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Politics

[Rory Reid]

Thin gray man

Image
Illustration: Bethany Acree / Photography by Beverly Poppe

Perception: Rory Reid has a head for policy and a personality for, um, policy.

Reality: Papa Love is in the house!

Full of hope about uncovering a juicy bon vivant hiding inside this thin gray man—because what’s more important in politics than personality?—I tagged along with Rory Reid and his communications director, Hilarie Grey, on a trip to Pahrump for a Democratic house party. It did not start well.

Rory rode shotgun; I was in the back seat. He offered to switch; I didn’t take him up on it. Seemed weird. And he’s got very long legs.

So I wanted to get to know the man, talk about his life, something other than policies. But we were awkward strangers. It went something like this:

Rory Reid with his family.

“What do you and your family do when you’re not working?”

“We read a lot. Sometimes the whole family will be reading at the same time.”

Pause. Road stares.

“What do you read?”

“A lot of things. Nonfiction ... History. Policy.”

Pause. Lane change. Intermittent discussion with Grey about the high-tech capabilities of the Lexus.

“Who’s your favorite writer?”

“Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”

“Oh. Did you see the movie a couple of years ago based on … Not One Hundred Years of Solitude, but—”

Love in the Time of Cholera?”

“Yes! Did you see it?”

“No.”

For 60 miles. I can only blame myself for insisting we talk about something other than policy—who’s your favorite writer?!—but when we arrived at a Pahrump home to a small crowd offering cheese and crackers, and Rory stood in front of the fireplace to give a speech peppered with policy catchphrases and political anecdotes I’d already heard, I was so relieved. Is personality really that important, anyway?

He’d announced his run for governor a few days prior. It was a nice, politically predictable affair—late afternoon at his old elementary school, serendipitously on the same day as fifth-grade student-council elections. Volunteers set up long tables full of hot dogs and hamburgers; the Democratic faithful showed up to shake his hand. Rory arrived a good hour before his scheduled speech; he was nabbed on the sidewalk by Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith, then swept away to a series of TV interviews, the cameras lined up one after the other in the schoolyard where he was once a student. Picture perfect. Organizers started the music with The Temptations: “Twiddley-dee, twiddle-dee dum/Look out baby/’Cause here I come/Get ready/Get ready.”

At 47, he’s gray and gaunt, and his nose cuts a sharp, pointy profile. He wears rectangular glasses and has a small, pierced mouth. His motions are noticeably unrushed. His smile is pleasant if birdish. He said, “We need to help small businesses” and “We are at a virtual crossroads” in TV interviews. People handed out stickers that said “Rory,” not “Reid,” and pamphlets titled The Virtual Crossroads: Rory Reid’s Vision for the Future of Nevada. Rory mingled and shook hands and spoke at a level so calm and even-keeled that it was difficult to overhear.

When I asked Bonnie and Leslie Amaya, an older couple at a picnic table, why they were out here, Bonnie said, “I am a great supporter of his father, and his son is a great fighter, and it seems to be in the genes ... and anything would be better than who we have in there now.” Leslie said he was a lifelong union member and always supported the Democratic nominee.

When Rory finally took to the podium, under a banner tied to a tetherball pole, there was a sense that everyone knew exactly how this would go. Nevada Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford introduced him. His wife and kids were there. Journalists took notes. All the props were steady; the event was as it should be; no surprises.

“I’m here tonight because Nevada can do better—much better.” Applause, applause. He barely filled out his suit. The upper sleeves were so loose they blew in the breeze. “We need to create jobs and ... a plan to transform our economy so we don’t sit around waiting for the gaming industry ...” Applause, applause. Rory Reid, the son of the U.S. Senate majority leader, chairman of the Clark County Commission, had announced he’ll run for governor of Nevada in one of the state’s crappiest economic moments. Where’s the excitement?

I’ve been asking people about his personality. It’s a loaded question, really, fully of assumptions. Does it matter that he’s not as gregarious as an Oscar Goodman? That he’s not as charming as a Bill Clinton? That he doesn’t have the swagger of a George W. Bush or the twangy, down-home appeal of a Dina Titus? That there are apparently not even the shadows of skeletons in his closet? I asked a party insider at the barbecue what Rory’s personality is like, and the person stared at me blankly, letting the silence speak for itself momentarily, before adding, “but he’s very smart.”

Rory Reid: Gone fishin'

This won’t do. His camp knows it. The way the political machine goes, now—a year before the election—is the time to build a public persona. Something warm and friendly; funny. Something colorful. A few human-interest stories need to be floated right about now; appropriately, I am here, looking for the non-boring details. He fishes with his 13-year-old son. He speaks fluent Spanish. Goes to church. He and his wife attend the Sundance film festival when they can. They like concerts. These personal details will start popping up in interviews here and there in the next couple of weeks; Rory makes the media rounds, continues traveling the state to house parties and speaking engagements.

At every turn, his supporters push his dry humor as the antidote to accusations that he’s got a personality deficit.

“They’re so wrong. He’s warm and funny. He has this wonderful sense of humor,” says Democrat Jan Jones, senior vice president of communications and government relations at Harrah’s, a former mayor of Las Vegas and a director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“My favorite quality of Rory is his humor,” says his wife, Cindy. “That really comes out at home and in private. His humor really gets us through. He’s even said to me, ‘If this doesn’t work out, I should become a comedy writer.’ He can take any situation and turn it into something funny.”

Make no mistake—Rory himself would rather talk policy than persona. So he hands out a booklet of his vision for Nevada. “The political convention is that you say nothing because it’s hard to argue with nothing. But Nevada needs a governor with a plan,” he says. He wants to start an issues conversation, but so far, there have been no takers apart from the media. His opponents are, so far, quiet. Still, he’ll say that again and again, at events, on TV, anywhere. Read the booklet. Let’s talk about policy. “I love to talk about policy. Really, that’s what I like to talk about.”

Is that so bad?

The largest challenge in Rory Reid’s quest for a distinguishable identity is the old man. Harry Reid is Nevada’s hardscrabble son, his name is in the thick of American politics, and his lean story is well-known: He grew up dirt poor in Searchlight and clawed his way to the top of the Democratic machine. One might imagine that having the U.S. Senate majority leader as dad would help one’s political career resoundingly, but it’s not without its drawbacks. The Reid name certainly helps with fundraising—a war chest rumored to be near $4 million with the help of the Clintons—and with diehard Dems—witness the Amayas. But Harry’s polling is low lately in his re-election bid, and Rory is slowly trying to carve out a more moderate path for himself under his father’s reputation. It doesn’t help to have WashingtonPost.com writing about the potential “dynasty” as negative for each of them, and outlets such as Wonkette.com calling them Nevada’s “own species of charmless desert Kennedy.”

Rory Reid in the early '90s.

“It is both a positive and a negative,” says Ryan Erwin, a conservative political strategist in Las Vegas. “I think they’re different, philosophically ... Their common qualities are they’re both smart and they’re both tough. But Sen. Reid has a reputation for being ruthless; he’s forged that reputation, and he enjoys it. Rory has more of a quiet backroom reputation for talking things through.

“I think his dad is incredibly vulnerable. There’s Reid fatigue ... It will build upon itself.”

In addition to approaching conflict differently, there’s the question of whether Harry has undue influence over his son. But Rory’s supporters are quick to point out that he’s made several key decisions against his father’s will, not the least of which was to run for governor right now, putting them on the ballot at the same time. Another was Rory’s decision to run for the Clark County Commission in 2002. “His dad did not want him to run, and Rory just said he was,” says Thom Reilly, former county manager. Reilly says the elder Reid didn’t think it was an ideal office from which to climb to higher offices.

“But Rory will take a position and let his father know later. He supported Hillary Clinton and [then] told his father [later].” That was a decision that upset many in the party who supported Barack Obama—but one that Rory’s supporters say is evidence that he has the will to make his own decisions.

“He did that against everyone telling him this is a bad thing,” says Jones. “And he won Nevada for her, or helped.”

“They have very different personalities. When people see Rory, they assume he’s like his dad. That’s kind of a challenge. But he’s very independent, and he stakes out moderate positions,” Reilly says.

“It’s not like Rory asks Harry for permission.” Or vice versa, apparently.

In fact, some politicos speculate that the two Reids aren’t particularly chummy—a possibility friends and family deny.

“I’m sure he looks at his dad, and I’m sure he’s glad he is who he is,” Erwin says. “But Rory has to create his own legacy. He is his own man. Rory is going to have to articulate a vision deeper than he does. He has to differentiate himself from his father.”

Rory avoids talking about his father much—he’s learned to quip and dodge away from the topic. (“How come nobody ever asks me about my mom?”) When I ask whether he felt a lot of pressure to live up to his political legacy, he says, “I didn’t expect I’d always end up in office. I don’t know about the pressure, I’ve only lived my life; it’s hard to compare my life to other people’s.”

Later I ask Rory’s wife, Cindy, a teacher and former Clark County School Board member, whether the family discusses political issues at the big family dinners—I envisioned the elder Reid holding the mashed potatoes hostage until Rory acquiesced to his policy preferences; the whole family getting into a row over small-business taxes.

“At Reid family gatherings, politics does come up ...” she says with a smile in her voice. “I would say Rory and his dad are very close. I would say that Rory’s dad isn’t super-talkative, so he doesn’t reveal a lot about his work life in every setting, and Rory is the same way. Obviously they do talk about it, but there’s not a lot of day-to-day discussion ...

“They talk about the kids.”

After graduating from Clark High School, Rory met Cindy at BYU. “We were the only two Democrats in Provo, Utah, which is a hotbed of political assent,” Rory says. She tried to set him up with her roommate until his persistent interest in her finally wore her down. There’s a story about the first time she was invited to his college apartment, and I’ve been told this story a number of different times, because it’s a gem in the hunt for anecdotal nuggets that can create a little of Rory’s public persona. Rory and Grey told me this story the first time, and then Cindy, and later Jones. Here’s the gist of it: Cindy was being shown the apartment, and one of Rory’s roommates had the famous poster of Farrah Fawcett in that red swimsuit on his wall. Another had a poster of The Who, and finally, they made it to Rory’s room. “You know what Rory had over his bed?” Jones says. “A picture of the state of Nevada!”

Rory Reid with wife, Cindy, at their wedding.

“I mean, who has a map of the state of Nevada on the door?” asks Cindy. “I think it was one of his nerdiest moments, and he went through pointing at every county saying, this one has that town, and this one has this one ...

“It gets to his loyalty. He loves Nevada. It is a love affair.”

It also gets to the brick-by-brick challenges of building his political persona. Things get repeated and polished up, like how he likes U2—Rory and Cindy sat with Bill and Chelsea Clinton at the recent concert—and “if he could go to a concert every weekend, he would,” Cindy says. I ask her if she understands why some people say his dry personality is problematic, and she says, “I think that’s the first impression of him. But he’s so into music and culture, and he loves that arena, so he’s always picking out new music ...”

The two were soon married, he went to law school, and they had three kids. Although Cindy used to try to get Rory to move to the Bay Area, where she was raised, he wanted to stay here and practice law, his interest in public policy increasingly turning him into more of a wonk than a ham.

Reilly says, “At first it seemed like he would’ve liked my job,” managing the intricate machinations of county government.

“In a large [group] he isn’t as charismatic, but in small groups he is. He has a quick wit. Over the years he’s gotten more comfortable speaking in large groups, clearly—he’s chair of the commission. That really thrust him into that role a lot more.” (Although a day at a County Commission meeting hardly attests to anyone’s personality; it’s primarily the necessary droning through agendas.)

“And one time we roasted him at an event for the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth,” Reilly says, “and he destroyed all of us. He was so funny; he had comebacks for everyone.”

Why does this matter? It would be nice to assume that the public wasn’t unduly influenced by the schmoozeability factor, that it would focus solely on one’s grasp of governance, of issues, of negotiating tactics, of directing a state out of major financial and political woes. But that’s rarely the case.

UNLV political science professor David Damore says personality has always played a role in campaigns, but it’s perhaps an even bigger challenge for Rory, or any candidate, given today’s cult of personality. Down to pre-teens, everybody’s obsessed with branding themselves—Facebook, MySpace, reality TV, marketing culture generally. Why wouldn’t it include politics? It’s always been easier to vote on image, and it’s just absurdly exaggerated today. The Kennedy-Nixon debate famously showed the significance of poise and image four decades ago—the 5 o’clock shadow, the sweat!—and it is of course amplified to an awesome degree today.

And then there’s the tragedy that policy is often so dense, and politics is often so back-room, and our attention span is so brief, that a candidate’s likability is often the only practical point of connection.

“Increasingly, people are voting more for personality. George Bush was a textbook example. They liked him as a person but didn’t like Al Gore or John Kerry, even though their policies were better,” Damore says. “Obama showed you can meld both.” Obama, after all, held a beer summit, shoots basketball with celebs and kids alike and, as is almost a requirement in presidential elections now, made a fun-loving tour of late-night TV shows. Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has the personality category sewn up—and has been widely considered a potential candidate for governor.

Rory Reid (right) with Mayor Oscar Goodman at the NBA All Star Game logo unveiling.

“I think [Rory’s camp] is aware of his charisma deficit, so they’re playing to his strengths. I think you saw that with his announcement that this is a policy-centered campaign,” Damore says. “The worst thing for him would be Oscar [entering the primary], who is all charisma.”

Conservative pundit Chuck Muth says, “Rory has a lack-of-personality problem, but then again, his dad has a similar lack-of-personality problem, and he’s the majority leader in the United States Senate.”

Erwin addresses the question of his personality this way: “It’s a factor.”

It’s got to get old, if not more than a little insulting, having the question of one’s personality dubbed a “challenge.”

“I don’t take much personally any more,” Rory says. “That’s part of my personality.”

“So you have a naturally thick skin?” I ask.

“I don’t think it comes naturally at all. You have to work your way to that place. Everybody gets their feelings hurt along the way, but at some point you have to develop some sort of emotional callous as a means of self-defense. So at some point I developed it.”

So the morning after he announced his candidacy for Nevada governor in 2010, Rory did a TV interview with Jon Ralston and headed to UNLV’s Boyd School of Law for a panel discussion with deans and business leaders about how to improve higher education and business development simultaneously by connecting the two through research projects and similar joint initiatives.

Rory Reid.

Rory Reid.

Though the sparsely attended conversation did include the dean from the business school and movers and shakers such as Phil Peckman, CEO of the Peckman Company, a consulting and investment company, and public-relations giant Bruce Merrin, it had the dog-and-pony feel that so many of these events do, never biting into any substance. What was on display, though, was Rory’s now famous dry sense of humor and his growing ability to set a friendly tone for the gathering.

He spoke of his announcement barbecue the night before: “The hamburgers were better than the speech.”

He followed the line about it being against political convention to discuss issues so early in the race with, “That’s why politicians often have slogans or gimmicks, and I’m not telling you I’ll never have a catchy one—if I can think of one.”

When Dean Paul Jarley says it’s statistically shown that once students go away for higher education it’s not likely they’ll come back here to work, Rory quips of his oldest daughter, who is in design school in New York, and Jarley’s daughter, who is also studying there, “You mean that our daughters are never coming back?” Each joke is met with quick waves of laughter. It seems he’s refining his game.

A much more complicated game is that of leading the state of Nevada. It’s well known that the state ranks at the top of bad lists and the bottom of good lists, no matter what the source or topic. We’re among the highest in foreclosures, lowest in high school graduation. Near the top in teen pregnancy, near the top again in crime and unemployment indices. We’ve got health-care challenges and social-service challenges and water-resource challenges. The state’s economy tumbles when tourism drifts off, for lack of any other comparably sized industry, and we’re facing a $2 billion state budget shortfall.

The contentious 2009 legislative session didn’t inspire quite enough confidence that state leaders have citizens’ backs; and one large issue has been the ability of Gov. Jim Gibbons to provide effective leadership. Gibbons, elected in 2006, has had too many personal and legal troubles to recount—from accusations of helping friends win military contracts to the sordid cocktail-waitress-in-the-garage affair to the unpleasant divorce from his wife—all of which have compounded his political problems. Enough to make the Democrats hope he will indeed run again and win the Republican primary. Still, the state’s woes go beyond Gibbons’ issues.

Cindy says she and Rory considered his run for governor together, with the full set of the state’s dire circumstances in mind: “We looked around and said, in a lot of ways, there’s nowhere to go but up.

“He really wants Nevada to succeed,” she says. “Another thing is we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy a good life here. Our kids get a good education in public schools. We were able to afford a home. And those are things we want every family to enjoy. We see that that’s possible in Nevada.”

An elementary school photo of Rory Reid.

When Rory was elected to the County Commission, he inherited a set of ethical disasters. G-Sting was unraveling—commissioners were being hauled off to jail for taking bribes from strip-club owners. Then an overburdened county manager, Reilly remembers that he was relieved to have Reid and the other new commissioner, Mark James, onboard.

“They were both measured and calm. Rory liked the details of county government. Many commissioners were not as interested in how the process works. He really studied things and took the time to educate himself. He’d say, ‘I need to learn more about it’ before making a decision,” Reilly says.

“The influence of lobbyists when he came was nil. He didn’t use the issue that he came from the Reid family. He likes to mediate. He’s big on task forces, on trying to understand all sides of the issue.

“We faced a lot on the commission in the aftermath of ethics issues, and the Regional Justice Center—a mess for such a long time. He was always willing to get in there and deal with it,” Reilly says. The county’s new courthouse, the RJC, was over budget, late and had construction problems. “Rory handled stressful situations well,” Reilly says.

While political watchers say his specific accomplishments at the county are difficult to pinpoint, Reid’s camp lists them this way: He fought with Gibbons to preserve funding for child-protective services in the 2007 and 2008 budget cuts; he spearheaded the 2003 ethics reforms that now prohibit former county commissioners from lobbying their former colleagues for a year after leaving office and limit the value of gifts commissioners can accept; he brokered a legal truce between Nevada Power Co., the Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Colorado River Commission “that otherwise would have cost millions in legal fees that would have been passed through to consumers”; he intervened in hospital labor disputes to speed negotiations; and he took actions to limit the proliferation of billboards, among other things.

But Erwin cautions that working on the commission isn’t the same as leading a state; and being chairman is not a leadership position granted by a mandate of the people (fellow commissioners vote). Rarely, he says, are county issues partisan, and partisanship is something any governor will have to face squarely.

“Both [Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian] Sandoval and Rory have some similar qualities. They’re likable, that will help. Following the partisanization of America, now, we have a bitter group of legislators ...

“You need someone who can build consensus. It’s going to take courage.”

Brian Sandoval, right, discusses his candidacy for governor with Jon Ralston on Wednesday during an appearance on Face to Face With Jon Ralston at the KLAS-TV, Channel 8 studios.

Of the two declared opponents, Republican Brian Sandoval has the only state-level experience. Sandoval left the federal bench (to which he was appointed in 2005 by Harry Reid) in September to run for governor, and he has served as Nevada attorney general, state assemblyman and a gaming commissioner. Republican Michael Montandon is the former mayor of North Las Vegas (but he gets persona points for riding a motorcycle).

“I think Sandoval, Montandan and Rory all have courage,” Erwin says. But as for experience with state politics versus county or city politics, “it’s just not the same public scrutiny [at the county level]. It’s harder as governor because you have to ask, are they [candidates] willing to stand up?”

And Rory’s work at the county hasn’t eliminated the county’s woes—Clark County, too, faces innumerable challenges, including tax-revenue shortfalls in excess of $290 million, created by county revenue declines and shortages passed along by the state. There have been near-disastrous money problems at University Medical Center, talk of layoffs and social-service programs disappearing—all works in progress.

But if Rory’s moderate temperament and negotiation-rich approach to county politics was a reasonable answer to an ethically challenged and chaotic commission, his supporters say his timing is perfect to take on the state.

“I believe he’s attracted to the position because he believes he can address these tough issues the state faces,” Reilly says.

Rory himself tells me that if there’s anything good about the recession, it’s that people in Nevada are faced with the challenge of fixing things—they’re stuck here in underwater homes they can’t sell—and fewer have the means to take off, as is the boom-or-bust history of Nevada. “There’s never been a time in Nevada where we have the state’s attention like we do right now.”

I almost drop the phone. Midway through my pleasant conversation with Cindy, the kind of guarded but friendly talk reporters and politicians’ wives might have, she senses I’m not really feeling it. I’m not really getting a sense of the fun side of Rory. He likes music, he goes to the movies. Isn’t there anything else?

“Well, every night when he comes home, he yells, ‘PAPA LOVE IS IN THE HOUSE!’”

“Really?”

“Yes. Every night.”

That just might be electable.

Finally, I sit down across an empty table from Papa Love to discuss what’s in his 30-page vision for Nevada, The Virtual Crossroads.

Not surprisingly, it’s largely about economic diversification and investment in the state’s infrastructure and education—which generally sounds good no matter which side of the aisle you’re on, but has eluded state leaders forever.

Here, in a conference room, having just finished with a magazine photo shoot that had him making quips but somehow not commanding attention, he comes alive. It’s like he’s relieved to get back to the issues. He sharpens his tone and sits up, eager for questions, for debate.

He lays out Nevada’s future as one tied to global economic changes, saying Nevadans are uniquely suited for 24-hour work and are computer-savvy enough to be alluring to certain industries. He says Nevada is perfectly placed to become a shipping and logistics hub, as well as ideal for information-technology storage. (Although he caught some flack when he declared, “There is no safer place in the country to store data: No hurricanes, no tornadoes, and no active fault lines,” because his father had argued that fault lines were among the reasons Yucca Mountain was a bad idea.)

He also focuses on green industries, calling for investment in solar, wind and geothermal technologies. He wants to require that state government implement long-term capital and infrastructure plans; long-term commitments being something our state has trouble with.

He suggests getting rid of the business payroll tax. He cites a recent Colorado tax-credit proposal that would reward businesses for creating new jobs. “Nevada similarly needs to examine making its tax system more pro-job,” he says, knowing full well such policies place him in a comfortably moderate role for a Democrat.

What isn’t clear yet, however, is how he intends to fix the $2 billion deficit and get all of this rolling. The vision statement has been received positively—it’s nice to have a candidate with a plan; his opponents have offered nothing of the sort. The criticism is that it lacks the specifics of how to get the cash in place.

It’s the chicken-egg problem: How do you attract high-paying industries when your low-performing public schools and undereducated workforce are a deterrent? Invest in education. Where do you get the tax revenue to pour into education without an existing set of diverse industries to fatten the general fund?

“If we change our economy and create jobs, then we will solve our fiscal problems,” he says.

“Everything in there [incentive plans for businesses in his pamphlet] but two things is revenue-neutral.” But, he says, he’ll wait until further tax studies are completed before advocating any giant change in the gaming-based tax structure, and then let a bipartisan Legislature look at everything on the table, and commence with his low-key mediation and negotiation skills.

“Nevada is a plan-less society,” he says. “We’ve been so prosperous that we haven’t had to do a lot of things,” namely, invest in the state’s physical, business and cultural infrastructure.

“People would be willing to come here if they believed they could make their start here. “

On the way home from Pahrump, we dropped the ruse. Rory was hungry; we swung through Panda Express and talked about his wife’s interest in the slow-food movement while Hilarie Grey ordered through the speaker. We talked about golf and U2 and Bruce Springsteen and the Barenaked Ladies, three out of four of which he likes. On the highway, he took calls from his daughter in between bites of Chinese chicken on a plastic fork, and planned a family get-together. He talked about each of his kids. Grey and Rory recounted stories about their work with Hillary Clinton. We talked about books. He was very personable. And, yes, he has a genuine, dry wit. We laughed a lot.

But in the end, when Grey dropped us off at our meeting point and Rory got into his Prius to head home, I was left thinking more about the future of Nevada than about Rory’s persona. I enjoyed getting to know him what little bit I did. But maybe in the maelstrom of economic disaster, as one of those residents stuck here in a state without a plan, I don’t care what Rory Reid or any other candidate has on his iPod. Let’s talk policy.

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