealthy and the powerful who always thought that they could get their way,” Sanders said. “[He] just worked quietly to make things happen that benefited working families.”

Alumni of Reid’s congressional offices include staffers in both Sanders’s and Warren’s 2020 presidential campaigns. Among them is Faiz Shakir, who worked as a senior adviser to Reid years before he became Sanders’s 2020 campaign manager.

Reid, Shakir said, never forgot where he came from, and that defined his politics.

“Some people grow out of poverty and then move on, but it was always a core part of his DNA,” Shakir said. “When you look to the policies, you see how it impacted him, it’s all across the board.”

Reid, Shakir said, was a Democrat ahead of his time by many measures, ranging from his efforts to address climate change and invest in renewable energy, to his criticism of big money in politics. Reid, Shakir noted, was even ahead of the curve when he criticized the former name of the Washington Football Team in 2014.

Reid, Shakir said, fought fiercely for the public option to be included in the ACA and wanted to get it done, he just didn’t have the votes for it. He also pioneered clean energy policies, making Nevada one of the leading states in solar power. He understood climate change from a populist perspective, Shakir said, and was aware that it is “going to impact populations of the most marginalized, often the ones who don’t have somebody looking out for them.” And Reid, Shakir noted, fought “against every trade deal,” because he understood it as “an effort that was going to hurt working-class jobs in this country.”

“Those are the things he was most proud of,” Shakir said.

Paul Kane and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

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