Perspective: The unexamined legacy of Harry Reid

Why the late legendary Nevada senator meant so much to Latter-day Saint Democrats like me

It’s been just over a year since Sen. Harry Reid’s death, but the legendary Senate leader’s impact continues to be felt even after he has left this mortal coil.

Just a few weeks ago, he was the subject of a posthumous profile in The New York Times, with longtime loyalists, national pundits and even current Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (who succeeded Reid in the role) lauding the Nevada Democrat’s legacy — in his home state, in the nation’s capital, and in the political machinery of the party he led for so long. As one former staffer remarked in the piece, summing up the general sentiment, “you can see his fingerprints everywhere.”

That observation — like the many others that have been made in the countless other profiles written since his passing — is undoubtedly true. Harry Reid really was all of those things in all of those venues.

Former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, one of the highest ranking Latter-day Saint elected officials, dies at 82
One of the nation’s most powerful politicians was also a steadfast ‘home teacher’ at church

But, for me, he was also more than that. Because for all of the thousands upon thousands of words of well-deserved praise heaped upon Reid, the one aspect of his legacy that hasn’t been sufficiently memorialized is the one that just so happens to mean the most to me and others like me: the powerful example he set of what it looks like to be both a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a fiercely committed member of the Democratic Party.

And while this portion of Reid’s inarguably consequential life and career may not be what gets him immortalized in history books, it lives in the hearts and minds of thousands of Latter-day Saint Democrats in just about every corner of this country.

I haven’t always been a Democrat. Like many Latter-day Saints my age, I grew up in a household that reliably voted Republican (even if it wasn’t a particularly political one), attended church in an overwhelmingly conservative community, and came of age in that brief window of post-9/11 America where President George W. Bush was still viewed as a hero and highly popular wartime president trying to keep the country safe. So I suppose it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that an impressionable teenager without any real-world experience of his own emerged from that cauldron under the impression that he was a raging right-winger.

However, my time as the 21st century reincarnation of Alex P. Keaton wasn’t long for this world. In fact, it lasted only as long as it took me to wander out of my upper-middle-class suburban community and witness the reality that so many Americans experience every day — as a Latter-day Saint missionary.

When my mission call came, my assigned destination wasn’t some far-flung foreign locale. It was Florida — and one of the least glamorous parts of Florida: Tampa. But while the I-4 corridor may not have provided me with the opportunity to fully immerse myself in an exotic culture, my time there led to one of the most unexpectedly formative experiences of my life all the same — just not in the way I expected.

“Here were these amazing people who were working harder than anyone I’d ever met in my entire life and yet they still couldn’t make ends meet.”

During my time as a missionary, I had the opportunity to sit in countless living rooms and listen to humble, hardworking families from all walks of life pour out their hearts about the difficulties they faced, about fighting the seemingly endless uphill battle just to make ends meet, about working two or three jobs and still being worried about whether they could afford to pay the electric bill if they ran the ceiling fan in the middle of a muggy Florida summer.

That didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t jive with the story I had been told (and told myself) about good old-fashioned Republicanism: that anyone could make it in America if they just pulled on their bootstraps — and that if you weren’t making it, you must not be pulling hard enough. But here were these amazing people who were working harder than anyone I’d ever met in my entire life and yet they still couldn’t make ends meet, despite living in the richest nation in the history of human civilization. What gives?

These experiences sent me on a path of personal exploration, determined to find ideas and solutions that would help these people I had met for whom the version of the American dream that I’d been taught to believe in my entire life just didn’t seem to apply. That journey led me to the Democratic Party — and eventually, to one Harry Mason Reid Jr.

Being a Democrat in the church can be a strange and uniquely challenging existence. After all, there haven’t been all that many of us in recent history — again and again, public opinion surveys find Latter-day Saints to be among the most steadfastly Republican faith groups.

This can make life tricky for those of us who sit on the left side of the aisle politically and yet also sit in the pews for sacrament meeting on Sunday. Many of us have frequently found ourselves to be the only Democrats in our local ward — or at least the only ones willing to be open about it. Every Latter-day Saint Democrat is intimately familiar with the experience of having a brother or sister in their ward find them in the hallway and glance both ways before conspiratorially whispering, “I’m actually a Democrat too,” as if they don’t want anyone else to hear this darkest of all secrets.

While our numbers may be on the rise and many left-leaning Latter-day Saints are happy to put on a brave face, fight the good fight and dare to be different, the truth is that doing so can be something of an isolating experience. Being the only person in your local faith community who believes what you believe — surrounded by a sea of people whose views of your deeply held principles likely range from highly skeptical, at best, to outright hostile, at worst — is never easy, and it honestly gets a little exhausting feeling the need to constantly justify your right to exist in your place of worship, even if only in your own mind.

And that’s why Reid — his life, his legacy, his example — means so much. He was a devout, temple-going member of the church who was a Democrat — and not just any Democrat, but the Senate majority leader and a veritable force of nature within the party, operating at the absolute highest levels of American politics. He could wake up in the morning and read his scriptures, spend the lion’s share of his day publicly sparring with the president of the United States, get his temple recommend renewed thanks to a stake president’s interview in his Senate office (true story!), and then whip the votes necessary to pass landmark progressive legislation before heading home to do ministering visits. 

All in a day’s work for Brother Reid.

To say that Reid set an example for thousands of his Democratic coreligionists would be a massive understatement. He was the example, the platonic ideal of our small but devoted community, the very best of us. He was the person you could point to when your Republican uncle accosted you at Thanksgiving. Because he existed, it felt like it was OK for us to exist too. And while that feeling applied to many a left-of-center Latter-day Saint, it was especially meaningful for someone like me. 

My missionary experiences down in Florida not only converted me to the Democratic Party, they also changed my entire life plan. My lifelong dream to be a sports journalist had been replaced by a burning desire to work in politics. To be clear, I had no idea what that meant or what it took at the time. I didn’t know a single person who had done it and I didn’t have the slightest clue how to go about even getting my foot in the door. I just knew that I felt called to do it — and because someone like me had figured out how to fight and scrap their way from a poverty-stricken childhood spent in a literal shack in the tiny town of Searchlight, Nevada, all the way to become one of the three most powerful political figures in the entire country, that meant I could probably stumble my way into some type of career in that world too.

“To say that Reid set an example for thousands of his Democratic coreligionists would be a massive understatement. He was the example.”

And inspired by Brother Reid’s example (and helped along by no shortage of divine providence), I did. Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to do things that my 21-year-old self could have only dreamed of. I’ve helped elect dozens of Democrats up and down the ballot, from the statehouse to the White House. I’ve advised our party’s top leaders on matters of message and strategy. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to play a role in some of the most crucial fights of our time, doing my small part to help pass laws and enact policies that have improved the lives of those hard-working families whose struggles motivated me to venture down this path in the first place.

I don’t think that would have happened without Reid. He changed the trajectory of my life through his example, by fighting the good fight and inspiring others to follow behind him.

I never got the chance to tell Reid what he meant to me before he passed. I crossed paths with him on a few occasions during the course of my career in Washington, but I could never get up the nerve to actually tell him how much I admired him. Turns out, it’s hard to find the right words to say when you meet your hero.

Perhaps the most memorable of these interactions came in 2016. I was attending the Senate Democratic Caucus’ weekly luncheon, where my boss was making a presentation to the assembled senators. Two years earlier, our consulting firm had been hired by the Democratic National Committee to oversee an extensive effort to develop a new message for the party. I had led the project and poured my soul into the work. I was proud of what we had created. However, it was essential for our recommendations to be blessed by the party’s leaders in Congress — and seeking that blessing was what brought us to this private dining room inside the Capitol.

As my boss began to address the senators, I sat alone at a table near the front, listening. But then, after a minute or two, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a Senate staffer, asking me to scoot my chair in so a late-arriving senator could shuffle behind me and take the empty seat to my left. I quickly moved my bag out of the way and obliged the request, and when I looked up, who did I find sitting no more than six feet from me but Reid.

My stomach lurched — initially out of surprise and excitement, but then out of trepidation. A few years earlier, I had watched firsthand from the safety of the sidelines as the ever-blunt Reid harangued a fellow consultant during a similar presentation at a caucus retreat, pointedly criticizing the entire polling profession at great length before concluding by telling his target, in no uncertain terms, that he didn’t trust a word that came out of his mouth. And here was my boss, poised at the lectern, flipping through a PowerPoint presentation bursting at the seams with slide after slide of polling data that I had assembled as supporting evidence for our recommendations. Gulp.

I could almost hear him licking his chops and preparing to effortlessly obliterate two whole years of my life’s work in a single moment — all while giving me a front row seat to my own annihilation. 

I couldn’t bring myself to do anything but stare blankly in his direction.

But surprisingly, Reid didn’t say a word during the presentation. And he remained similarly silent during the question-and-answer session that followed. In fact, he barely looked up from his plate at all, as if he were transfixed by the food in front of him and somehow completely unaware of anything else happening in the room. Was he even listening, I wondered? Or was our work so bad or so boring that it didn’t even merit him expending the energy to critique it?

Then, as my boss began to wrap up the discussion, Reid abruptly stood up. But rather than lobbing a rhetorical grenade in the direction of our work (and considering the source, my personal self-worth), he turned and began to head back from whence he came. In order to make his way toward the exit, he would have to once again shuffle behind my chair. Anticipating this, I scrambled to make space for my idol to pass by, breathing a silent sigh of relief in the process.

As he approached my chair, rather than simply brushing past, Reid stopped in front of me and, for the first time since he entered the room, looked up and directly into my eyes. And then, in his distinctive, soft-spoken voice, he uttered the two words that anyone hopes to hear from their hero:

“Good work.”

Over the next few years, Reid’s health would decline to the point that he would leave his career in the nation’s capital behind and return home to Nevada, where he would live out the rest of his days in the state he loved so much. 

I never got another chance to try and express to him how grateful I am for all that he made possible for me and for so many others, just by being who he was and standing for what he stood for. And even if I did get that opportunity, I’m not sure I would have been capable of coherently expressing my thoughts and feelings in a way that would even begin to do justice to his impact.

There’s no doubt that Sen. Reid’s lifetime of dedication to both the country he served and the party he built will earn him a place in American history. But for thousands of Latter-day Saint Democrats like me, Brother Reid’s legacy will always live a little bit closer to home — etched in the hearts and minds of those he inspired, whether or not we find the right words.

Steve Pierce is a Democratic strategist and communications consultant who advises campaigns, causes and brands on matters of message and strategy. He currently works as a Senior Director at Bully Pulpit Interactive — an award-winning communications firm based in Washington, D.C. — and previously held roles with Priorities USA, Hillary For America and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, among others. He is a contributing writer for the Deseret News.