Rory Reid hampered by his last name in race for Nevada governor


Rory Reid would like to be Nevada’s next governor, but there’s a problem. Not a lack of money: He’s got plenty of that. Not a shortage of ideas: He’s got plenty of those.

It’s that last name, Reid.

As in Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, Rory’s dad and one of the most unpopular politicians in America, not to mention his home state of Nevada. Both are on the ballot in November: Harry, 70, battling for a fifth term, Rory, 47, making his first try for state office.

Good luck finding them in the same room.

They showed up hours apart at last month’s state Democratic convention, speaking at opposite ends of the program. When President Obama visited Las Vegas two weeks later for a Harry Reid fundraiser, the son was hundreds of miles away, seeking volunteers and courting donors in northern Nevada.

“He’s my father,” Rory said of Harry. “Not my political mentor.”

The seeming aloofness belies what is, by all accounts, a close and loving relationship between the two. They speak often, about politics of course, but even more about movies, sports and the senator’s grandchildren, according to the younger Reid.

Strongly resembling his father, he is rail-thin, with a thatch of neatly parted silver hair and dark eyes behind a pair of rectangular, rimless eyeglasses. Although he considers himself more like his mother, possessing her even temperament, he shares at least two things with his dad: a fiercely competitive nature and a broad pragmatic streak.

If that means distancing themselves in ways that are sometimes absurd — Rory omitting his surname from his first TV ad, Harry declining to publicly congratulate his son the night he was nominated (“He’s running his campaign; I’m running mine”) — each knows any close association would probably hurt them both.

“You’re going to have a very hard time convincing Nevadans to elect a pair of Reids in November,” said Michael Green, who grew up in Las Vegas and teaches history at the College of Southern Nevada. “They’re not the Kennedys, and this is not Massachusetts.”

Reid’s decision to enter the governor’s race has been a source of endless intrigue and no small amount of tension between Rory loyalists and those faithful to Harry, who are not always one and the same. People close to the senator tried to talk the son out of running, but he insists his dad never did.

“This whole” — he paused, carefully choosing his words — “notion that my father has some kind of inordinate influence over my life just seems kind of silly to me,” Reid said, with a hint of irritation. “Most 50-year-olds don’t go asking their daddy for permission.”

Asked why he chose to run now instead of waiting four or eight years, when he wouldn’t risk imperiling his father’s reelection, Reid responded that Nevada’s problems were too great to ignore. “I wasn’t going to watch somebody else waste the opportunity,” he said.

That leaves armchair analysts to posit less altruistic motivations: Perhaps, they suggest, the son’s candidacy is the ultimate way of asserting his independence.

Harry Reid declined to be interviewed. “Like any father I am proud of all my children,” he said in a written statement. “Rory is his own man running his own campaign. I know he will make a great governor for our state.”

Being a Reid wasn’t always such a liability. It paved the path when Rory ran for state Democratic chairman in 1999, and again when he sought election in 2002 to the Clark County Commission, the most powerful local government in the state.

Though the Reid name undoubtedly opened doors, observers say Rory worked hard and proved quite capable once he stepped through. His peers made him chairman of the commission, which holds sway over 2 million residents and controls a budget as big as Nevada’s general fund. Among his achievements in eight years, Reid helped clean up the notoriously corrupt commission, an echo of his father’s crime-busting role as head of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

“He wouldn’t have done as well as he has if he didn’t have something on the ball,” Green said.

A partner in one of Nevada’s most prominent law firms, Rory Reid is the second oldest of five siblings and the only one to follow their father into politics. He was 3 when Harry Reid first won office and he traveled the state extensively growing up, working in his dad’s many campaigns.

He kept a map of Nevada over his bed while attending Brigham Young University — his roommate preferred the iconic shot of Farrah Fawcett in her red bathing suit — and once boasted to his girlfriend that he had visited every town in the state and could name all 17 counties, backward alphabetically. She married him anyway; after 22 years, the couple has three children — all of whom, he notes, enrolled in public schools.

The governor’s race is the first tough campaign Rory Reid has faced. Reid’s opponent is formidable: former state Atty. Gen. Brian Sandoval, a highly telegenic ex-federal judge who left the bench to run and leads recent polls by double digits.

Many blame a surfeit of Reids on the ballot — which, Rory Reid acknowledged, poses a hurdle.

But eventually, he said, voters will compare him with Sandoval, not his father, and make a judgment based on issues and not genealogy. “Ultimately,” Reid said, “they’re going to decide who will make their life better, and by that time they’ll know much more about me than my name.”

To that end, Reid has issued detailed plans to diversify the state economy, which has long relied on cycles of boom and bust, and to revamp Nevada’s deeply troubled education system. He promises to unveil a blueprint to close the state’s yawning budget gap without raising taxes, and has challenged Sandoval to several debates, so far to no avail.

One thing Reid won’t speak of — unless forced to — is a certain long-serving senator from Nevada.

Addressing a few dozen Democrats at a recent house party outside Carson City, Reid was asked about illegal immigration and Arizona’s tough new law. The only solution, he said, is for members of Congress to pass comprehensive legislation.

But they’re not doing anything, several in the audience protested.

“We need to demand that from our representatives,” Reid began, before being cut off. “Call your dad!” someone shouted from the corner of the living room, and the crowd burst out laughing.

“I have,” Reid said, smiling. “I have.”