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6 Things You Might Not Have Known About Harry Reid

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid greets supporters in his hometown of Searchlight, Nev., during a campaign stop in 2010.
Laura Rauch
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid greets supporters in his hometown of Searchlight, Nev., during a campaign stop in 2010.

Longtime Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, 75, who announced Friday he would not run for re-election in 2016, isn't exactly known for his charisma on Capitol Hill. But he has become known as someone who will always put up a fight.

That toughness can be seen throughout his life and political career. It was an essential quality during his hardscrabble childhood and time in the boxing ring. And it's what he later brought to fighting organized crime in Nevada and, more recently, taking off his gloves against the Tea Party Republicans.

"He's got that curmudgeonly charm that is hard to replace," President Obama said Friday, surprising Reid by calling into KNPR during an interview with the Senate minority leader, who has helped shepherd through major pieces of legislation for this president. "I'm going to miss him."

Obama added, though, "The system works better when over time some new blood comes in."

The president also lauded Reid's respect for where he grew up.

"I don't know anybody who understands more his roots, where he came from, what it means to not have anything when you're born, and scramble and scrape and work to get something," Obama said. "He has never forgotten the path that he took ... in terms of someone who's got heart and cares about ordinary people trying to chase the American dream, I don't think there's been anybody ever."

Here are six things you may not know about those roots and how they've informed Reid's political career:

Harry Reid's childhood home in Searchlight, Nev.
/ Sen. Harry Reid/U.S. Senate
Sen. Harry Reid/U.S. Senate
Harry Reid's childhood home in Searchlight, Nev.

1. He was born in a desert mining town.

Born in 1939, Reid was raised in Searchlight, Nev., the son of a miner. The home he grew up in had no indoor toilet or hot water and was built out of scavenged railroad ties.

"We did things that wouldn't be much fun for other kids," Reid once said in a video on his website, recalling that he used to sit on a ridge in town and count cars. "Why? Something to do." His father, a persistent drinker, committed suicide after he became ill and could no longer work.

Reid's upbringing contributed to a tough attitude that can still be seen in his life and politics — most recently when he badly injured his eye and cheek while exercising.

He played football in high school and was an amateur boxer. He met his wife, Landra, in college and they converted to Mormonism.

His hometown of Searchlight remained important to him — he moved back in the 1990s with his family and stayed there until last year, when he moved to Las Vegas to be closer to his children. His most recent home in the town was quite an upgrade compared with what he grew up in. The house he sold when he went to Las Vegas went for $1.7 million.

2. He became lieutenant governor of Nevada at age 30.

In 1970, Reid became the youngest lieutenant governor in Nevada history after two years in the state assembly. He ran for Senate four years later, but lost narrowly. He also ran for mayor of Las Vegas and lost. But he was appointed chairman of the state's Gaming Commission, where his work reads like a prime-time TV drama — he confronted organized crime, worried about having his phone tapped, and even once had a (failed) bomb planted in his car. The appointment put him back on Nevada's political map and by 1986, when he ran for U.S. Senate and won, the New York Times referred to him as "something of a boy wonder in Nevada politics."

3. He hasn't always had a clean mouth in the Senate.

"I think Sen. Reid often says what we're all thinking but perhaps are afraid to say," the late Sen. Ted Kennedy once said. As the New Yorker noted in a 2005 profile, he's called Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan a "political hack," Clarence Thomas an "embarrassment" and George W. Bush a "liar" and a "loser." Despite the forceful word choice, he generally comes across as soft-spoken, lacking charisma and, unlike some of his colleagues in congressional leadership, is not known to make himself a fixture on cable TV or Sunday morning political shows.

4. He once took on Nevada's brothels.

In 2011, Reid called for a ban on the state's brothels, even though they are taxed legally in some parts of the state. He said brothels harmed the state's image and dissuaded business from coming. "Nevada needs to be known as the first place for innovation and investment, not as the last place where prostitution is still legal," Reid he said.

One of Nevada's legal brothels, Sherri's Ranch, jumped into the debate by posting a list of reasons Reid's statement wasn't true — along with a photo of Reid — on its blog. "We all know that politicians and public figures enjoy the company of prostitutes as much as any other American citizen, if not more so ... So why not host political events in locations close to legalized brothels, where public servants can blow off steam in a worry-free environment?"

He's kept that stance and more recently said brothels would hurt Las Vegas' chance of being selected to host the 2016 GOP convention.

5. His workout routine included 250 situps, three times per week.

Reid was badly injured while exercising earlier this year, suffering broken ribs, broken bones in his face and needing surgery on his eye. He was hurt when an exercise band snapped and sent him crashing into some cabinets at his Las Vegas home. He spoke about his exercise routine to KNPR, saying he did 250 situps three times a week, along with "some yoga-type stuff."

"I don't know how many people out there could sit and do 250 situps. Or do the strength and exercise routines I did with those bands hundreds of times," he said after the accident.

6. He has said repeatedly, until now, that he would run in 2016.

In a video announcing he would not seek re-election, Reid said his decision did not have to do with his eye injury, the fact that he is now minority leader or his chances of re-election. But it may be all three.

In 2013, he was asked by Roll Call whether Democratic Conference Secretary Patty Murray might be in a position to become leader. Reid's response: "If I drop dead? I don't know." He also told KNPR earlier this year, after his injury, that he didn't intend to change his plans to seek re-election.

In any case, the toughness from his upbringing and boxing days came through, yet again, even in his departure announcement. In a video explaining that would not run in 2016, he said: "These bruises I have on my face, on my eye, are an inconvenience but trust me they're nothing compared to some of the bruises I got when I was fighting in the ring."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Amita Kelly is a Washington editor, where she works across beats and platforms to edit election, politics and policy news and features stories.