WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats elected their new leadership team Tuesday, placing at the top a devout Mormon who grew up in a dusty mining town in southern Nevada.
Harry Reid (search) is the first pro-life Democratic leader since 1989. In the next Congress, he will lead the smallest Democratic Senate caucus since before the Great Depression — one that has to choose between cooperation or confrontation. Reid has said he can handle both.
"My father never graduated from eighth grade, my mother never graduated from high school," Reid said. "I was born in a little place in the southern tip of the state of Nevada, a place called Searchlight, Nevada. And it's true that I was raised in a house that had no indoor toilet, had no hot water."
Reid's father worked the mines in Searchlight, a town that still has a population of about 1,000. His mother washed laundry.
"We had at one time when I was growing up there, 13 houses of ill repute. And that kind of answers the question whose wash my mother did.
"If I can make it, America, anyone can," said Reid, who still lives in Searchlight.
Little more than a truck stop now, Searchlight has seen its mining shacks replaced by mobile homes. But residents say the town still lives by the blue collar values on which it was built.
"Our parents were hard rock miners. It was a very hard existence. We didn't realize it. We were happy," said Reid's childhood friend Mary Ann McInnis.
As a young man, Reid worked the mines, shoveling rocks into ore carts alongside his father, who committed suicide when he became physically unable to work.
Reid put himself through law school working as a U.S. Capitol policeman. Later, he married his high school sweetheart and entered politics. First, he served as a small town city attorney, then a Nevada state lawmaker. At age 31, he became the Silver State's youngest lieutenant governor before heading back to Washington, D.C., to serve in the House and Senate.
Reid's politics are tough to nail down, but supporters say he maintains those blue collar values bred into him in Searchlight. A strong union Democrat, he is a liberal spender. A vocal opponent of the Yucca Mountain (search) nuclear waste depository, his strong environmental record is tempered by his support for mining. He believes strongly in gun rights.
Reid is an adept inside player. He was crucial to the successful conversion of formerly Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords (search), who became an independent in spring 2001, giving Democrats majority control until 2002. Reid gave up a key committee chairmanship that Jeffords won after defecting from the GOP.
Reid's most recent challenger, Richard Ziser, who was roundly defeated in this year's race, said Reid's not as soft as some would portray him to be.
"He not only is crafty, but some people refer to him as, from a political point of view, as vindictive," Ziser said.
As a Mormon, Reid opposes some abortion rights, the first pro-life Democratic leader since West Virginia's Robert Byrd (search) 15 years ago.
"We're concerned that he is an anti-abortion senator. You know, this is a personal view that he has. We're also hopeful, however, that he will not confuse his personal view with policy," said NOW Vice President Olga Vives.
But Weekly Standard Executive Editor Fred Barnes said he questions Reid's "pro-life" label. Barnes said Reid supported the so-called partial birth abortion bill, which banned late term abortions, and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which calls it a separate crime when a fetus is killed when its mother is attacked.
But, he added, Reid opposes legislation that restricts funding for the U.N. Population Fund by prohibiting the use of U.S. money for women who want to have abortions overseas.
"He really doesn't deserve being called a pro-lifer, which is someone who believes that abortion should be banned or at least that Roe v. Wade should be overturned," Barnes said. "I don't think he's pro-life, period."
Reid faces a daunting task on Capitol Hill, and that includes finding out whether he is in charge or if former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who returns as the senator from Massachusetts, will compete to be the prominent voice of the party.
"We are looking for John Kerry to find what he wants to do," Reid said.
Kerry told FOX News affiliate WFXT that he intends to carve out a prominent role.
"I'm going to continue to fight for the same issues I fought for in this campaign. I will offer leadership on a national basis to stand up for those things that 57 million-plus Americans voted for," Kerry said.
Reid will also head a leadership team made up of Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. The three senators defy the party's current bicoastal stereotype.
"He fights for Democratic positions, including those he disagrees with, and the number two and number three Democrats who were selected today in the leadership are all very liberal Democrats," said Washington Post columnist and FOX News contributor Jeff Birnbaum.
"If these moderate views are seen as more compromising with the Bush administration, then I don't think he's going to get very far," Birnbaum said.
But with his ranks depleted, Reid may find himself in a position to be more compromising than his predecessor, Tom Daschle, who lost his re-election bid to Republican Senator-elect John Thune, in part by being portrayed as an obstructionist.
"I always would rather dance than fight, but I know how to fight," Reid said.
"He is not going to abandon his core values nor will he abandon those values for the sake of partisan politics," said former campaign staffer Billy Vacilliadis. "If the president is right, and Harry Reid believes the president is right, and it is good for the country, he will support the president. He's never had trouble reaching across the aisle."
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' William La Jeunesse.