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When in doubt, blame Harry Reid

When Jack Norcross couldn’t sell his home, when he couldn’t sell his storefront on the main drag, he didn’t blame a sickly economy. He blamed Harry Reid.

The powerful Democratic senator had denounced two proposed coal plants that locals prayed would revive far-flung White Pine County, so Norcross swapped out his office marquee to read “Elect Anyone but Harry Reid.” He mailed out hundreds of yard signs with a similarly irate message and even wrote a poem about his frustration.

His emotional response to Reid’s actions highlights a distinct Nevada trait, and a quandary for the Senate majority leader, who’s locked in a tight reelection battle: Politics here can be very, very local.

The 9,200 residents of White Pine County aren’t fuming much over healthcare or the economic stimulus, but they are over backyard issues: the coal plants’ demise, a proposed water pipeline to Las Vegas, even Reid’s infrequent visits. Conversely, his supporters praise money he wrangled to hire teachers and help build a high school athletic field.

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“In rural Nevada, the political is personal,” said Bob Dolezal, superintendent of the White Pine County School District, who demurred as to which Senate candidate he supported. “People internalize things. It’s not a disagreement of opinion, it’s a personal affront.”

With a population barely bigger than Riverside County’s, Nevada is small enough that residents, particularly in its pastoral stretches, cultivate more intimate relationships with politicians. Here, people don’t call Reid “Senator,” but “Harry” — and a whole lot worse. After four terms, he is widely viewed as orchestrating nearly every major federal government act.

That perception has won him fans and inspired his campaign slogan, “No one can do more.”

But in White Pine County, a patchwork of arid valleys 250 miles north of Las Vegas, the idea of Reid as political chess master has mostly battered his image. There are problems folks hoped he’d fix, regardless of whether he could.

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“They’re not unhappy with him rationally, they’re unhappy with him emotionally,” said Rick Spilsbury, a Reid supporter who sells Native American art outside the town of McGill.

In an election year with less vitriol, the grievances of a few mostly Republican rural voters wouldn’t merit a shrug: Democrats hold a significant registration edge statewide. But the campaigns of both Reid and Republican rival Sharron Angle expect the contest to be frustratingly close, and Las Vegas, where Reid needs to rack up votes, is awash in economic misery.

“He’s done too much up here that people don’t like,” said Kent Harper, editor of the Ely Times, “and down there the perception is maybe he didn’t do enough.”

Reid’s camp can rattle off ways he has benefited White Pine County, from shielding mining companies from taxes to fast-tracking permits for a wind farm. He was also instrumental in creating Nevada’s sole national park, Great Basin, a noteworthy draw for the region.

Ely retiree Margaret Nelson said voters would be foolish to oust such a powerful advocate who, as an impoverished miner’s son from dusty Searchlight, sticks up for “the rurals.” Nelson worked for Reid’s Senate bid in 1986, when she said he won votes by buying a pig and sheep at a 4-H sale. A few years back, she got a surprise phone call from Reid, who asked what Ely might do with some federal cash.

“Who’s that?” asked Nelson’s husband, Jim.

“Harry Reid,” she said, handing him the phone. Jim Nelson suggested building an athletic field, and Reid helped secure $200,000 for it.

But, overall, voters here are wary of government. Though the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state Department of Corrections are major employers, the area is also home to many “downwinders” who were sickened by nuclear radioactivity from the former Nevada Test Site. Officials in Las Vegas, meanwhile, are waging a well-funded effort to siphon the region’s water. Reid has supported the pipeline, which northern Nevadans fear will dry cattle ranches into dust bowls.

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Denys Koyle, who runs the Border Inn in nearby tiny Baker, long cherished how she had once found her young son at a state Democratic convention quietly chatting with Reid about how they had attended one-room schools. But Koyle has soured on Reid over the pipeline and how he snapped at local activists a few years back when they told him the water-warring might tarnish his legacy.

“I’m upset with the Republicans because they didn’t field a decent candidate,” said Koyle, who can’t stomach Angle’s brand of “tea party” conservatism. “If I had to vote right now, I’d probably vote for him, but it wouldn’t be the easiest vote to cast.”

More troublesome for locals, however, was Reid’s denouncement of two proposed coal-fired power plants that had been expected to bring tax revenue and hundreds of jobs to a county starved for both. The episode has become such shorthand in the “cow counties” for Reid resentment that Angle referenced it during the pair’s nationally televised debate Thursday night.

Ely, a Rockwellian collection of soda fountains and aging hotels, has long relied economically on the fickle copper industry. Although the opening of a maximum-security state prison in 1989 bolstered the economy somewhat, residents craved the stability and hefty paychecks coal jobs might bring.

But in 2007, Reid turned on the plants, saying they could sully the county’s pristine air and fuel global warming. By last year, they’d been shelved.

Phil Leibold, a retired engineer in Ely, was devastated, though he had no financial stake in the plants and lives in southern Nevada half the year. “He killed the coal project, and that is personal,” said Leibold, a Republican who already resented Reid for rarely stopping in town.

So he proudly planted in his front yard one of Norcross’ signs, which had morphed to encourage voting for “Anyone Butt Harry Reid.”

Norcross, a retired insurance agent and a Democrat, has become the local face of Reid disdain, donating to Angle’s campaign and plastering his Chevy Tahoe with anti-Reid bumper stickers. He pooh-poohed Reid’s backing of a planned renewable-energy transmission line that would run through White Pine County and bring investment and jobs.

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Instead, Norcross slapped “Dump Harry Wine” labels on bottles of cheap merlot and handed them to friends. “Aroma: stinks,” the labels say. “Directions: Dump in the gutter.”

Across town at the Nevada Northern Railway Museum, executive director Mark Bassett is perplexed by the anti-Reid faction. Bassett, a Democrat, has teased out funding for all sorts of projects and found Reid’s office a capable partner. Reid, for example, helped local officials gain control of miles of train tracks, which they hope to someday refurbish to transform Ely into a shipping hub.

Earlier this year, Bassett and a group of railroad lobbyists visited Reid in Washington, where Bassett mentioned the cost of fully rehabilitating the tracks. The senator’s jocular reply, as Bennett recalled it, was telling: “He said, ‘If I got the $10 million, could you take down half the signs in Ely?’ ”

ashley.powers@latimes.com


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