With a knife behind his back
Harry Reid's Bizarre Project: Replace
Fallon's Farmland with Barren Desert
[Part I]

by Tim Findley
The Magpie

He is the wealthiest and, by far, the most powerful incumbent politician in Nevada.
Yet U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) seldom neglects to remind audiences of his "log cabin" origins as the son of a modest miner in the little south-state town of Searchlight. He inevitably skips over the rest of his background -- the wheeling and dealing through the sinew of gaming influence into positions allowing him to cajole big money, intimidate opposition, and even threaten the futures of those who stood in his way, including rural nobodies, military officers, senior bureaucrats, and even fellow politicians.
Harry Reid, the poor kid from Searchlight, stands now near the ear of the President himself, and he is not about to let anybody in his home state forget it. Certainly not in 1998.

Growing up

It might have been the best time of all for a kid to grow up in Nevada in the late 1940s and 1950s, poor or not. the Silver State had crossed the barrier of its image as a barren frontier, in part with the help of the late Depression surge into California and in part with the economic impact of World War II itself. The dazzle of mob-backed gaming was taking full hold in the south in a way




almost complementary to the dude ranch and divorce reputation of Reno in the north.
For a kid like Harry Reid in the 1950s, it was all, really, one place, with the vast wide-open spaces that so impressed the eastern dudes more like an endlessly varied playground shared by neighbors living hundreds of miles apart, yet knowing each other by their first names.
One day in late 1995 in Fallon, when Harry Reid came in after dark for his most recent meeting with constituents, he made a point of seeking out the boyhood friend he thought he had made in Ted DeBraga when the two of them met as members of opposing school baseball teams. DeBraga had been a star pitcher for Fallon, while Reid had warmed the bench for Searchlight. But the Senator still sought the TCID Board President out in the convention center and reminded him of the playing fields they had shared together those childhood years before.

Devious Harry

Neither of them even mentioned the fact that Reid had specifically directed that DeBraga, personally, was


 
unwelcome in the Senator's Washington D.C. office sometime before. That was when DeBraga wanted to discuss terms of the Senator's Negotiated Settlement legislation to take irrigation out of the Lahontan Valley.
Reid is full of such contradictions: the poor boy getting rich from his power, the rural kid deeply involved with devious developers, the old friend shaking hands, and holding a political knife behind his back.
"That's really why they hate him," said one observer. "It's not for what he is, but for how devious he is about it, for how little he can be trusted."
Reid has no apparent reason to care. In 1992, he won re-election without carrying any blocks of rural Nevada votes, including his hometown of Searchlight. He won't need them in 1998, either. All he'll need is the support, not to mention the money, he has carefully cultivated in Las Vegas and, to a lesser extent, Reno. Then the poor boy from Searchlight can secure absolute dominance over the next six years in the nation's fastest growing state.
Reid will tell his campaign audiences how much he regrets that such growth is bringing an end to the "rural character" of Nevada, but probably no one individual is more responsible for it than is Reid himself.




Acknowledged or not, the lynch pin of Reid's ultimate power in the state, if not in the Senate, is linked to the failure of his former nemesis, Senator Paul Laxalt (R-NV) to bring closure to the key agreement between Nevada and California, as well as other western states, over the water they theoretically share. Laxalt thought his most powerful friends, including President Ronald Reagan, could help him accomplish the history-making deal, but he fell short on appropriations, particularly after protests by tribal and environmental influences.

Water: The Path to Power

When Laxalt retired from the U.S. Senate, Reid moved into his seat in 1987, knowing that the real power in Nevada politics would only be found in settling the century-long "war" over western state water.
The most important players were already on board, and Reid had recognized them from his experience in state government. His success depended on knowing how to play them to his best advantage.
Pyramid Lake Tribal Attorney Robert Pelcyger [see
accompanying story] acknowledged later to law students that he had almost made a separate deal for the tribe, when Laxalt had still been


 
senator, before Sierra Pacific Power Co. and other powerful interests caught on. Also, Liberal Democrat sympathies with the tribe had been well established since the 1970s by even such visitors as Kennedy chum Senator John Tunney of California. Reid, no political neophyte, could see there was a bigger league to play in if he incorporated more tribal and environmental trimmings into the legislative package he was assembling.
"Newlands," he would later say in one of his flat, condescending explanations to television journalists, "was a mistake. We need to correct that mistake."
Whether representatives of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District and the Lahontan Valley in general understood that was Reid's assumption or not, they went into "negotiations" on his Senate Bill 1554 already marked as pawns to be sacrificed in the forthcoming game. The pieces marked as most important -- Sierra Pacific, Reno development and even Las Vegas expansion -- waited their time in the back ranks.
Mistake or not, Reid knew the importance of Newlands and the Fallon area to securing his monumental legislation. Even if it could be argued that providing water for irrigation in the region had been a turn of the




century error, there were people now living there in the Lahontan Valley whose entire lives, for generations, were invested in its success. Some of the same people who Reid remembers from the baseball fields of his youth.
Those people couldn't simply have their rights taken from them. They had to be convinced to give them up, or to surrender them as part of a sacrifice for unknowingly violating the rights of the "others" for whom the new legislation was now to be written.

A Bid for Desert & Dead Aviators

Early on in the process, Reid recognized an important element in the game that Laxalt may have overlooked. Even then, in the late 1980s, Fallon had probably the most active Navy fighter base in the nation. It not only sprawled across expanded acres east of the town but effectively ranged through the airspace of federally controlled central Nevada lands. At least one small community, Dixie Valley, had already swallowed up in its reach.
Sources close to the events have confirmed that Senator Reid met at that time in Washington, D.C. with a Navy admiral whose influence extended generally over Navy properties and


 
whose ambitions lay in a political future in California. Reid, the sources say, had no trouble convincing the admiral that it would be in the best interests of the service to relinquish water rights on land around the Fallon base -- rights then leased by the Navy to local farmers.
The word apparently didn't get down to Fallon Base Commander Rex Rackowitz. Captain Rackowitz, himself an aviator, saw it as a bad and dangerous idea.
The leveled and irrigated fields surrounding most of the base did more than merely make it a landing target in a sea of green. Only a few years before, a C-47 cargo plane taking off from Fallon had caught a wingtip and cart-wheeled into an area covered by dry sage and grasses. Of the 13 who died in the crash, authorities later determined that several had survived the impact, only to die in the fire that engulfed the site and made it impossible for rescue crews to reach them. There had been numerous other instances in which pilots had ejected from crippled planes and landed near the wreckage in irrigated fields where the fire did not spread.




At a meeting in the Fallon fire house on Reid's proposed bill, Captain Rackowitz made his concerns publicly known.
Just a day later, say sources, Reid had a high-ranking admiral in his office demanding that a way be found to remove Rackowitz from his command.
Rex Rackowitz nevertheless survived the threats that Reid's office would "eat his lunch." He retired from the Navy in 1991, but has never forgotten Harry Reid.
Perhaps never before in history, with the possible exception of Chairman Mao's disastrous "Great Leap" in China, has a national government methodically set about to remake its own fertile cropland into desert. Yet that is just what Reid ordered the Navy to do with the lands it leased to the Fallon farmers -- almost as if they were an "enemy."

Next Week: Part II -- Why They Call Him 'Senator $waps'


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