Reid grew up in Searchlight, a remote town in southern Nevada where his grandfather John had settled in 1902, lured by news of a promising gold strike. The brief boom brought electric lights, telephones, fashionable hotels, and even a clay tennis court to the town. As the inevitable bust set in 10 years later, the hotels burned down, the telephones disappeared, and residents lit their houses with candles once more. When Reid was born, in 1939, about 200 people lived in Searchlight; its best-known citizens were pimps. "Searchlight never became a ghost town," Reid wrote in his nostalgic 1998 history of his birthplace, Searchlight: The Camp That Didn't Fail, "but it tried."
Reid's family stuck with the perilous and unprofitable work of blasting for ore. He grew up in a home built out of scavenged railroad ties, without an indoor toilet or hot water. A dynamite explosion killed his uncle; another blast shot 300 rock splinters into his father's leg. At 11, Reid donned a lantern and joined his dad in the mines.
"They worked hard. Their clothes were always dirty, their knuckles were always skinned," recalls 83-year-old Searchlight native Donna Jo Andress, who grew up with Reid's older brothers, Don and Dale. "It was hot, hard, hard work. And they not only worked hard, but they played hard. On the weekends, they sometimes got a snoot full." Reid's father occasionally went to jail for drinking and fighting, and he beat his wife. In 1972, after contracting a lung disease known as miner's consumption, he shot himself.
"There are no permanent towns that survive on mining alone," Reid later wrote. "When the town fades, those with money, talent, and initiative generally depart quickly, leaving behind the diehards, the outcasts, the mavericks, or those too old and sick to move on." Reid left Searchlight when he was a 15-year-old high school junior, eventually working his way up from a small-town city attorney to a state assemblyman, lieutenant governor, congressman, and, in 1987, US senator.
Now 69, Reid still owns a bungalow in Searchlight. It's decorated with a mining motif and is surrounded by the 14 abandoned mines that he owns—old sites with names like Spotted Horse, Diamond Wedge, and Cyrus Noble (so named after it was swapped for a bottle of Cyrus Noble whiskey). His office voice mail answers, "Hello, this is Senator Harry Reid of Searchlight, Nevada." The town is to Reid what Crawford, Texas, is to George W. Bush: a claim staked in the central vein of his state's mythology. "That's the image that he has cultivated," says David Damore, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "And it works."
But Reid's ties to mining run deeper than his sentimental connection to his rough-and-tumble origins. His sons Rory and Leif work for law firms that represent mining companies. Since 1999, his son-in-law, Steven Barringer, has earned as much as $3.7 million lobbying for mining interests including Barrick Gold, though he does not lobby Reid directly. Reid's natural resources staffer, Neil Kornze, is the son of a geologist who discovered Barrick's Betze deposit outside Elko. Since 1994, mining interests have donated more than $269,000 to Reid, including at least $82,000 from Barrick and its employees. Any suggestion, however, that these links have swayed Reid is "an attempt to draw a conclusion that would be inaccurate," says his spokesman Jon Summers. (Reid declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Reid's relationship with the mining industry is a fiercely guarded piece of political capital. Though Reid has a solid base in expanding urban areas such as Las Vegas and Reno, he has had to fight for votes in conservative rural areas. Part of the problem is his environmental record: Reid has opposed road building in national forests and supported setting aside 5.6 million acres in southern Nevada to protect the threatened desert tortoise. His 1998 reelection bid was opposed by the anti-environmentalist Wise Use movement; he won by just 428 votes. In 2001, when Bush moved to quash mining regulations put in place by the Clinton administration, Reid saw an opportunity to mend fences back home. "President Bush can't be wrong all the time," he said. In 2003, prominent Nevada Republicans endorsed his reelection bid, and he won by a comfortable margin.
In the end, Reid's stance seems to be the product of a highly personal political calculus. More than 85 percent of Nevada is federally owned; there are 48 major mines and more than 179,000 active claims on that land. "The economy of rural Nevada is tied to the mining industry in a big way," explains Alan Coyner, chief administrator of the Nevada Division of Minerals. The industry claims to generate 102,000 jobs and pump $9.6 billion annually into the economy. "If a punitive royalty is imposed that closes or doesn't allow a bunch of mines to open," says Coyner, "then you've got a bunch of unemployed Nevadans."
the last serious challenge to the mining law was in 1993, when then-interior secretary Bruce Babbitt convinced the House of Representatives to pass a bill that would have imposed an 8 percent royalty on mining on federal land, allowed the Department of the Interior to prohibit mining in sensitive areas, and earmarked funds to clean up old mines. Reid was expected to broker a compromise in the Senate, but the measure died after he publicly opposed it.
Undeterred, Babbitt then tried to impose new rules on mine development and eliminate a tax break that allows mining companies to avoid paying taxes on as much as a fifth of their income from public lands—to the tune of about $327 million a year. Reid blocked an attempt to end the tax break and delayed the proposed environmental rules until Bush took office and killed them.
As Reid's profile rose, he didn't soften his pro-mining stance. In 2004, he moved to slash the capital gains tax on collectible precious metals, reduced the already paltry $125 annual fee for maintaining a mining claim on federal land, and convinced Sen. John Kerry to drop a proposal for $600 million in new mining taxes. After becoming Senate minority leader, he pressed the International Monetary Fund to limit gold sales (which are a drag on gold prices) and pushed the US Mint to produce more gold coins (a price booster). "I suspect that whatever he decides is good for mining is going to be on the table," says Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.
The 2006 Democratic congressional sweep put mining reform back on the agenda. When the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources held a hearing in Elko in August 2007, Reid pledged his support for "real and reasonable reform." Two months later, the House passed the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act, nearly identical to the Clinton-era version except for imposing a royalty of 4 percent on existing mines and 8 percent on new ones. The mining watchdog Earthworks called it "a huge step towards requiring responsible mining practices on public lands." But majority leader Reid, in a column coauthored with Nevada Republicans Sen. John Ensign and Rep. Dean Heller in the Reno Gazette-Journal, said the bill was "not something Nevada can accept."
Reid's staffers say he worked to craft a compromise when the bill was taken up in the Senate in November 2007. His efforts, they say, stalled in part due to a standoff between New Mexico senators Jeff Bingaman, the Democratic chair of the Energy Committee, and Pete Domenici, the committee's ranking Republican, who opposed Bingaman's proposal to examine uranium mining on federal land.