Last month, as the Senate was busy negotiating the final details of its Ukraine aid package, Majority Leader Harry Reid became temporarily distracted with a campaign finance issue. Since winning re-election in 2010, Reid’s campaign had purchased gifts for supporters and donors from vendors like Bed Bath & Beyond, Amazon, Nordstrom, and the Senate gift shop, among others. But one round of spending was directed to a less recognizable firm: Ryan Elisabeth, a jewelry line.
In 2012 and 2013, the campaign spent $31,267 purchasing gifts from the company, which is owned by Reid’s granddaughter, Ryan Elisabeth Reid. All told, she took in nearly seven times more cash than all vendors of donor gifts combined during that period of time.
Veteran Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston first reported the news after receiving a tip about the expenditures. (Ryan Elisabeth’s last name did not appear on the FEC reports, and the senator’s office initially failed to confirm her identity.) While Sen. Reid does not appear to have broken the law, he understood that the purchases created a perception of favoritism. Lamenting the unwanted attention heaped on his granddaughter, he decided after the news broke that “it would be best to pay for her work out of my own pocket.”
This was not the first time that Reid had mixed family and politics — or potentially run afoul of ethics rules.
Harry Reid has spent more than 40 years in government, starting as a small city’s attorney and eventually becoming the most powerful senator in the country. He has raised tens of millions of dollars in political contributions, established himself as an institution in Nevada politics along the way, and made himself a very wealthy man. His humble roots — from growing up in a remote desert town to working six days a week as a Capitol police officer while in law school — are legend in Washington and Nevada. Reid exhibits the toughness of a once destitute boy who completely transformed his life through determination, hard work — and good luck.
Some who have watched Reid closely over the years, however, say that his political and economic ascendance has made him increasingly willing to use his power (and apparent electoral resilience) in ways that appear unsavory or nepotistic. The jewelry purchases are only the latest example.
David Damore — a University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor whose research focuses on Silver State politics — has closely followed Reid for years. He said that the balance between helping family and constituents is a common tension for powerful politicians. “I’m going to put this politely: Their personal interests, they seem to see, represent the common good. They don’t differentiate those two.”
Another longtime Reid-watcher believes that the latest string of incidents, stretching over the last decade, is just a result of more coverage of Reid — and not a product of him changing his style.
“As he’s become more known and a much higher dollar target for his critics, anything he does to assist his family now pegs on the radar,” said John L. Smith, a columnist who has written about Nevada politics for nearly as long as Reid has been in Washington. “I don’t think he’s changed his personal method of operation throughout his whole career.”
Smith added, “I can’t see him ever denying his family a break or an opportunity if he could provide it. I guess that’s just part of being a dad and a guy with a certain level of influence.”
Nowhere is Reid’s influence more profound than in his home state, where he has built a dizzying network of mutually beneficial political, personal, and business alliances. These associations benefit Reid, his family, his close friends, and, very often, the state that he loves. The sphere of influence took decades to create.