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Reid at pinnacle of Democratic Party

Published November 22, 2004 12:57 am

Nevada senator: He has been told his LDS faith doesn't square with his politics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - Political observers in Utah, where LDS can mean "least Democratic state," appreciate the irony of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid's selection as Senate minority leader last week.

Even in the U.S. Senate, it did not go unnoticed that now the most powerful elected Democrat in the country is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I had a Jewish senator say that to me," said Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, one of five members of the LDS Church serving in the Senate. "The way he put it was, it's historic - for the first time in history, the leader of one of the two major parties is an active Mormon."

Yet in the heartland of Zion, where a majority of the state's residents belong to the faith that has its headquarters in Salt Lake City, there is scant recognition or public expression of admiration for the political rags-to-riches climb of Reid, who joined the church 40 years ago while attending Utah State University in Logan.

"Republicans in Utah have done a very good job of putting the mantle of the church on themselves, even as the church leadership has tried to discount that mantle," said Weber State University political science professor emeritus Rod Julander.

"For many people in Utah, it's almost prima facie evidence that Harry Reid is not a good member [of the church] because he's a Democrat," said Julander, a former vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. "That's unfortunately a pretty common thing."

Maybe it's only an unfortunate thing for Democrats. In this month's presidential election, Utah voters' 72 percent support for President Bush gave the Republican incumbent the widest margin he received in any state. No other state gave the Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, less than the 26 percent he collected in Utah.

Next door, Reid easily outdistanced his Republican challenger on election night, drawing 61 percent of Nevada voters for a fourth term even as his state gave Bush a 50-48 edge.

Reid's home-state success indicates the large community of active Mormons there generally supports him, Bennett said.

"One of the things that Utah in its parochialism may not realize is that Mormons are a fairly formidable political force in Nevada," he said. "I don't think Harry cares how he's perceived in Utah. I wouldn't if I were a senator from Nevada."

Yet Reid does care how his party is perceived among members of his own faith. In 1998, Reid was elated when Elder Marlin Jensen of the LDS First Quorum of the Seventy said publicly that church leadership was troubled by the development of a "church party and a non-church party" and desired to be more politically diverse.

"I can't tell you how happy I was to see the statement that Mormons can be Democrats," Reid told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview at the time. "The only time my faith has been an issue is with members of the church, who have not supported me well."

Reid said he regularly receives letters from fellow church members about "what a bad person I am; they've really tried to damage me."

Although he is recognized on Capitol Hill as a man of faith, Reid "is very private about his religion. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve," says Erik Herzik, University of Nevada, Reno, political science professor.

Reid has said he has no problem squaring his faith's admonishment that gambling is evil with a political role that requires him to represent the interests of Nevada's multi-billion dollar gambling industry. He has been called "the senator from Circus-Circus," since the former Nevada state gaming regulator is the top recipient of casino campaign contributions. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says Reid has raised more than $1 million from gambling interests since 1989 and the nearly $302,000 he collected from the industry in the 2003-2004 campaign cycle was more than any other member of Congress.

"I do everything I can to protect Nevada's No. 1 industry," Reid told The Tribune. "Gambling is a personal choice."

With their lowest number in the Senate since Herbert Hoover was president, Democrats have few cards to play other than Reid. As the whip to current Minority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Reid's elevation with Daschle's re-election defeat this month was expected, but greeted with some nervousness by party strategists.

Is Reid really the one who can lead beleaguered Democrats out of the political wilderness?

"He'll be a major player," says Reid's friend, former Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan. "He is decent, very talented, very focused, supremely organized and tough, very capable of pulling coalitions together. But, yes, he faces major challenges."

Reid campaigned feverishly for Kerry in Nevada, even though the two Democrats sometimes reflect opposite ends of the party platform. Reid opposes abortion and gun control, as well as gay marriage, although he says amending the Constitution to ban same-sex nuptials is unnecessary.

Unlike his more privileged colleagues, Reid was born in a wood shack with a tin roof. Raised in the sagebrush outpost of Searchlight, Nev., his father was a hard-luck miner who battled alcoholism and depression before taking his own life, a tragedy that made Reid a congressional leader in funding suicide research and prevention.

His mother "took in wash," the 64-year-old said at his first news conference as Senate Democratic leader-elect this week. "We had at one time, when I was growing up there, 13 houses of ill repute. And that kind of answers the question [of] whose wash my mother did."

He hitchhiked 40 miles each way weekly to attend high school in Henderson, Nev. When he graduated, the townsfolk of Searchlight chipped in to send him to Southern Utah State College (now Southern Utah University) in Cedar City. He then transferred to USU and graduated in politics before moving his young family to Washington, D.C., attending Georgetown law school by day and working as a Capitol Hill cop at night.

Returning to Nevada in the 1960s, the trial lawyer first won elected office as a state assemblyman, then was lieutenant governor to his former boxing coach, the late Nevada Gov. Mike O'Callaghan, who became a father figure.

"If you were right and fighting for it, Mike was by your side," a tearful Reid eulogized at O'Callaghan's funeral in March.

Now, taking his corner of the ring in the Senate, Reid must find a way to work with President Bush and the Republican majorities in both chambers without sacrificing core beliefs of the Democratic faithful.

"We're going to simply wait and see what this administration wants to do," he told reporters this week. "We're going to see if they're willing to be a uniter. We're willing, as I said earlier, to dance; we don't need to fight all the time."

LDS senators

Five U.S. senators are members of the LDS Church:

* Harry Reid, D-Nev.

* Orrin Hatch, R-Utah

* Bob Bennett, R-Utah

* Mike Crapo, R-Idaho

* Gordon Smith, R-Ore.