Voices: What Harry Reid told me about reaching Latino voters – and what he can teach Democrats

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Tributes poured in for the late Senator Harry Reid after his death earlier this week, noting his humble beginnings as a kid from Searchlight, Nevada who went from an amateur boxer to Capitol Police Officer for the building which he would later run as Senate majority leader.

They focused on how he convinced Barack Obama to run for president, helped pass the president’s signature health care law and then nuked the filibuster for Cabinet and judicial appointments. Republicans highlighted how his soft-spoken nature betrayed his ability to make blunt, brazen and sometimes flat-out untrue statements about his political opponents.

At the same time, many have commented on the famed “Reid Machine”, the late senator’s political operation that relied on Nevada’s culinary union, which was heavily Latino. In turn throughout the last chapter of his career, Reid built strong ties to Hispanic voters that could serve as a tutorial for the Democratic Party as it has seen its support from Latinos erode.

Reid and I discussed his support among Latino voters in an interview for a piece I planned to write about his former protege, Catherine Cortez Masto, while I was a freelancer. The fact that Cortez Masto, who succeeded him after he retired in 2017 and whom he hand-picked, is the first – and so far only – Latina senator in US history is a testament to that support.

Put simply, Reid made it a point to just show up and listen. Even as he was in his final months, Reid remained sharp when recalling his Latino outreach.

“What we did in Nevada, people used to make fun of me actually, because I went to all the Cinco de Mayo events,” he told me. Similarly, he mentioned his work with Latino media and how he solicited donations for toys for poor Latino kids.

“In short, I was criticized for spending so much time with Hispanics, because people said there was a lot of them that aren’t even citizens,” he said. “When they are citizens, they don’t register to vote, but when they register to vote, they don’t vote anyway. We were able to show that that’s not true.”

José Dante Parra, who was an adviser to Reid, made a similar point to me back in November 2020, shortly after Donald Trump made significant gains with Latino voters. He noted how Reid, a white convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, probably didn’t look like the ideal ally to Latinos but he still was able to speak to Latinos.

“But people do respect the fact that he’s coming to talk to them, that he’s reaching out and he hired people in order to do that, to communicate in Spanish,” he said. “He also realized that we need to be reached bilingually, that simply doing it in Spanish is not the only way, but that Millennials and Gen-Zers and countless people who are multi-generational or have been here for several generations, even before the US was the US, that they’re more comfortable to be talked to in English and in Spanish.”

What made Reid’s outreach even more remarkable was his about-face on immigration. In 1993, Reid had introduced legislation challenging birthright citizenship that was guaranteed in the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. As the virulently anti-immigrant Breitbart reminded people on the occasion of his death, he said “no sane country has an anchor baby policy,” referring to the children of undocumented immigrants who in turn allow their parents to gain citizenship. He later admitted this was a mistake, but in an era when Republicans were campaigning on nativist fears, he helped fan the flames to the extent that later, Trump would harken back to Reid’s old words even after Reid had left the Senate.

However, by 2010, Reid was up for reelection in what would be a bad year for Democrats. After he intervened in the Republican primary to get Tea Party darling Sharron Angle nominated, he also pushed for the Senate to vote for DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and were either in college or the military to gain a path to citizenship. In response, Angle ran an ad featuring men roaming around the US-Mexico border and talking about how he wanted to give “illegals” Social Security and tax breaks, calling him “the best friend an illegal alien ever had.”

But the ad backfired and Reid wound up winning an overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters, which enabled him to win in a squeaker and remain majority leader for another four years.

“We thought that was terrible. And so rather than hurt me, they helped me because they become energized. And that was one reason that I was able to win because of that unusual, heavy turnout by Hispanics,” he said. Similarly, even though the DREAM Act failed in the weeks after the election–due as much to conservative Democrats (then newly-elected Joe Manchin, who is still a thorn in the side of Democrats, missed the vote but opposed it) as it was to Republicans–he told me it was still important to have the vote, even though nobody wanted him to do so.

“Now, I lost. Didn’t get enough votes to pass it. But it sure laid down a marker for the dreamers. And that was really a good thing to get,” he said.

Reid’s work with Latinos extended beyond his own campaigns, of course. He argued that his state should be an early nominating state partially because its large Latino population reflected the Democratic Party compared to whiter states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Similarly, in 2011, he urged Florida Sen Bill Nelson to pay attention to Latino voters even though he didn’t think he’d win traditionally conservative Cuban voters; Nelson won and Reid’s turned prescient when Nelson’s lackluster Latino outreach likely cost him his reelection in 2018 and pushed for Joe Biden to pick Cortez Masto as his running mate in 2020.

None of this is to say that Reid did this solely out of the goodness of his heart. In both his incarnations as a rampant xenophobe and immigration advocate, he reflected the changes in his state. His anti-immigrant stances echoed the worst impulses of rampant racist Nevada Sen Pat McCarran, who restricted Jews escaping the aftermath of the Holocaust. But in the same token, as Latinos became a crucial bloc of workers who supported the state’s hospitality and tourism industry and thereby a group of voters politicians had to court, he responded accordingly and became an outspoken supporter of immigration reform.

At the same time, he could have easily written off Latino voters and continued to demonize them to appeal to white voters as well as a slice of conservative and anti-immigrant Latinos. But Reid showed the importance of trying and meeting Latinos where they are. Democrats can’t expect Latinos to vote for them simply because they think Republicans are racist. Reid showed that.

At the beginning of our chat, I, a Protestant, told Reid, a Latter-Day Saint, that I was praying for his treatment.

“That means a lot to me because I never say I’m praying for you unless I really do. And I know that you mean it, and that’s important to me. Thank you.”