Former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, one of the highest-ranking Latter-day Saint elected officials during his long tenure in office, died Tuesday at age 82.
“I am heartbroken to announce the passing of my husband, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He died peacefully this afternoon, surrounded by our family, following a courageous, four-year battle with pancreatic cancer,” his wife of 62 years, Landra, said in a statement.
“We are so proud of the legacy he leaves behind both on the national stage and his beloved Nevada. Harry was deeply touched to see his decades of service to Nevada honored in recent weeks with the re-naming of Las Vegas’ airport in his honor.”
Landra Reid described her husband as a devout family man and deeply loyal friend.
Reid, a Democrat, retired in January 2017 after five terms in the U.S. Senate, including eight years as majority leader and four as minority leader. He also served for years in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate.
McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was officially renamed Harry Reid International Airport on Dec. 14. Reid did not attend the ceremony.
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Reid’s liberal politics might have rubbed many fellow members of the faith the wrong way. But they might not know that during his 34 years in Congress, he often worked behind the scenes on behalf of the church.
Ralph Hardy Jr., a lawyer and past chairman of the church’s public affairs advisory committee in Washington, D.C., said in 2017 that Reid’s leadership roles in Congress and his commitment to the church made him a natural person to turn to. He called Reid’s efforts on Latter-day Saint issues extraordinary.
“In my personal experience, Sen. Reid has extended himself and been willing to help and roll up his sleeves and get us introduced to the right people and speak well for us,” said Hardy, who served as an area authority and stake president.
The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints extended condolences to Reid’s family in a statement Tuesday.
“Sen. Reid was a devoted and capable public servant who was dedicated to his family, his faith, and his country. We are grateful for his tireless service in each of these facets of a life well-lived,” the statement reads. “We pray that Sen.Reid’s loved ones will be blessed and sustained at this tender time of parting and in the years ahead.”
The J. Reuben Clark Law Society presented Reid with the Distinguished Public Service Award just before he retired.
“As one of the most visible public officials in the nation, he also has been one of the most influential. In every way he has been a force to be reckoned with,” Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the church and an emeritus General Authority Seventy, said in honoring the senator in 2017.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, recalled the close relationship his family has with the Reids, including their son Josh. The Lees and the Reids lived near each other in Virginia when Rex E. Lee served as U.S. solicitor general.
“From his time as my family’s home teacher and father of one of my dear friends, to when we were colleagues in the Senate, Senator Harry Reid was a kind, caring friend. He will be missed. Sharon and I are praying for Landra and their family,” Sen. Lee said in a statement.
One day when Mike Lee and Josh Reid were messing around, Harry Reid locked the two teenage boys in his garage.
“Harry would kind of joke about that sometimes. He was notorious for Thursday afternoon votes and threatened to keep the Senate in the session for the weekend. He’d always joke about locking everybody in the chamber. He’d say, ‘I’ve locked up a senator before’ and refer to Sen. Lee,” said Boyd Matheson, Lee’s former chief of staff and now a KSL Newsradio host.
In a 2017 Deseret News interview, Reid was reticent to talk about his efforts for the Church of Jesus Christ, saying there is no need to recount them.
“First of all, I’ve never been counseled, talked to, threatened, cajoled, admonished, given any direction by any one of the general authorities about what I should or shouldn’t do as a member of the United States Senate or House of Representatives,” he said.
“But whenever there’s an issue that I think is important and I’m contacted, I do my best to try to help. If they think it’s important, I think it’s important.”
Hardy cited several instances where Reid, who along with his wife Landra joined the Latter-day Saint faith while attending Utah State University, went to bat for the church.
Reid was instrumental in gaining congressional approval for the Church of Jesus Christ to secure a controversial lease with the Bureau of Land Management for an historic site in Wyoming known as Martin’s Cove. Many members of a group of Mormon pioneers headed to Utah froze or starved to death there in 1856 after being trapped by a snowstorm.
The senator helped the church work through a long, complicated process with the Israeli government and the city of Jerusalem to build the BYU Jerusalem Center, which hosts a study abroad program for college students. Reid also dealt with foreign governments to help Latter-day Saint missionaries obtain visas.
The son of a miner and a laundress, Reid grew up in a shack with no indoor toilet, hot water or telephone in the tiny town of Searchlight, Nevada. He hitchhiked nearly 40 miles each day to attend high school in Henderson. He said he didn’t even know what a senator or a majority leader was as a kid.
“I feel so blessed to have had the opportunities I’ve had to be chosen by my senators to lead the Senate,” Reid told the Deseret News in 2017. “They could have chosen someone with more talent than I, better looking, smarter, more experienced, better educated. But they chose me. Others could have perhaps done a better job, but they didn’t have that chance, I did. So I did the best I could.”
Former Utah GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, who often found himself on the opposite side of Reid on the issues of the day, called him the “embodiment of the American Dream.”
“He worked his way up from a hardscrabble youth to become the Senate Majority Leader. I’m grateful to have known Harry & to have called him a friend. My heart goes out to the Reid family at this difficult time,” Hatch said in tweet.
At 28, Reid was elected to the Nevada Assembly, where he introduced the state’s first legislation to combat air pollution. Two years later he became Nevada’s youngest lieutenant governor.
He would hit several speed bumps early in his political career, losing a U.S. Senate bid in 1974, then the Las Vegas mayoral election a year later, according to the Nevada Independent. He was named the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission in 1977, a job that earned him no goodwill with the state’s criminal underworld. He would get into a televised argument with mobster Frank Rosenthal in 1978, and two years later the mob attempted to blow up his car.
Reid, the longest serving senator from Nevada, developed a rough-and-tumble approach to politics.
Politico described him as pivotal figure on Capitol Hill in two administrations, as an opposition figure pushing and prodding President George W. Bush and then as the senate majority leader working to help President Barack Obama realize his agenda.
Reid also politicized the workings of the Senate, bringing to the floor issues that would have never seen the light of day in earlier times.
“If there was someone who loved the fight, it was Harry Reid,” Matheson said.
Reid went after fellow Latter-day Saint Mitt Romney in 2012, accusing the then-presumptive Republican presidential nominee on the Senate floor of not paying any taxes for 10 years. Romney stated categorically that he had paid taxes and that Reid was wrong.
His attack on Romney, now a U.S. senator from Utah, and liberal positions such as his pro-choice stance on abortion and support of same-sex marriage fueled questions among some of the Latter-day Saint faithful as to how Reid could be a good church member. Many members of the faith identify more with the Republican Party and conservative principles.
“I think a lot of that is old culture war stuff, but I think he took some pride in that, in proving that you can have a wide range of political beliefs within the faith. He was probably closer to center left on a lot of the social issues, but was always battling part of something else,” said Matheson, who interviewed Reid on the air within the past few months.
At the 2017 law society event, Elder Wickman called “Brother Reid” a devoted Latter-day Saint. He said it always amused him that from time to time at stake conferences, people asked if “that Harry Reid fellow” is really a member of the church.
“I have been pleased to respond that not only is Sen. Reid a member of the church, but he is a very, very good member of the church,” he said.
Reid also had other ties to Utah. Before going to Utah State University, he attended the College of Southern Utah in Cedar City, now Southern Utah University.
He returned to the campus in 2011 to speak at a convocation, where he reflected on his time at the school, which he said played an important role in his life and career in politics.
Reid went to the college with aspirations of being an athlete, but a foot injury sidelined those dreams. He turned that experience around, deciding that he would then focus on his education instead.
“On my bed in my little dorm, I said, ‘OK, my athletic career is on the way out, I’m going to see if I can make good grades,’” Reid reflected during his visit. “And that’s the story of my time here. ... I’ve always cared a great deal about this school because of how it gave me a start.”
President Joe Biden remembered Reid in a tweet as a “son of Searchlight, Nevada, Harry never forgot his humble roots. A boxer, he never gave up a fight. A great American, he looked at challenges and believed it was within our capacity to do good — to do right. May God bless Harry Reid, a dear friend and a giant of our history.”