Demanding free and fair access to the ballot

It’s known as “Obamacare,” but without Senator Harry Reid, who passed last week at the age of 82, there might never have been a President Obama, much less his signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act.

In the spring of 2006, Senate Democratic Leader Reid summoned a first-term senator representing Illinois to a life-changing meeting.  

Reid and Chuck Schumer, who was then chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, urged Obama to run for President.

“I still think it’s pretty farfetched, but it’s interesting that they felt as strongly as they do,” Obama told political advisor David Axelrod.

As Senate Majority Leader during President Obama’s first term, Reid fought tirelessly for his legislative agenda, beginning with the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, widely credited with averting a depression.

Made the country a better place

But of all his legislative achievements, he was proudest of the Affordable Care Act – shaped in large part by the trauma of his desperately poor childhood in Depression-era Nevada.

His home had no hot water, indoor toilet, or telephone, and medical care was scarce and unaffordable.

“My brother broke his leg,”  he told the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Medical School in 2019.

“He writhed in pain for days on his bed, never went to the doctor. His leg is still bowed. My mom got hit in the face with a softball and it badly damaged her teeth. But she didn’t have access to a dentist, so she lived for many years without teeth. I remember when my dad had a really bad toothache, he would pull his own teeth with vise grips.”

Reid’s love of the sport of boxing and his own amateur career as a middleweight in the 1950s generated countless metaphors regarding to his tough, often combative style.

But he never faced an adversary in the ring as ruthless or dangerous as those he faced as the head of the Nevada Gaming Commission in the late 1970s.   The death threats were constant, and once his wife raised the hood of the family station wagon to find a crudely constructed bomb.

“I’d learned that there were those who would stop at nothing to try to compromise a man’s morals, or ruin his reputation, or even try to kill him,” he wrote in his memoir, The Good Fight.

A champion in politics

“What my wife and children endured during my time on the Gaming Commission has stayed with me through all these years and through all the places I’ve lived since.

Whenever I hear people talk about how rough-and tumble things can get in Washington, I remind myself of these years in Las Vegas. I will never forget them.”

It was my privilege to work often with Senator Reid. I remember him as a fearless advocate, a brilliant political strategist and a dedicated public servant who was a champion in politics and business for working families and communities of color.

The National Urban League extends our heartfelt sympathy to his family and his beloved former constituents.

Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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