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Harry Reid Was a Tireless Warrior for the Working Class

The most important politician to ever hail from Nevada, the late senator never forgot his hardscrabble beginnings and the promises he made to the American people.

Senator Harry Reid reached out to shake hands.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Harry Reid was an FDR Democrat. He grew up in a home that didn’t have much and didn’t look like much. In that home, they didn’t practice any religion, but the Reid family did revere one particular individual. “My mother had a navy-blue embroidered pillowcase with a little fringe on it, and she put it up on the wall,” Reid once wrote. “On it, in bright yellow stitching it read, ‘We can. We will. We must. – Franklin Delano Roosevelt.’ And that was my religion.”

In this way, Harry Reid grew up with class consciousness on his mind—by which I mean he grew up believing that the value of government was to fight for those who didn’t possess political riches or political power.

Nowadays, so many candidates who aspire to serve in the U.S. Senate have to first demonstrate that they have access to millions of dollars and are prepared to spend it all just to be thought of as a serious candidate. Reid rose from poverty to power the old-fashioned way. He earned it with hard work and dedication. And he always harbored some enmity towards those he thought felt entitled to political power due to their legacy or fortunes. As he ascended, Reid hung on to his humility, always remembering where he had come from and whom he served.

That is why I’m proud to have worked for him and of his progressive legacy.

A one-man bulwark for the Social Security program, Harry Reid fought both Republican and Democratic administrations that dared to make any changes that would cut benefits for millions of people whose lives depended on them. In 2012, as many Democrats were entertaining cuts, Reid stated matter-of-factly: “We’re not going to mess with Social Security.” And thus was it so.

At a time when many Republicans and Democrats were getting cozy with trade deals that benefited corporate interests, Reid defied the status quo. He said no to a president he loved, and he maintained his opposition to every trade deal that came before him. Expressing dire concern that American working-class families were losing quality middle-class jobs in a global race to the bottom, Reid defiantly declared his position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement: “The answer is not only no, but hell no.” And thus was it so.

On climate change, he saw the dire nature of the threat well before other esteemed political leaders. He didn’t just talk the talk; he walked the walk on climate. He willed his own beloved state of Nevada to become a national leader on renewable energy. He fiercely and unapologetically took on the destructive effects of fossil fuels. He said his own state’s coal plants must be shut down. And thus was it so.

And on health care, Reid maneuvered and persevered to pass the Affordable Care Act. He took great pride in delivering millions of Americans greater access to Medicaid. He worked with Senator Bernie Sanders to deliver a record expansion in community health centers, a source of just pride for both men. In a final, last-ditch effort before the bill was set to pass, he tried to squeeze in a Medicare buy-in, only to be cut down by a few members of his own caucus.

But while he had bedrock principles on many working-class issues, on social justice matters, he didn’t take a “hell no” position. Instead, he allowed himself to take in new information and evolve over time. On guns, immigration, and reproductive choice, he grew alongside the Democratic Party, listening to and heeding those who were directly impacted. His deep empathy for the human condition led him to stronger positions. Once converted, he not only embraced progressive viewpoints; he became a full-throated legislative crusader for issues like banning assault weapons, expanding women’s reproductive health freedom, and standing strongly for undocumented immigrants.

Listening to the directly impacted was one reason he was way ahead of his time on calling for the Washington football team to change its name.

Naturally, Reid wasn’t perfect by any means. He had his failures—few loom larger than the Iraq War. There, he voted the wrong way. But rather than bury his head and unnecessarily maintain the fiction that he was right, he acknowledged error sincerely and then became a leading champion for getting out of that war.

Harry Reid practiced brass-knuckle politics. When he made a judgment about a strategic direction, he was full-steam ahead. No regrets. Fight to win.

Maybe the best example of this was the government shutdown of 2013. Senator Ted Cruz decided to lead his party on a fool’s errand to try to repeal the Affordable Care Act through a government funding bill. Reid wouldn’t stand for it, and he wasn’t in any mood to compromise. As battle commander, he led the Democratic troops to maintain a 16-day shutdown until Republicans fully and completely caved. To this day, Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans don’t dare to revisit shutdowns because of how awful that experience was for them.

As he witnessed the ever-increasing control of big money in politics, Reid maintained a visceral anger about it and picked on the influence of the Koch brothers as one high-profile symbol of the injustice. Many of Reid’s colleagues didn’t love the idea of taking on the uber-rich who might spend loads of cash in elections against them. Reid was undeterred, frequently and repeatedly maintaining a healthy anger about a system “in which a small group exercises control for corrupt and selfish purposes.”

And of course, Reid played Democratic politics as a team sport to win elections. He and his dear friend Rebecca Lambe built a political machine in his home state that turned Nevada from red to strong blue, leaving a Democratic trifecta upon his death.

I didn’t always agree with all of Reid’s political judgments, but I always respected how he advocated for them. As presidential campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, I’ve heard the concerns of many of our supporters that Reid meddled in the Nevada caucus in 2016. He did. He called casino managers and urged them to allow working-class folks, mostly Latinos, to participate in the caucus. I still don’t fault him for wanting greater democratic participation. At the time he made this decision, I was a staffer for him, and he asked us to reach out to Bernie’s Nevada team and see if there was anything we could do to be helpful to them as well. We didn’t receive any requests. Knowing of my desire to help Bernie win, he urged me to take temporary leave from his office to go help the campaign. And despite great pressure to do so, Reid did not endorse Hillary Clinton before the Nevada caucus.

In 2020, after Bernie dominated the Nevada caucus, I received a call from Senator Reid informing me that he was going to endorse Joe Biden. I was upset, and I let him know—and I made my best argument for why he should heed the direction of his state. But he made a political judgment that felt right to him, and I respected him for telling it to us straight. One thing I knew for sure was that if Reid was going in for Biden, he was going in all the way—and it was no surprise that, within hours, he played a role in consolidating other candidates to get behind Biden.

Reid played to win.

Reid’s appropriate admonition is that if you step into the political arena, you have to understand that you’re here to get things done and it’s going to require a battle to do so. The Reid way was not to worry about winning over affection and niceties and kudos. Sure, those are good ancillary benefits, and every politician likes to feel appreciated. But the fundamental objective, Reid reminds us, is to accomplish something meaningful for people who desperately need those wins. That is of course why, despite his admiration for the Senate as an institution, he changed the rules of the Senate to make it function better.

Reid had a managerial style that deserves emulation.

He inspired loyalty in a manner that embodies traditional qualities associated with a great father figure. He was caring, compassionate, determined, and principled. He looked out for opportunities for others to advance themselves, putting his colleagues in positions to succeed, taking political hits to shield others from pain, and ultimately making judgments driven by the interests of the whole rather than himself.

In this way, the Reid staff, the Senate Democratic Caucus, Democratic presidents, and so many others all felt part of the Team Reid family. They sought and trusted his counsel, believing that he would take in all appropriate considerations and make a considered judgment that married shrewd politics with moral justice. I know I speak for many Reid staff when I say we felt fortunate to have crossed paths with him in this lifetime and gain from him an education that only Harry Reid could provide.