Tourism has lost a trusted friend in Harry Reid

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T1220HARRYREID_C_HR [Credit: Clark County Department of Aviation]
Las Vegas' McCarran Airport was renamed Harry Reid Airport in December, just two weeks before the former Senate majority leader died at age 82. Photo Credit: Clark County Department of Aviation
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

Nevada's most powerful politician ever on the national stage, Harry Reid was a quiet but fierce advocate for the state's tourism industry.

Reid, who died Dec. 28 at age 82, served in the U.S. Senate from 1987 until his retirement in 2017 and was Democratic majority leader from 2007 until 2015. He was instrumental in passing economic recovery legislation during the Great Recession and the Affordable Care Act.

Now the namesake for Las Vegas' international airport, Reid contributed to Nevada's tourism landscape in at least three different ways.

First, when construction on MGM Resorts' CityCenter stalled amid the Great Recession in 2009, Reid called bankers to help raise about $1.2 billion to ensure completion of the massive project on the Las Vegas Strip.

While the effort was not widely known at the time, he admitted to his heavy-handed tactics during an interview with Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent in 2019. He told Ralston that his long friendship with Kirk Kerkorian, MGM's founder and largest shareholder, motivated him to make the calls "and threaten them any way I could."

"Reid saved CityCenter. It's that simple," said Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Reid called the banks in question and said, essentially, you all wouldn't foreclose or do anything to hurt MGM when they are my friends, and I am Senate majority leader -- which, by the way, is exactly what any senator worth their salt would have done."

Second, Reid led the long fight against the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Preserving the health and safety of residents and tourists was one of the main arguments behind complex science and nagging transportation issues.

"The idea of trucks full of nuclear waste rumbling behind the Strip or the waste possibly affecting Las Vegas was an important part of the effort to block the dump," Green said. "Tourism was the golden goose, and Reid and his fellow Nevadans were determined not to kill that goose."

Third, as a congressman (1983-1987), he authored a bill in 1986 to establish the Great Basin National Park in Nevada and worked to protect Lake Tahoe. In addition to its gaming and other urban amenities, Nevada has long promoted its natural wonders.

"There's a strong element of promoting tourism in Reid's environmental policies," Green said. "Not only Great Basin National Park -- the state's first and a great draw to the Ely area -- and Lake Tahoe but the wilderness areas he created or expanded and the areas like Gold Butte [National Monument]."

Going back even further in history, Reid served on the Nevada Gaming Commission (1977-1981) when state regulators and federal prosecutors were driving the mob out of Las Vegas. Reid, who received many death threats at the time, led efforts to put mobsters Tony Spilotro and Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal in the Black Book (Nevada's list of people excluded from entering casinos).

Green, who interviewed Reid for the Mob Museum website about his years on the gaming commission, said Reid "really had no idea how pervasive or dangerous organized crime was [at first]."

Reid was among those who inspired the senator character played by Dick Smothers in Martin Scorsese's 1995 film "Casino."

"Reid certainly didn't anticipate having to go after the likes of Lefty Rosenthal, or Joe Agosto at the Tropicana, or the mobsters connected to the Aladdin and other properties," Green said. "Nor was he alone. But he was part of an effort to make the industry legitimate."

The renaming of McCarran Airport took place two weeks before Reid died; the transition, however, won't be complete for at least another year.

Resort marquees throughout the Strip honored Reid after his death. President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, among many of Reid's Senate colleagues, attended a memorial service at the Smith Center in downtown Las Vegas on Jan. 8. Reid will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 12.

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