The Gorilla In A Human Suit:
Senator Harry Reid,
In His Imperial Glory,
Beats His War Chest

By Tim Findley

That standoff outside Jordan, Mont. is having its own chilling effect on communities of the rural West where legitimate dissent has already been branded by some federal authorities as dangerous subversion.

In Jordan, even the local residents say they are sick of the Freemen's irrational stance, and a local minister tells the national media she is at a loss to explain what pushed some former friends and neighbors so far, or why they got that way.
Elsewhere, maybe a cap produced by the Freeman line of agricultural machinery is put away for good or the rhetoric against federal intrusion is toned down and muted, maybe even given a rest for now.
Nobody really wants it to be a "war" in the West, despite the hyperbole about it. What they want mostly is to level out the political playing field so they are not so continuously falling back on a hill dominated by politicians and bureaucrats who won't listen and urban areas who can only hear the intentionally misguiding message of the well-funded environmentalists.
Why indeed did the frustration get control of the senses of the Freemen? When does it reach that point?
For most places, like Fallon, Nevada, likely never. There's no militia in this fading farm town, nothing even among the small minority frustrated enough to be angry that would ever come close to something like the Freemen.
But it's worth looking at a vignette of their own frustrations to see how things might happen -- in a way they never will -- in Churchill County.

FALLON, NV -- It seemed to at least some of those waiting in the Fallon Convention Center for the election year meeting of the Democratic Party that U.S. Senator Harry Reid was somehow purposely delaying his arrival until well after dark.
That the senior senator from Nevada would show up at all in this rural town was doubtful to others. He has a safe seat, not up for re-election until 1998, and, in any case, he had never relied on "cow county" votes before. He is Vegas' man, secure in his power from the still-surging strength of numbers in the south state megalopolis.
Harry Reid doesn't need Churchill County. He doesn't really need much of Northern Nevada at all, except that chunk he can expect from the friendlier environs of lawn-tending suburbs swirling out around Reno, itself growing nearly as fast as Las Vegas.
They weren't even real Democrats, most of them who waited for him in Fallon. Some of them were nominally registered in the party, but that was mostly out of old habit or misguided belief that some local influence might change the party direction. When the time came, they voted mostly Republican. In 1992, Harry Reid didn't need the handful of votes he got from Churchill County to sweep aside the challenge of Republican rancher Delmar Dahl, some of whose family lived in Fallon.
Reid, in fact, is probably at the apex of his power, able to call most of the political shots in his state and capable, some say, of intimidating the junior senator and former governor, Richard Bryan, also a Democrat, into falling in line with the Reid strategy.
That's really why they waited for him, even doubting as some did that he would show up at all. It was for a close look at the dominion over their state, a peek at a Machiavellian Prince -- to see what charity he might be willing to offer.
If he was, as some suggested, just driving around until it got dark enough for him to rush in the door, Reid need not have done so. He has nothing really to fear from Churchill County, certainly no more than he has to gain.
The local newspaper, owned by a publisher from California who fancies himself as some kind of mentoring cousin to his unsophisticated circulation, prides itself on the softly irrelevant wisdom it produces from the publisher's visits to Reid's Washington D.C. offices where they discuss gaming legislation and national defense issues that inspire the publisher's own enthusiasm for patriotic rambles into episodes of World War II.
The editor of the paper, a buttery but genial former wife of a Reno doctor who earned the job on college journalism credentials, was among those waiting for Reid. She had a set of questions on federal water policy issues that had been written down for her by the manager of the local irrigation district. She promised she'd ask Reid about it right after she covered the more important questions about the presidential campaign, and, as it turned out, the senator's concern for national policy on female circumcision.
Reid had nothing to fear in Churchill County. No one would dare so much as to raise their voice to him, and not because they are afraid of Reid, but because they know their neighbors would glare in admonishment of further risking the senator's wrath against them all.
Ted DeBraga, the president of the irrigation district, was also among those waiting for Reid. His sister-in-law, Marcia, is running for a second term as a Democrat in the state assembly representing Churchill and part of neighboring Lander County in a vast, desolate district mostly owned by the federal government and populated in pockets like Fallon.
But Ted wasn't here just in support of Marcia's new campaign. This was a community event, as basically non-partisan as the Democratic Party in these parts really is, and DeBraga was anticipating the arrival of the kingpin, the real power player.
DeBraga has known Reid since boyhood. Nevada used to be like that in the 1940's and 50's when both of them were growing up and towns like Fallon and Reid's own Searchlight sent their adolescent athletic teams into contest with each other at events that shortened the long, barren distances between population centers and established generational links on memories of the "big" games and the local heroes.
Then and now, DeBraga is one of the local heroes. He seems almost genetically constructed for the role. Tall, and lankily athletic, DeBraga has a a demeanor that seems to inspire confidence. His thick and neatly groomed hair has aged perfectly into a silken white, but still reminds them of the dashingly handsome young man he was.
DeBraga is quiet spoken and seldom judgmental, nearly studious in his patience to listen before saying something that, almost in sum of his general presence, seems usually to put an end to the matter without argument.
He could easily be seen as a judge or head of the county commission, but the spot he has occupied as President of the Board of Directors of the Truckee Carson Irrigation District for the last 18 years is, in many ways, an even more influential position in Churchill County.
It's the irrigation district that holds this self-proclaimed "Oasis of Nevada" together. That's even now, when the expansion of Fallon's own growth is based largely on the same retired equity from California that is funding the growth of Las Vegas and Reno. Or on the steadily expanding influence of the Naval Air Station and "Top Gun" pilot training center on Fallon's outskirts.
It all still depends on the more than 500 miles of canals and ditches that tie the community together -- in a network of water arteries that not only feed irrigation into the farms, but serve to replenish the ground water base of wells that serve even the newest of subdivisions beginning to appear on former agriculture lands.
DeBraga's place in it has been, longer than anybody else, at the very pivot of that influence. He has been the one they trusted most to make the important decisions and bring together their own self-dividing squabbles over neighboring rights and petty disputes.
Maybe that was why Harry Reid said Ted DeBraga was the one person who wouldn't be welcome in the senator's office when a local delegation went to Washington in 1994 to appeal with the king for better understanding about what his so-called "Settlement Act" would do to their community.
DeBraga waited outside while others, like Ernie Schank and Don Travis, made their case to Reid. He didn't go in to see the senator, but the others would not have thought of making the trip to Washington without him.
It couldn't be DeBraga whom Reid was avoiding that night of the Democratic meeting. The thing in his office was two years in the past, and much had already happened since then to put it aside.
Maybe, somebody suggested, it was that Reid still remembered the gorilla. That's what made him so mad the last time the senator actually encountered opposition in Churchill County: The Gorilla.
It was just a stuffed suit that usually sat outside Wally's rock shop on the Reno Highway as another one of the attention-getters like the old Navy mines and bomb casings he has spread out there, but when Reid was coming to town to celebrate his legislation that sucked water out of irrigation and into the wetlands, somebody moved the gorilla and put it along the route Reid had to travel, among a number of other signs and banners on farm trucks that compared Reid to less flattering ancestry than he claimed.
Everybody knew it wasn't DeBraga who did that. Even Reid knew it. Funny thing is, most people think Norm Frey had something to do with it, and Norm was among those sitting in Harry Reid's office while DeBraga waited outside.
Whatever, the gorilla was back at the rock shop, and nobody was planning any demonstrations even if Reid did show up to electioneer for the Democrats.
Maybe politicians like Reid end up suffering with a special kind of self-delusion that ought to be worth a paper in psychology somewhere. They can't just be lying all the time, even if it seems that way.
Harry Reid actually seemed to believe it himself when he told farmers and others from this Lahontan Valley on more than one occasion that they, "ought to be grateful" for what he has done for them.
They sat there looking like calves caught in the headlights when he told them that at a hearing in Reno at the end of 1993.
"You had your chance," he lectured to them from a podium alongside Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ). "You had your chance and you ran from the hard decisions," he said, stabbing a sharp pencil down in their direction for emphasis. "Now things are going to change and I'm going to do what is best for the taxpayers of this country and the state of Nevada."
They just sat there, wide-eyed in a sort of shock. Maybe he was just still mad about the gorilla.
What they needed to be "grateful" for

Top of page

was Reid's 1990 legislation that remakes the essential purpose of the Newlands Reclamation Project from a combined irrigation source of water from the Truckee and Carson Rivers into a federally-enforced new division of the water. This new division favors spawning grounds for a supposedly endangered sucker fish at the Pyramid Lake end of the Truckee and a restored wetlands marsh to cover 25,000 acres at the desert-sink terminus of the Carson.
The supply of water for the fish and the wetlands combined would amount to more than the irrigation district uses in an average year, but Reid told them to be grateful for what they got.
Upstream of the agricultural valley, on the news and talk shows of Reno, Reid kept talking about "the train leaving the station," and the need for Congress to review its old legislation like the 1902 Reclamation Act that created the irrigation project. He tried to make himself sound colloquial and senatorial all at the same time, as if it really mattered. At the Reno hearing, he acknowledged himself as, "the Devil in Churchill County."
The legislation he is so proud of only slipped by the 101st Congress at the last minute of the session with a margin of one vote. Even the credit he claims for it probably belongs more to Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye who at least wrote into it some protections for the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe of Churchill County that Reid had ignored or forgotten.
But if they weren't altogether grateful to Reid for it, the people of Churchill County and the Lahontan Valley could at least see the need to bend down in his presence.
They had already formed their own local organizations meant to take some of the steam off from the failure of the irrigation district to win Reid's favor and maybe to come up with some compromise that might still slow down the federal juggernaut against them.
That's one reason they eagerly accepted the participation of Graham Chisholm of The Nature Conservancy as part of their own "Environmental Alliance" on the issue. Never mind that Chisholm was following the strategy directives of TNC itself to work its way into "grass roots organizations," or that it was TNC and Chisholm himself who would be out offering cash of their own, or of Del Webb Corporation in Las Vegas, to farmers willing to sell their land and water rights. Chisholm and the TNC were already grateful to Reid.
But at least the locals still held out some hope that maybe Reid just didn't understand it all, or that he just needed to see some county contrition for the gorilla thing. That's why even after the hearing when Reid and Bradley lectured them about the way things were going to be, they still sent the delegation back to Washington, the delegation from which Reid said DeBraga wouldn't be welcome.
They got a better audience in Reid's office than some have. Certainly better than the high school kid from Lincoln County who visited there as part of a senior honors trip last year and dared to ask Reid why federal lands couldn't be returned to the state. Reid threw that boy out of his office in a memorable fit of temper.
At least the delegation from Churchill County got an agreement from Reid to allow some professionally mediated discussion among the principles on implementation of his legislation.
When they got those talks going late on into 1994, Ted DeBraga stayed out of the limelight, hoping not to set Reid off again. The senator only made a token appearance to begin the talks, anyway. After that, it was Ernie Schank and a professional negotiator the irrigation district had hired on its own who sat down across from representatives of Reid's staff, the lawyer from the Pyramid Lake Tribe, representatives of the Sierra Pacific Power Company, Reno and Sparks officials, and a contingent of environmentalists led by David Yardas of the Environmental Defense Fund and Graham Chisholm of The Nature Conservancy.
The odds for the farmers were about like those between Haiti and the Marines. Six months after they started, the talks were over with both sides refusing to acknowledge absolute failure by suggesting they at least, "got to know each other better."
That time, Harry Reid didn't have to remind Churchill County to be grateful to him. He had done what he promised. He let them talk, now the train was moving on.
Reid did tell one local interviewer that he was sure "agriculture will continue" in Churchill County, but he and ever-more-confident federal bureaucrats were talking about a different "scale" for the future--maybe just half the farms or a little less.
Shirley Walker is too much of an out-front Republican to have been waiting for Reid that night. She ran against Marcia DeBraga the time before, and from her position with the Churchill Economic Development Authority seemed to be getting ready to do so again.
But Walker also knows Reid and his position on the future of Churchill County. It could be that the senator didn't recognize her among that delegation of rural development agencies that met with him in D.C. after the negotiations in 1995.
Reid's office denies he ever said it, but Walker and the others heard him when the senior senator told them the Truckee Canal will be closed down and filled in by the beginning of the next century.
That never made the local paper. It's the sort of thing folks in the Lahontan Valley don't want to hear anyway. If the canal is filled in, it will finish on the spot the farms and ranches around Fernley and the old railroad junction of Hazen that rely on the water diverted from the Truckee River. It would finish them immediately, and tighten the strangle on the rest that are dependent on combined waters of the Truckee and Carson in Lahontan Reservoir. The senator, his staff said, never said that.
He certainly wouldn't be coming to an election year meeting to tell them something like that anyway. In fact, the doubters didn't see that there could be much he could tell them. Why waste his time?
What could he get out of Churchill County that Reid didn't already have? His amendment to the grazing act before the Senate was in the process of being filibustered to death by Western colleagues like Pete Domenici of New Mexico who saw what Reid and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt were trying to do by attaching a new provision that read:
"The United States is directed to assert its claims, and exercise its right to all water developed on public lands for the benefit of public resources."
In other words, Reid wanted the federal government to snatch even more control of water in the west, even from the states, and especially from the Lahontan Valley.
It wouldn't be something that the senator could discuss in Fallon. He wouldn't be asking for help in ending the filibuster.
He probably expected to lose that one anyway, and if it gets right down to it, there seem to be easier, if slightly more devious, ways of pulling away private water rights.
Graham Chisholm knows that. Good-guy Graham, with all his grass roots contacts, was helping to make it easier on the people of the Lahontan Valley by offering green greenbacks to get them out of the inevitable with some profit. He'd already peeled off a number of farms with help from the daily radio pitches made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for "willing sellers" to turn over their rights to Pyramid Lake and the wetlands, and Graham was about to announce his centerpiece purchase of Randy Weishaupt's land and near-new farmhouse on the very edge of the existing wetlands.
That might be something Harry Reid could be proud of in visiting Churchill County, except that there might be some complication in explaining why Graham wanted to use Del Webb money to buy the place in return for a swap of federal land around Las Vegas that the developer wanted.
Wasn't Del Webb one of Harry Reid's main campaign contributors? The sort of social-conscience corporation that helped Reid rise from his often-proclaimed poor roots in Searchlight to the most powerful position in the state? People in Churchill County, who never gave a dime to Reid even if they could afford it, might not understand that.
But they could probably understand Reid's latest legislation intended to clear the way for still more trades of Vegas-area federal property in return for "environmentally sensitive" private lands. They might even admire the public relations pitch of it to turn over a $60 million mansion at Lake Tahoe to the public good graces of the U.S. Forest Service. And the fact that the senator they considered a friend of their county, former Governor Dick Bryan, was co-sponsoring the bill would surely remove any doubts.
Even so, some of them might see the real intent of the bill in making it easier to acquire private farms and grazing areas in the north-central part of the state for the good of Reid's friends around Vegas.
That's nasty political stuff, worse than rolling around an 800 pound stuffed gorilla on county roads. Nobody in Churchill County was likely to risk questioning Reid face-to-face about it.
So, as it got darker and darker that night, some folks figured Reid had plenty of reasons not to show up in Fallon, even if he said he would.
But that's just it, see. It's why somebody ought to do the psychology paper on political self-delusion. Because Reid did show up, all proud and Democratic and colloquial and acting like he was happy to see his old friends.
He even stopped to talk to Ted DeBraga and wanted to reminisce with Ted about the time they played baseball together as kids, even though Ted was a star on his Fallon team and Reid spent most of his time on the bench for Searchlight.
The editor of the paper got her chance to interview the senator and asked him about the national campaigns and the gaming oversight that Congress was considering and the good news that the Navy base around here was still growing. And, true to her word, she posed the questions the irrigation district had written down for her about the future of water in the valley, and what compensation folks here might expect for their losses.
The senator said he didn't have time for those right away. He'd get back to her with a letter in a week or so.
Once self-described as "The Devil in Churchill County," Harry Reid shook Ted DeBraga's hand again in grinning memory of that long ago lost game and headed back into the night from which he'd come.

Want to share your opinion? Electric Nevada's comment page is open!

Back to Electric Nevada's front Page