Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton stands beside Senate minority leader Harry Reid and majority leader Mitch McConnell at the unveiling of a portrait of Reid, on Capitol Hill.
Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Democratic minority leader was a ‘terrible candidate who knew how to win’, says journalist who covered Nevada senator for decades

As Democrats ready for the fight of a lifetime, their pugilistic leader from Searchlight, Nevada, is preparing to hang up his gloves.

Minority leader Harry Reid bade farewell to the Senate this week, after 30 years in the chamber, more than half in leadership roles.

The taciturn man whom colleagues praised as a “titan of the Senate”, who was “blunt even about his bluntness”, said he left with no regrets. Yet his party – stuck in the minority after demoralizing losses last month – has little power to stop Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees.

“I’ve done the best that I can,” Reid said at his final press conference, on Capitol Hill. “And I don’t have any regrets whatsoever about my efforts to push forward a Democratic agenda.”

When Reid was elected to Congress in 1982, Ronald Reagan was president and Tip O’Neill was Speaker of the House. Those years have come to be seen as a golden era of bipartisanship, seemingly folkloric compared with the deep antipathy that exists between Republicans and Democrats today.

“For me, his time here has been one of a failure, obstruction and gridlock,” Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said of Reid at a press conference with Republican leadership on Tuesday.

“All you need to do is look at what happened when, as majority leader, he wouldn’t even allow members of his own party to offer amendments on the floor of the United States Senate, which is what drove him from majority leader to minority leader.”

Moments later, Reid stepped up to the podium. Asked to respond, he quipped: “I was never running to be popular with Republicans.”

There are many portraits of Harry Reid: the brawler, once an amateur middleweight boxer, who called President George W Bush a “liar” and a “loser”. The ruthless, win-at-all costs politician. The ruler with an iron fist. He is beloved by his supporters, reviled by his opponents, and retires as the third-longest-serving majority leader in Senate history.

In an uncharacteristic 90-minute speech on Thursday, the 77-year-old reflected on the path that led him to the Senate floor, recalling a hardscrabble childhood in Searchlight, a gold mining town south of Las Vegas. By the time Reid was born in 1939, he said, the town had “no mines and 13 brothels”.

His father was a miner who had depression and killed himself. His mother was a laundress who washed sheets for the brothels. He had fond memories, too. Reid recalled, with a laugh, how he and his brother had locked their mother in the outdoor latrine and tossed rocks at its tin sides.

There were no doctors in Searchlight, he said. Once he watched his father pull an aching tooth out if his mouth with a pair of pliers. With pride, the senator recalled buying his mother a new set of teeth with savings from his first job.

“I think everyone can understand a little bit of why I have been such an avid supporter of Obamacare,” he said.

The town had no high school. As a teenager, Reid hitched a ride for 40 miles to Henderson. There, his civics teacher and boxing coach became his political mentor and eventually governor of Nevada.

Reid served as lieutenant governor, then Nevada gaming commissioner. Eventually, he went to Washington, where he reshaped both state and country.

Jon Ralston, an expert on Nevada politics who has covered Reid for decades, said his win-at-all-costs mentality was clear even from his first campaign for the Senate, in 1986.

“He was a terrible candidate, so uncomfortable on the stump, so bland, so charismatically challenged,” Ralston wrote on his blog, Ralston Reports, in a post titled “Goodbye, Harry”.

“But he knew how to win, even in the face of multiple visits from President Reagan.”

Ralston wrote that Reid planted a question with a reporter at a news conference held by his opponent. He had cameras there to capture his opponent’s reaction – and the subsequent ads were “devastating”.

Years later, Reid delivered the 60 votes necessary to pass Obama’ Healthcare law, the president’s biggest legislative achievement. With the election of Donald Trump as Obama’s successor, Republicans have vowed to dismantle the law.

In November, Reid delivered Nevada for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, as battleground states and Senate races elsewhere went the way of Trump. Reid helped usher in his Democratic successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, who will be the first Latina to serve in the US Senate.

At a post-election press conference, a reporter asked why Nevada was the only battleground state that delivered for Democrats up and down the ballot.

“The Reid machine, of course,” the minority leader replied, wryly.

‘He doesn’t give up easily’

Harry Reid seen in June 2015

Harry Reid seen in June 2015, after the accident in which he suffered a loss of vision in his right eye. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

In 2015, Reid stunned the political establishment when he announced that he would not run again.

He had suffered a brutal accident on New Year’s Day, when a rubber resistance band he was using to exercise snapped. He suffered broken ribs and bones in his face, and lost vision in his right eye.

To his opponents, Reid will be remembered as a partisan player and nasty obstructionist, a purveyor of scathing personal assaults. On his last day in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, his political counterpart and the recipient of some of his sharpest barbs, spun this trait as tenacity.

“If there’s one thing we know about Harry, he doesn’t give up easily,” McConnell said, to chortles on the floor.

There are those in Reid’s party who lament his controversial 2013 decision, known as the “nuclear option”, which allowed senators to approve most presidential nominees, with the big exception of supreme court justices, by a simple majority vote.

Democrats, under Reid’s stewardship, forced the rule change in order to circumvent Republicans’ refusal to confirm Obama’s nominees. With a Trump administration looming and the GOP holding the Senate, the change now looks costly indeed.

On Thursday, at a ceremony to unveil Reid’s official portrait, a bipartisan group of lawmakers past and present gathered to pay tribute to a man whose influence will linger in the halls of Congress.

Senator Charles Schumer, Reid’s successor as minority leader, read a line from Simon and Garfunkel’s The Boxer:

In the clearing stands a boxer / And a fighter by his trade

And he carries the reminders / Of every glove that laid him down

And cut him ’till he cried out / In his anger and his shame

‘I am leaving, I am leaving’ / But the fighter still remains.”

“It will be quite some time until we see another like Harry Reid,” Schumer said. “Until then, this portrait will have to do.”