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March 21, 2023

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Harry Reid’s latest gaffe revealed when it could really hurt

As Republicans pounce, vulnerable majority leader receives support from Obama, prominent black leaders

President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

associated press file

President Barack Obama stands with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., at a fundraising event at Caesars Palace in May. Both share an increasingly close bond. Obama relies on Reid to move the White House’s agenda through the Senate. Reid needs Obama to motivate Democrats to hit the polls.

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The substance and tone was more Joe Biden than Trent Lott, but that did not make Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s comments about Barack Obama being “light-skinned” and speaking with “no Negro dialect” any better for the embattled Nevadan.

Reid set off a firestorm Saturday for yet another impolitic remark, this one uttered privately during the 2008 presidential election season and recounted in a new book “Game Change,” due out Tuesday.

The remark could haunt Reid during his re-election bid this year and diminish his ability to turn out a dispirited Democratic base. A Review-Journal poll Saturday showed just one in three Nevadans approving of his job performance — his lowest rating yet.

That Reid speaks frankly and often makes gaffes is well known. But the insensitive remarks on race are new terrain for the Democratic leader who is seen as a longtime champion of civil rights, and not a racist.

In fact, Reid made the comments while praising Obama’s viability as a candidate — a presidential contender he worked behind the scenes to support even earlier than had been known — as early as 2006 — despite his publicly professed neutrality in the Democratic primary. Many said Saturday that lost in the controversy is the context in which Reid made the remarks: He was working to help elect the nation’s first black president.

Reid set out Saturday from his home in Searchlight to quell the furor, dialing up Obama, civil rights leaders and elected officials in Nevada and Washington to apologize. He told some he was embarrassed by his remarks.

“I deeply regret using such a poor choice of words,” Reid said in a statement. “I sincerely apologize for offending any and all Americans, especially African-Americans, for my improper comments.”

The quick responses showed both the toxic power of such racially-loaded words — and the depth of Reid’s support among black leaders in both Washington and Nevada.

Obama accepted his apology “without question.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton said the comments, while not the best choice of words, should not “distract from the unquestionable leadership role Reid has played” on civil rights.

State Sen. Steven Horsford, the Democratic majority leader in the Nevada Senate, said he gave Reid his forgiveness.

Steven Horsford

Steven Horsford

“Harry Reid called me today and apologized for an unfortunate comment reported today,” Obama said in statement. “I accepted Harry’s apology without question because I’ve known him for years, I’ve seen the passionate leadership he’s shown on issues of social justice and I know what’s in his heart. As far as I am concerned, the book is closed.”

Said Sharpton: “Sen. Reid’s door has always been open on hearing from the civil rights community on these issues and I look forward to continue to work with Sen. Reid wherever possible to improve the lives of Americans everywhere.”

But Republicans in Washington invoked the racially insensitive comments made in 2002 by Lott, then a Republican Senate leader, that led to his resignation from the leadership post.

In Nevada, Republican candidates running against Reid piled on.

“Harry Reid’s remarks are offensive to all Americans,” said Republican Sharron Angle, the conservative former state assemblywoman. “I am disgusted, though not surprised that Reid thinks like this.”

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said Reid’s “inartful” comments were “the last thing he needs, obviously, at this particular time.”

Most jarring for some was his use of the word Negro — not quite the “N-word,” but a close contender. The word has come to be considered a racial slur.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently was criticized for using “Negro” as a category on the 2010 census. The bureau defended the inclusion, saying many older black people still identify themselves that way, and wrote it in during the last population count.

At 70, Reid is part of an older generation. He has an iPod and a BlackBerry, but he may not be quite as aware of cultural changes over the years, some observed.

Reid’s comments sounded more like Biden’s insensitive gaffe about then-candidate Obama — that he was “articulate and bright and clean” — than Lott’s racially insensitive remarks.

Lott, the former Republican Senate leader, said that if former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina had won the presidency when he ran on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket in 1948, the country “wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”

In Washington on Saturday, there was little talk of Reid’s leadership position being in jeopardy as Congress returns to session next week and continues work on the health reform bill, Obama’s top domestic priority.

Reid’s colleagues believe the Nevadan’s heart is in the right place, even if his word choice does not always reflect that.

Still, the matter may pose a problem in ethnically diverse Nevada. Black voter turnout was huge in 2008 — 77 percent, among the highest in the nation — and Hispanic residents make up a continuously growing block of voters.

Reid needs to mobilize a disenchanted Democratic base in Nevada in November, and has little margin for error in turning out voters from core constituencies.

Democrats say privately that Reid’s comments do not help his uphill electoral battle. But some said there is time to heal the rift with the election months away and other issues in economically depressed Nevada are more pressing.

Support from black leaders will help Reid rebound, some believe.

“What my constituents, regardless of race, are concerned about are jobs, economic recovery, the foreclosure crisis and how we’re going to get health care — that’s what Sen. Reid has been fighting for,” Horsford said.

“Actions speak louder than words,” Horsford said. “In the end he’ll be judged on the issues, not on an unfortunate statement he regrets making.”

But the story is likely to remain in the spotlight, if Republicans can help it.

Republican Danny Tarkanian, the UNLV basketball star-turned-businessman who is challenging Reid, said the senator “disgraces himself almost monthly with some disparaging remark about his constituents, political opponents, or now the president.”

Reid encouraged Obama to run early on, despite his stated neutrality as Hillary Clinton and the other Democrats jousted during the primary campaign.

Once Obama became the Democratic nominee, “Sen. Reid worked every day to make sure Barack Obama became president,” said Horsford, who was the chairman of Obama’s campaign in Nevada.

Today, Reid and Obama share an increasingly close bond. Obama relies heavily on Reid to move his agenda through the Senate, and Reid will lean on Obama to help motivate Democrats to the polls in fall.

Sun reporter J. Patrick Coolican contributed to this story.

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