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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Retired Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is interviewed at the Joseph Smith Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — Many conservative Mormons don't care much for fellow church member Harry Reid.

His liberal politics rub some of his brothers and sisters in the faith the wrong way. But they might not know that during his 34 years in Congress, the recently retired Democratic senator from Nevada often worked behind the scenes on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ralph Hardy Jr., a lawyer and past chairman of the church's public affairs advisory committee in Washington, D.C., said Reid's leadership roles in Congress and commitment to the church made him a natural person to turn to. He called Reid's efforts on LDS issues extraordinary.

"In my personal experience, Sen. Reid has extended himself and been willing to help and roll up his sleeves and get us introduced to the right people and speak well for us," said Hardy, who served as an area authority and stake president.

Mormonism lost one of if not its highest-ranking elected official with Reid's retirement this month after five terms in the U.S. Senate, including eight years as majority leader and four as minority leader. He also served for years in the U.S. House before being elected to the Senate.

Reid was in Utah on Friday to receive the J. Reuben Clark Law Society's Distinguished Public Service Award at the LDS Conference Center. He also met with members of the LDS Church's First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who thanked him for his service.

"As one of the most visible public officials in the nation, he also has been one of the most influential. In every way he has been a force to be reckoned with," Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the church and an emeritus General Authority Seventy, said in honoring the senator.

Before the event, the 77-year-old Reid talked to the Deseret News about his political career, his work for the church, President Donald Trump and his plans in retirement.

New president

Reid said he didn't watch the presidential inauguration Friday because he was busy.

"When I got the call to come here on Jan. 20, you have no idea how happy I was," he said.

Reid said Trump isn't as bad as he thought he was, but that doesn't mean he won't be bad. He hopes the new president calms down and that nation doesn't get into any international military conflict, ticking off a list of hot spots around the world. He also said he hopes the economy stays good and the nation's deteriorating highways, bridges and sewer systems could be rebuilt.

"If President Trump can get that done, more power to him," Reid said.

Without naming them, Reid said he has a lot of people in mind who could challenge Trump in 2020. But he lamented the length of American elections and said it's unfortunate that lists of possible candidates have already surfaced.

After Trump recently criticized Reid, his staff dug out a note Trump sent him after his 2010 Senate victory. It read: "Harry, congratulations. You're awesome. Donald."

Reid hasn't talked to Trump, who held fundraisers for the senator's last re-election bid at his New York mansion, since he won the presidency.

"He must have forgotten my phone number," Reid said.

Behind the scenes

At the law society event, Elder Wickman lauded the senator's government service, but said there is a Harry Reid that people do not know, the one who did things to assist the church.

"Whatever was needed, Sen. Reid was there to help in a significant way," he said.

Reid was reticent to talk about those efforts, saying there is no need to recount them.

"First of all, I've never been counseled, talked to, threatened, cajoled, admonished, given any direction by any one of the general authorities about what I should or shouldn't do as a member of the United States Senate or House of Representatives," he said.

"But whenever there's an issue that I think is important and I'm contacted, I do my best to try to help. If they think it's important, I think it's important."

Hardy cited several instances where Reid, who along with his wife Landra joined the LDS faith while attending Utah State University, went to bat for the church.

Reid was instrumental in gaining congressional approval for the LDS Church to secure a controversial lease with the Bureau of Land Management for an historic site in Wyoming known as Martin's Cove. Many members of a group of Mormon pioneers headed to Utah frozen or starved to death there in 1856 after being trapped by a snowstorm.

"Sen. Reid really did take a central role in that and was so very helpful and helped bring the parties together and find a mechanism where we could do that," Hardy said.

The senator also helped the church work through a long, complicated process with the Israeli government and the city of Jerusalem to build the BYU Jerusalem Center, which hosts a study abroad program for college students.

Reid also dealt with foreign governments to help LDS missionaries obtain visas.

"He’s been just a great person to have here. He's been very kind and helpful to the church," Hardy said.

Majority leader

Just as he didn't care to talk about his work on behalf of the Mormon church, Reid didn't want to reflect on his legacy in the Senate. He said he did what he did and that he's not going to write his own history. He said he is gratified to have worked in government.

"To be able to serve as I have with my background is quite startling to me, but that's the way it worked out," he said.

The son of a miner and a laundress, Reid grew up in a shack with no indoor toilet, hot water or telephone in the tiny town of Searchlight, Nevada. He said he didn't even know what senator or a majority leader was as a kid.

Reid said "surviving" was his best accomplishment in the Senate, acknowledging he was being a little facetious.

"I feel so blessed to have had the opportunities I've had to be chosen by my senators to lead the Senate," he said. "They could have chosen someone with more talent than I, better looking, smarter, more experienced, better educated. But they chose me. Others could have perhaps done a better job, but they didn't have that chance, I did. So I did the best I could," he said.

Boyd Matheson, president of the conservative Sutherland Foundation, said Reid probably had as tight of a fist on the Senate as any majority leader in history, except for maybe Lyndon Johnson. Reid, he said, not only controlled his side of the aisle but the entire operation.

"He was kind of the unexpected powerful leader for the Democrats. I don’t know that anybody thought that when he took over as leader he was going to have that kind of power and control," he said.

Reid always stuck to his guns and didn't flinch once he had committed to a strategy.

During the 2013 government shutdown when congressional Republicans refused to pass a budget bill that did not include a provision defunding Obamacare, they introduced smaller spending bills to fund parts of the federal government. The GOP-controlled House passed the bills, but Reid refused to bring them to a vote in the Senate.

"I think that my senators understood me. I never tried to be everything to everybody. I knew how to say no, and that's hard to do. They knew I knew how to say no, but I also knew how to say yes. I had patience," he said, adding that he learned from his wife how to be a good listener.

Mormon Democrat

But Reid also politicized the workings of the Senate, bringing to the floor things that would have been "blasphemous" in days past, Matheson said.

Reid went after fellow Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012, accusing the then-presumptive GOP presidential nominee on the Senate floor of not paying any taxes for 10 years. Romney stated categorically that he had paid taxes and that Reid was wrong.

The senator said his issue with Romney was that he hadn't made his tax returns public. He said he had nothing against Romney but was right in complaining about that.

His attack on Romney, who had strong support among LDS voters, and liberal positions such as his pro-choice stance on abortion and support of same-sex marriage fuel questions among Mormons as to how Reid could be a good member of the LDS Church.

"More than people don’t like him, I think people are confused about him and conflicted," Matheson said. "It seems to be more of a congruency issue than anything else. Obviously, members of the church are more conservative and so he was often on the other side of the issue."

Reid's typical response to how he can be a good Mormon and a Democrat is, "I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it."

But in the interview Friday, he turned that around saying, "I can't understand how anyone can be a good Mormon and be a Republican."

Elder Wickman called "Brother Reid" a devoted Latter-day Saint. He said it always amused him that from time to time at stake conferences, people have asked if "that Harry Reid fellow" is really a member of the church.

"I have been pleased to respond that not only is Sen. Reid a member of the church, but he is a very, very good member of the church," he said.

Reid was the Rex E. Lee' family's home teacher when he first went to Congress. Lee was the U.S. solicitor general at the time. He was the first dean of the BYU law school and later president of the university. Reid's son Josh and Lee's son Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, remain best friends, the senator said.

Not looking back

Reid has come up in some Utah issues over the years, notably the investigation that led to criminal charges against former Attorney General John Swallow and the naming of a building at Southern Utah University.

Imprisoned St. George businessman Jeremy Johnson claims Swallow was part of a deal to enlist Reid's help to torpedo a Federal Trade Commission investigation of Johnson's online marketing company. Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings confirmed in 2015 that he is investigating Reid based on evidence he came across in the Swallow probe.

In general, the allegations center on whether Reid received money or other benefits from donors and fundraisers for doing political favors or taking official actions related to the online poker industry.

Reid said he can't defend himself against baseless accusations.

"I have no idea what they're talking about. Zero," he said.

In 2014, SUU removed his name from its Outdoor Engagement Center after some area residents raised concerns about tying it to the Democratic senator.

Reid, an SUU alumnus, said some "big shots" in town don't like his politics. He said he still likes the school and doesn't hold any ill will.

"But I have heard through the grapevine from a few of my friends that in the process it cost them lots of money because people who would ordinarily donate to the school would give them nothing," he said. "So if they think that's the right thing to do, we don't care."

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Now that Reid is on the political sidelines, he plans to stay there. Because he knows his way around, he said he will be of value to somebody but he won't be a lobbyist. A father of five and grandfather of 19, he wants to spend more time with his family and at his home in Henderson.

"My life has changed, and I recognize that. And Landra and I made a decision a long time ago that we're going to live in the future, not the past," Reid said. "I'm very happy with my ability to be in government for more than five decades. I'm satisfied with my 34 years in Congress. But I'm not going to relive those days."