Harry Reid, the former 5-term US senator from Nevada, has died at 82 following cancer battle

Reid led Senate Democrats during the Bush and Obama presidencies.

December 28, 2021, 11:29 PM

Harry Mason Reid, the former five-term U.S. senator from Nevada who led Senate Democrats for a decade spanning the Bush and Obama presidencies, died Tuesday, his wife, Landra Reid, confirmed in a statement. He was 82.

"I am heartbroken to announce the passing of my husband, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He died peacefully this afternoon, surrounded by our family, following a courageous, four-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Harry was 82 years old. We were married for 62 years," she said. "We are so proud of the legacy he leaves behind both on the national stage and his beloved Nevada. Harry was deeply touched to see his decades of service to Nevada honored in recent weeks with the re-naming of Las Vegas' airport in his honor. Harry was a devout family man and deeply loyal friend."

Landra Reid thanked the doctors and nurses that cared for her husband over the past several years and said funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

Reid's more than half a century of public service tracked the arc of American opportunity. From a hardscrabble upbringing in Searchlight, Nevada, Reid rose to become one of the most powerful politicians in the country.

He got an early taste of politics working as a U.S. Capitol Police officer to put himself through law school. He started out as a trial lawyer and city attorney before seeking elected office to advance his belief that government had a responsibility to improve lives.

"Harry Reid was one of the most amazing individuals I've ever met," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a Twitter statement Tuesday night. "He was tough-as-nails strong, but caring and compassionate, and always went out f his way quietly to help people who needed help. He was a boxer who came from humble origins, but he never forgot where he came from and used those boxing instincts to fearlessly fight those who were hurting the poor and middle class."

"He was my leader, my mentor, one of my dearest friends. He's gone but will walk by the sides of many of us in the Senate every day," Schumer added.

Reid was elected state assemblyman, lieutenant governor and gaming commission chairman. In 1986, Nevadans sent him to Washington as a member of the U.S. Senate.

"He and his family benefited from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and he never forgot it," said Jim Manley, Reid's former senior communications adviser and spokesman. "He always was looking out for the little guy after seeing firsthand how beneficial government could be."

Retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid speaks during his portrait unveiling ceremony in Russell Building's Kennedy Caucus Room in Washington, Dec. 08, 2016.
CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images, FILE

As Senate Democratic leader, Reid championed the $787 billion Recovery Act economic stimulus program to blunt the impact of the Great Recession in 2009 and fought to enact the landmark Affordable Care Act of 2013 -- two bills he considered among his greatest legislative achievements.

Former President Barack Obama said in a statement Tuesday that when Reid was nearing the end, his wife asked some of his friends to share letters that she could read to him.

"Here's what I wrote to my friend," Obama said. "Harry, I got the news that the health situation has taken a rough turn, and that it's hard to talk on the phone. Which, let's face it, is not that big of a change cause you never liked to talk on the phone anyway! Here's what I want you to know. You were a great leader in the Senate, and early on you were more generous to me than I had any right to expect. I wouldn't have been president had it not been for your encouragement and support, and I wouldn't have got most of what I got done without your skill and determination."

"Most of all, you've been a good friend. As different as we are, I think we both saw something of ourselves in each other - a couple of outsiders who had defied the odds and knew how to take a punch and cared about the little guy. And you know what, we made for a pretty good team," Obama continued in his letter. "Enjoy your family, and know you are loved by a lot of people, including me. The world is better cause of what you've done. Not bad for a skinny, poor kid from Searchlight."

President Joe Biden also praised the life and legacy of Reid in a statement late Tuesday, calling him one of the greatest Senate majority leaders in history.

"I've had the honor of serving with some of the all-time great Senate Majority Leaders in our history. Harry Reid was one of them. And for Harry, it wasn't about power for power's sake. It was about the power to do right for the people," Biden said of his former Senate colleague.

While the two men grew up on opposite sides of the country, Biden said they "came from the same place where certain values run deep." Biden ticked through many of Reid's legislative accomplishments, including the Recovery Act, the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform, as well as his role in ending "don't ask, don't tell," and ratifying the New START Treaty.

But despite Reid's lengthy professional achievements, Biden noted it was his family what was most important to Reid.

"But above all, Harry was first and foremost the devoted husband to his dear Landra. Over six decades together, they built a remarkable family with their children—Lana, Rory, Leif, Josh, and Key—and all of their grandchildren and great-grandchild. Jill and I send our love and prayers to Landra and the entire Reid family," Biden wrote. "A son of Searchlight, Nevada, Harry never forgot his humble roots. A boxer, he never gave up a fight—whether in politics or even against cancer. A great American, Harry looked at the challenges of the world and believed it was within our capacity to do good, to do right, and to do our part of perfecting the Union we all love."

Reid worked to stymie Republican efforts to privatize Social Security, and famously invoked the "nuclear option" in Senate rules to eliminate the filibuster for executive branch appointments and judicial nominations. That change meant confirmation by a simple majority vote, a drastically lower threshold which in 2018 benefitted former President Donald Trump and his controversial pick for the Supreme Court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

"If there's one thing we know about Harry, he doesn't give up easily," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said of Reid in a farewell tribute in 2016.

Reid was a liberal firebrand but not always in lockstep with the Democratic mainstream. He vacillated on abortion rights over his career and had a mixed view of gun control, twice opposing the assault weapons ban. In 2003, he voted in favor of the Iraq War which he later called a "horrible mistake" that "tainted my heart."

"My biggest regret is having voted for the Iraq War," Reid said in a speech from the Senate floor in 2016. "I was misled, as a number of people were, but it didn't take me long to figure that one out. So I became convinced that it was a mistake, and I spoke out loud and clear."

As the longest-serving senator from Nevada, Reid was also a fierce defender of the state's gaming and hospitality industries and advocate for the burgeoning renewable-energy sector.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement on Reid's passing, calling Reid's rise to power "quintessentially American" and praising their "cordial" relationship.

"Nevada and our nation are mourning a dedicated public servant and a truly one-of-a-kind U.S. Senator, my former colleague Harry Reid," McConnell wrote. "The nature of Harry's and my jobs brought us into frequent and sometimes intense conflict over politics and policy. But I never doubted that Harry was always doing what he earnestly, deeply felt was right for Nevada and our country. He will rightly go down in history as a crucial, pivotal figure in the development and history of his beloved home state."

Vice President Kamala Harris also praised Reid in a statement, calling him an "honorable public servant," who "got things done."

"Whenever we had a chance to speak, Leader Reid was kind, generous, and always to the point," Harris said. "Tonight, Landra and the entire Reid family are in our thoughts."

PHOTO: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., left, talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 10, 2014, as Congress honored victims of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., left, talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., on Capitol Hill, Sept. 10, 2014.
Scott Applewhite/AP

Despite a taciturn and soft-spoken demeanor, Reid's high profile in party leadership made him a political lightning rod. And he often kindled controversy with his willingness to sling insults and personal attacks against rivals, most recently drawing comparisons to Trump.

He famously blasted President George W. Bush as both a "liar" and a "loser," only later apologizing for the "loser" remark. On the Senate floor, Reid called Trump a "human leech" and attacked McConnell as a "poster boy for Republican spinelessness."

Reid was known for being frank and blunt, never one to worry about political correctness. He once suggested that no one of Hispanic heritage "could be a Republican," lashed out at sweaty and smelly tourists in the nation's capital, and called Bush's dog "fat" -- on a visit to the Oval Office.

In 2010, Reid was forced to apologize for disparaging Obama as "a light-skinned" Black man "with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one" during a 2008 campaign trail interview.

PHOTO: Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. walks back to his office following a meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, May 22, 2015.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nev. walks back to his office following a meeting with Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill, Friday, May 22, 2015.
Susan Walsh/AP Photo

During the 2012 campaign, Reid attacked GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney as a tax cheat -- without evidence. Fact checkers debunked the claim, but Reid remained unapologetic.

Republican leaders admonished Reid as he headed for retirement in 2016. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas accused him of being a "cancerous leader" whose "ramblings" were "bitter, vulgar and incoherent." Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming characterized Reid's tenure as "failure, obstruction and gridlock."

"He was a plainspoken individual," said Manley, "and when he said something he meant it. Sometimes it got him in trouble, but I always found it refreshing."

For his part, Reid -- an amateur boxer -- never apologized for the fight.

"I don't have any regrets whatsoever about my efforts to push forward a Democratic agenda," he said at his final press conference on Capitol Hill in late 2016.

Reid retired to Nevada with his health in decline. He had suffered broken ribs, facial bones and loss of vision in his right eye after an exercising accident in 2015 when a rubber resistance band snapped, hurling Reid into some gym cabinets.

President Barack Obama answers questions from Senate Democrats during their retreat at the Newseum in Washington, Feb. 3, 2010.
Bill Clark/Roll Call/Getty Images

In 2018, doctors discovered a tumor on Reid's pancreas and performed surgery to remove it.

"As soon as you discover you have something on your pancreas, you're dead," Reid bluntly told the New York Times in an interview in January.

Reid often spoke of finding comfort in his Mormon faith and marriage of 60 years to wife Landra.

"Hand in hand, sweat on the brow, they've always moved forward together through it all," McConnell said in his 2016 tribute. The couple had five children and 19 grandchildren.

Friends and former associates say Reid was content with his retreat from the limelight -- surrounding himself with family -- but never surrendering a passion to be plugged in to politics.

Reid told longtime Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston, in one of his final interviews, that he had been offering advice to Democratic presidential hopefuls for 2020.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 22, 2015, for the first time since he suffered an eye injury and broken ribs on New Year's Day.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP, FILE

"I had one of the presidential wannabes call me, and she said, 'You know, I've heard so much about you and we've met, but it was very brief. Tell me, why do you think you've been successful?' I said, I've been successful because I've always been willing to take a chance," Reid told Ralston.

The senator from Searchlight could be a case study in taking a chance and defying the odds.

As Reid liked to tell it, the tiny Nevada mining town had "no mines and 13 brothels" when he was born in 1939 in the shadow of the Great Depression. His miner father committed suicide; his mother did laundry for the brothels in town. His childhood home has been described as a shack, with no toilet, running water or telephone.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid answers reporters' questions after the weekly Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the Capitol, Nov. 29, 2011.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, FILE

The lack of health care facilities and schools in Searchlight forced the young Reid to seek an escape to a better life.

"He knows there are Searchlights all across the country," President Obama told a Nevada radio station of Reid in 2015. "There are kids just like he was, and he was fighting for them."

Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledges the audience during the Nevada Democrats' "First in the West" in Las Vegas, Nov. 17, 2019.
David Becker/Getty Images, FILE

ABC News' Roey Hadar, Kelsey Walsh, Chris Donato and Trish Turner contributed to this report.