Sen. Harry Reid did Utah a big favor, but there were strings attached

Family friendships and political favors got the Nevada senator on board in killing a nuke waste dump in Skull Valley.

If you ever crossed Harry Reid, he could be your worst enemy. His image as a hard-nosed, calculating political operator and tough-guy — complete with the cliché references to his background as a brawling boxer out of Searchlight Nevada — persisted so long because there was truth to them.

Get him on your side, however, and he can be a powerful ally, and there’s one story from my tenure covering Washington politics that I think captures that.

In 2005, Utah officials had been fighting for more than a decade — unsuccessfully — to kill a temporary high-level nuclear waste storage site that a company called Private Fuel Storage wanted to build on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation.

Putting an end to the dump once and for all was the top priority of Utah’s new governor, Jon Huntsman. So not long after being sworn in, Huntsman had a meeting with his general counsel, a young attorney with a sterling pedigree named Mike Lee, and the state’s new lobbyist, Bill Simmons, to map out a strategy.

“I said first and foremost, we can’t do this without Harry Reid,” Simmons told me after news of Reid’s death broke Tuesday night. “He controls what happens on this issue, bar none.”

In a way, though, there couldn’t have been a better target for Utah to recruit to the cause.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Reid, who two years later would become Senate Majority Leader, the most powerful government office ever held by a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had a long-standing relationship with Huntsman’s father and the Huntsman family.

What’s more, Reid had attended the same LDS ward as Lee and was the Lee family’s home teacher.

So the plan came together for Huntsman and Lee to get a meeting with the Nevada senator and convince him to help put language into a Defense Department budget bill creating the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area surrounding the proposed nuclear storage site — effectively making it inaccessible and suffocating the project.

They got their meeting at Reid’s condominium at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, D.C. When Lee came out, he called Simmons and said we have a deal.

But Reid, like any good politician, wanted something in return — and it was big. Reid wanted Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett to come out in opposition to the proposed permanent nuclear storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Reid’s state of Nevada.

On Sept. 20, Bennett marched to the floor of the Senate and gave a speech advocating for the waste to stay where it is produced and that both Yucca Mountain and the Goshute storage site were unnecessary. Hatch followed suit soon after.

In November, Reid publicly dropped his resistance to the Cedar Mountain Wilderness language. “While I continue to have concerns about the Cedar Mountain wilderness proposal, of even greater concern is the threat posed by deadly nuclear waste,” Reid said at the time.

The bill breezed through the Senate and was signed by the president — dooming the Skull Valley project.

“All of that really highlights how important Harry Reid was and the relationships he had,” Simmons said.

Those relationships matter and are increasingly frayed in today’s political climate.

In a statement Tuesday night, Lee said that “From his time as my family’s home teacher and father to one of my dear friends, to when we were colleagues in the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid was a kind, caring friend. He will be missed.”

When Mitt Romney ran for president, Reid publicly accused Romney of not paying enough in taxes. Reid recently told The Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast that he later had a “makeup” meeting with Romney at his home.

“Mitt and I talked about how we had done things wrong about each other. … I admire Mitt Romney. I think he’s a very, very fine human being,” Reid said.

Reid, who worked his way through law school as a U.S. Capitol police officer, said Romney will be essential to rehabilitating the image of a party damaged by Donald Trump. “Mitt Romney is going to play a big role in the future of the Republican Party.”

Likewise, Reid demonstrated that it is possible to be a good member of the LDS Church and a devoted Democrat.

None of this is to say that Reid was always on Utah’s side or played nice with Utah politicians. Indeed, as is so often in the case in politics, Reid was on Utah’s side when it benefited him, too. He presided over the Senate in a period where partisanship only became more toxic.

This is not to say Reid was a saint. If that’s what you’re looking for, don’t look to politics.

But he was shrewd and tough. He was passionate about Nevada and his constituents and used his considerable power to their benefit. And he would, now and then, when the planets aligned, work across the aisle, becoming an ally in a shared goal — something we could use more of in politics today.