LAS VEGAS (AP) — The life of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who rose from childhood poverty and deprivation in Nevada to become one of the nation's most powerful elected officials, will be celebrated by two American presidents and other Democratic leaders on Saturday, a testament to his impact on some of the most consequential legislation of the 21st century.
President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are scheduled to speak during an invitation-only memorial for the longtime Senate leader who died Dec. 28 at home in Henderson, Nevada, at age 82 of complications from pancreatic cancer. Former President Barack Obama, who credits Reid for his rise to the White House, is scheduled to deliver the eulogy.
“The president believes that Harry Reid is one of the greatest leaders in Senate history,” White House deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Friday. “So he is traveling to pay his respects to a man who had a profound impact on this nation.”
Biden served for two decades with Reid in the Senate and worked with him for eight years when Biden was vice president.
Along with Obama, Elder M. Russell Ballard, a senior apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, will speak at the 2,000-seat concert hall about Reid’s 60 years in the Mormon faith. Vice President Kamala Harris also will attend.
“These are not only some of the most consequential leaders of our time — they are also some of Harry’s best friends,” Reid’s wife of 62 years, Landra Reid, said in a statement announcing plans for the Smith Center for the Performing Arts event. “Harry loved every minute of his decades working with these leaders and the incredible things they accomplished together.”
Reid's daughter and four sons also are scheduled to speak.
Obama, in a letter to Reid before his death, recalled their close relationship, their different backgrounds and Reid’s climb from an impoverished former gold mining town in the Mojave Desert to leadership in Congress.
“Not bad for a skinny, poor kid from Searchlight,” Obama wrote. “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.”
Reid served for 34 years in Washington and led the Senate through a crippling recession and the Republican takeover of the House after the 2010 elections.
He muscled Obama’s signature health care act through the Senate; blocked plans for a national nuclear waste repository in the Nevada desert; authored a 1986 bill that created Great Basin National Park; and was credited with helping casino company MGM Mirage get financial backing to complete a multibillion-dollar project on the Strip during the Great Recession.
Harry Mason Reid hitchhiked 40 miles (64 kilometers) to high school and was an amateur boxer before he was elected to the Nevada state Assembly at age 28. He had graduated from Utah State University and worked nights as a U.S. Capitol police officer while attending George Washington University Law School in Washington.
In 1970, at age 30, he was elected state lieutenant governor with Democratic Gov. Mike O’Callaghan. Reid was elected to the House in 1982 and the Senate in 1986.
He built a political machine in Nevada that for years helped Democrats win key elections. When he retired in 2016 after an exercise accident at home left him blind in one eye, he picked former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto to replace him.
Cortez Masto became the first woman from Nevada and the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
“Most of all, you’ve been a good friend,” Obama told Reid in his letter. “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.”
Singer-songwriter and environmentalist Carole King and Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Las Vegas-based rock band The Killers, are scheduled to perform during the memorial.
“The thought of having Carole King performing in Harry’s honor is a tribute truly beyond words,” Landra Reid said in her statement. In addition to his daughter and sons, Reid is survived by numerous grandchildren.
Flowers, a longtime friend, shares the Reids' Latter-day Saints faith and has been a headliner at events including a Lake Tahoe Summit that Harry Reid founded in 1997 to draw attention to the ecology of the lake, and the National Clean Energy Summit that Reid helped launch in 2008 in Las Vegas.
Among other songs, Flowers was scheduled to sing the Nevada state anthem, “Home Means Nevada."
Stephen J Cloobeck, a close family friend and founder and former chief executive of a Las Vegas-based timeshare company, said he sponsored a gathering Friday for several hundred former Reid congressional staffers at the Bellagio resort on the Las Vegas Strip.
Those flying to Las Vegas will arrive at the newly renamed Harry Reid International Airport. It was previously named for Pat McCarran, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Nevada who once owned the airfield and whose legacy is clouded by racism and anti-Semitism.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.