- By Rob Capriccioso
- Economic Development
While it might be surprising to some, Harry Reid says he’s not a gambler, meaning he doesn’t partake in casino games.
When serving in the U.S. Senate from 1987 to 2017, and before that in the U.S. House from 1983 to 1987, the Nevada politico was known to take plenty of political risks, but that risk-taking did not extend to personal poker playing or slots.
“I don’t gamble on anything — ever,” the 81-year-old former Senate Majority Leader told Tribal Business News in a recent in-depth interview. “I don’t bet on baseball games. I don’t bet on anything.”
Throughout his time in Congress, Native Americans often thought of him as a regulator because that’s the role he played when he wrote major portions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which became law in 1988. In doing so, he relied on his past experience as chair of the Nevada Gaming Commission to guide him, and he was largely concerned about possible competition for commercial casinos in his home state, as well as the potential spread of organized crime and keeping a close eye on the consequences of tribal economic growth.
He has mellowed in the years since, saying that gaming has been a net positive for tribes and noting that its existence did not hurt the Nevada gaming industry. He’s been a friend to Nevada tribes on many issues and stuck his neck out, unsuccessfully, to try to help the Alabama Coushatta Tribe establish a gaming foothold in Texas in late 2012. And like many tribes that were initially opposed to online gaming, he has evolved to support it, viewing it as good for the overall industry, rather than a competitive force meant to be tamped down.
Yet Reid still doesn’t like off-reservation gaming, and he thinks Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has been a strong leader on Indian issues, despite her efforts to curb gaming for some tribes. In 2016, he worked with Feinstein to try to amend IGRA in a way that would force the U.S. Department of the Interior to reject tribal gaming compacts if they were tied “directly or indirectly” to tribal commercial projects. In another bill that year, he and former Republican Sen. Dean Heller, also of Nevada, wanted to require Interior to perform increased monitoring of and reporting on some commercial tribal gaming projects. Both attempts were unsuccessful.
The first time I interviewed Harry Reid, he was at the height of his power in Washington. It was fall 2012. He was about to blow up long-standing filibuster rules to get more of then-President Barack Obama’s political and judicial nominees confirmed. He had recently played a critical role in marshaling enough votes to narrowly pass the Affordable Care Act, which ended up being the signature achievement of the Obama administration. Partisan divides were widening, and he was helping shape some of them.
We talked then about Indian policy. He shared how bad he thought then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be for tribes if elected. At the end of our conversation, he seemed to revel in holding off then-Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as he was finishing up his talk with me. Geithner, on the precipice of seeing the country almost fall off the infamous fiscal cliff of that era, looked perturbed as I walked by to exit. Reid looked pleased, his eyes mischievously glinting.
Before I left his office, the Senate Majority Leader picked a piece of string off the shoulder of my suit coat and gave me a copy of his 1998 book, “The Good Fight,” about the history of his hometown of Searchlight, Nevada.
We didn’t speak again until this month, and times had changed. Reid suffered an accident while exercising in early 2015. While he said at the time that he would still run for reelection, by late March of that year, he announced he was retiring at the end of his term in 2016. He announced in May 2018 that he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but reports were that he was beating the difficult prognosis through a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and experimental drugs. This spring, he was quoted as saying he was glad he blew the horn on the existence of UFOs, and reports began surfacing that his health may have turned for the worse.
Yet his influence remains. Democratic presidential candidates called on him for advice throughout 2020. He was seen as playing an important role in delivering Nevada’s electoral votes for President Joe Biden, and he continues to make headlines on filibuster reform.
The former prizefighter is as feisty as ever. When we sat down to chat by phone on July 8, he couldn’t hear me. There was something wrong with my phone line. I had never had that problem before and had conducted plenty of interviews on that same line, so this time I was upset. I had the line checked, I bought new wires, and we rescheduled. His aides assured me he wasn’t ticked.
Finally, on July 12, we sat down for our call, Reid in Las Vegas, me near D.C. “Can you hear me?” I asked nervously. “Yes I can!” he replied, and we were off, chatting about his legacy on Native American issues, gossiping about politicos, and him offering a political assessment of one of my neighbors.
Thank you, senator, for discussing your legacy on Native Americans with Tribal Business News. My Native mom had pancreatic cancer, so I know a bit of what you are going through. I’d love to hear how you’re doing.
I’m doing fine; that’s about all I’m going to talk to you about today.
More broadly, on Indian health issues, when you served as Senate Majority Leader, you were instrumental in getting the Affordable Care Act passed, and that law included permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. How important were Native health issues to you when you served in Congress?
My number one accomplishment during my tenure in Congress was the passage of the Affordable Care Act. We struggled with that. It was very, very hard to do. I had to report to President Obama on more than one occasion, saying, ‘I can’t get the votes, I can’t get it done,’ and he would always say, ‘Keep working on it.’ And more important: ‘If we can get this done, I get reelected.’ We finally got it done on Christmas Eve, we got the 60th vote. It was the first time the Senate had come in on Christmas Eve for 150 years. So that was my number one accomplishment. And part of that accomplishment was that we included the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Service in that legislation. I feel very good about that.
And it looks like the ACA is safe. The Supreme Court has protected it. Is it here to stay?
It’s been to the Supreme Court three times, and they didn’t change a word in it.
Do you continue to work with tribes and Native citizens in your retirement?
Well, I’ve (worked) quite a bit with Nevada tribes. For example, one of the things I feel really good about is that one of my boys, who’s a lawyer, Josh Reid, he came to me and said, ‘I’ve got a deal worked out with the Indians, the (Moapa River Indian Reservation). We can get a large solar array there. But no one at Nevada Power will even talk to me.’ So what I did, I called the (former) mayor of L.A., (Antonio) Villaraigosa, and I told him, ‘I got 250 megawatts of power — renewable energy — that’s all solar, and I know you got a number you need to meet with renewable energy. Will you take my power?’ He said, ‘You damn betcha.’ So we got that done even though the local power company wouldn’t do it. We got it done through the mayor of L.A. So that’s something I feel really good about.
The other thing that I think is worth talking about a little bit is the Moapa Indians lived within a couple of football fields of the Reid Gardner Power Plant. For 40 years, they dumped all of their pollution on the Moapa Indians. It was detrimental to their health. So I worked hard, first of all, to focus on that. We even got the Moapa tribe to file a lawsuit against the power company, and we were able to get a termination date for the power plant. That’s been really important. In Nevada now, we only have two coal-fired power plants. The one I just mentioned, which is on its way out in a year or so, and the one up at Valmy, which is also going to be gone within a year or two.
You said the ACA was your biggest legislative achievement. In terms of Indian Country, do you have a specific accomplishment over your time in Congress that you were proud of?
Without being boastful — I hope I’m not, but maybe I am — I have no doubt that during my time in Congress, I was able to do more for Nevada Native Americans than all the rest of the congressional delegations before me. They did nothing. We got two new Indian schools in Nevada, one at Pyramid Lake and one at Walker River. We have been able to work hard on water. Water is key in the desert. And I worked for 20 years to get what’s called the ‘negotiated settlement’ done, which solved the 100-year water wars (between California and Nevada), and we were able, for the first time in two generations, to bring fresh water into Pyramid Lake, which was in effect drying out because they were diverting all of the water to the farms. I was able to get that done. That was very difficult. The people of Churchill County Nevada, they didn’t like what I was doing, they hung me in effigy. They demonstrated against me. But that’s OK. We got the fresh water coming into Pyramid Lake.
We also made it easier for Native Americans to vote. We changed the polling places to put them closer to where the Indians live.
In Indian Country, it’s important to have land. Most of them were placed in (difficult) areas. We did land bills for (many) tribes, and that’s something they had been waiting for for a long, long time.
Were you close to President Biden when he served in Congress and when he served as vice president?
Well, I don’t know what that means. I served with him for many, many years. He’s a friend of mine. We’re friends. We know each other’s families. He’s a wonderful human being. When I was sick, he came and sat by my bedside for several hours. He’s my friend.
The biggest improvement in climate change that I see on the horizon is Biden’s plan to do the infrastructure development that he’s talking about doing. It’s long, long overdue, and it’s the most important effort I’ve been able to see regarding climate change. I’m totally supportive of that.
From your experience, do you think a bipartisan infrastructure deal can get done?
The answer is yes. But, remember, with reconciliation we can get it done (with just) Democrats.
Yes, there’s lots of talk about a two-part legislative process, with the first focused on hard infrastructure being bipartisan, and the second on more social infrastructure being perhaps done through reconciliation. Do you think the two-part plan is a good one?
I think it’s a good plan, yes. Whether it can be executed or not, we’ll wait and see.
Majority Leader Schumer and Speaker Pelosi, you also worked with them for many years. Are they strong advocates for Native Americans?
Of course. Nancy Pelosi has lots of tribal issues in California. She’s always been on top of that issue for sure. Sen. Schumer doesn’t have the Indian population in New York like a number of the other senators have. But he’s always been very good for the underdog, and Indians have always been the underdog. Schumer’s been great in helping them.
If you were still leading in the Senate right now, which side would have your ear more, the progressives or the moderates?
I would answer that question by saying I would hope that I wouldn’t limit it to either one of them, that I’d have both of them. That’s what I tried to do when I was there.
And that’s hard?
Not so hard, no. If people know that that’s what you’re doing, they expect it, and I think it works out well.
Some personalities find it more difficult to do, but do you think President Biden is more suited to get both the moderates and the progressives on board for, say, infrastructure?
He’s always been very good at being a dealmaker. When I was leader, I would call upon him a significant number of times to come up there and work on whatever problem I was having at the time with a special interest group or a senator or a group of senators. He’s a good ole dealmaker. He’s a man who understands that legislation is the art of compromise. Compromise is not a bad word.
Who were the best legislative advocates for Indians when you were in Congress?
Jon Tester for sure. Tom Daschle was very good. Dianne Feinstein was excellent. There was a number of senators who were really good.
Any across the aisle that you liked?
[John] McCain served on the Indian Affairs Committee. He was very good. He was in Arizona where there’s a large tribal population.
Do you know Sen. Schatz, the current chair of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs?
Yes, Brian Schatz is really a great senator, and I was very impressed with him while I was there, and I keep in touch with him often.
I know the late-Sen. Akaka from Hawaii was a friend of yours. Do you think Sen. Schatz has big shoes to fill in terms of what Sen. Akaka wanted to do regarding Native Hawaiian recognition?
Akaka wanted to have Native Hawaiians federally recognized. And we didn’t get it done, but I hope that we can finally get it done, and I know Schatz is working on that.
What do you think about what the Alaska legislators and Alaska Natives created with the Alaska Native Corporations? It’s quite a different way than tribes in the Lower 48 relate to the federal government. Did you have any thoughts while in Congress about that more corporatized approach to Indian affairs?
They had some very strong senators. Murkowski has been great. Ted Stevens was extremely powerful. And that’s how they got that done, through Stevens and Frank Murkowski, Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s dad.
President Trump has said he’s going to really target Sen. Murkowski if she chooses to run in 2022. Do you think Alaska Natives will support her?
I think that Murkowski will be reelected in Alaska in spite of Trump.
When people think of Harry Reid’s politics, they tend to think of issues related to the Senate filibuster. If the filibuster were to end, would that affect Indian-focused legislation in any positive or negative ways?
You cannot have a democracy that takes 60 percent of the vote to get something done. The filibuster is on its way out. It’s not a question of ‘if,’ it’s a question of ‘when’ it’s going away. I’ve said that loudly, I’ve said it clearly: The filibuster needs to go away. It’s something that’s undemocratic in every sense of the word.
How quickly will it go?
Well, we have to wait and see. I’ve been pretty vocal on it, but there’s no question what I’ve said is true.
Sens. Manchin and Sinema don’t seem to think they can vote in favor of removing it. Do you think anything can change their minds?
Of course, (power in) Congress is for two years, so you have to see what happens every two years. They seem to be pretty well dug in now, but there’s going to be a new Congress in a few months.
Some tribal advocates are excited for the potential return of earmarks, which they think could be good for Indian legislation.
I think one of the big mistakes that Congress made was getting rid of earmarks. Legislation is the art of compromise. Earmarks made it possible to get a lot of good things done. There (should be) set standards and rules on what an earmark would take. They should be very transparent. And they should come back quickly. All legislation would benefit.
Before your career in Congress, you were a regulator of gaming in Nevada. Did that previous role cause you to worry about Indian gaming and focus more on the need to regulate than you would have otherwise?
I was somebody who opposed Indian gaming. But now it appears clearly that Indian gaming has been a real benefit to Indian Country. The one concern I still do have, as a result of being the chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, I am not really convinced that the (National) Indian Gaming Commission is strong enough to ferret out organized crime. Gambling is a commodity, cash money. Anytime you have cash as a commodity, you can be assured that the bad guys are going to come in and try to take advantage of it. I hope that the Indian Gaming Commission is strengthened. The Nevada rules that we have, and those in New Jersey have been strong. I think they should be adopted by the Indian Gaming Commission. … Get more boots on the ground. They need more people who are experts at different aspects, especially now that we have so much gaming done on the internet. There is a lot of improvement to be made.
When you were opposed to Indian gaming, were you concerned how it might affect the Nevada commercial gaming industry?
I was concerned about Indian gaming for a number of reasons, not the least of which was whether it would affect Nevada. It has turned out not to have affected Nevada at all. In fact, the first tribal compact was in Nevada, and so it has been very, very, very good for Indian Country. I don’t know where we would be — I know that the taxpayers would be worse off had we not done Indian gaming
Have your fears been alleviated any on organized crime when it comes to Indian gaming?
For me to say there’s no organized crime would be foolish, because they are insidious. They are very, very good at infiltrating areas where money is the object. When you have cash as the commodity, they are there. They are always there. I bet they are just licking their lips at some of the Indian gaming operations around the country. Indian gaming needs to be very diligent that they’re not being taken advantage of.
Last time you and I talked, you were firmly against off-reservation gaming. Any evolution on that?
I agree that it’s not a good practice to have Indians establishing gaming operations not on tribal land. I’m not in favor of that.
Do you like to gamble yourself?
I don’t gamble on anything — ever. No. I don’t bet on baseball games. I don’t bet on anything. I’ve always been that way. People want to gamble, more power to them. But I don’t want to.
What’s next for you? I know you’re working on a book about your legacy with Jon Ralston.
That’s what I’m off to do right now. It’s going to be a biography written by him, not by me.
What’s the biggest misconception about Harry Reid?
Others are going to have to judge that. I can’t. I have no misconceptions about myself. I understand who I am. Others have some perceptions, both good and bad, about me, but they’re the ones that will have to tell them, not me.
Finally, one of my neighbors who is about your age surprised me recently. I thought him to be a pretty moderate person, but he told me that he believes ‘the country is going to hell’ under the current leadership. Is the Biden administration doing an effective job at communicating what it’s doing for Americans?
Here’s how I feel about it. Trump’s four years of governing tested the strength of our country, but we survived the Trump years. We did it remarkably well. I think by surviving the Trump years, we strengthened our democracy. I’m not worried about the future of our country. I think it’s in good shape. Your friend, he thinks it’s going to hell? I do not believe that. I think that we’re still the greatest country in the world. We’re governed not by people, but by laws. We have a Constitution that’s the best ever. So tell your friend that he’s wrong.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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