Online petition says Heller ‘insulting’ Hispanics
By Tovin Lapan
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m.

Left: Rep. Dean Heller speaks at the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter on Dec. 4, 2009. Right: Rep. Shelley Berkley laughs with constituents during a “Congress on the Corner” event Jan. 14, 2011, at her Las Vegas office.

With her sights set on winning the Hispanic vote in her campaign for the Senate, Shelley Berkley is holding Dean Heller’s feet over the immigration fire.

On her website, Berkley, a Democratic congresswoman, has outlined what distinguishes her from Heller, who was appointed last year to the Senate after John Ensign resigned. And her campaign is circulating a petition titled “Tell Dean Heller: Stop insulting Nevada Hispanics.”

While Democratic candidates in statewide races routinely take the majority of Hispanic votes, Berkley is assuming nothing and is aggressively courting them. And it’s never been more important because they have never represented such a large segment of Nevada voters.

At stake is 13.5 percent of the electorate — the 224,000 eligible Hispanic voters in Nevada. Only five other states have a greater percentage of Hispanic voters, according to the Pew Research Center.

In 2010, they comprised 9.3 percent of the Nevada electorate.

A December poll showed Heller and Berkley running neck and neck for the seat, and nailing the Hispanic vote could mean the difference.

“There hasn’t been a competitive race in Nevada where a Democrat lost the Latino vote,” said Andres Ramirez, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee Hispanic Caucus and an adviser to Berkley. “The question is how high the margin is and how high turnout is.”

Ramirez said Heller had a lot of ground to make up — especially after his well-publicized refusal to attend a scheduled meeting with the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce because a Berkley staffer was in attendance and Democratic Party members were planning to film the discussion.

“Dean Heller is starting from a negative,” Ramirez said. “It would be one thing if they were on equal footing and competing for Latinos. But Shelley has a long history of working with the Hispanic community. It’s not just immigration but being there on issues of education, health care and other important matters.”

Berkley is engaging the Latino media and is seeking the endorsement of Spanish-language media.

She has contrasted her support for comprehensive immigration reform and sponsorship of the Dream Act with Heller’s opposition to the Dream Act and major reforms to immigration law.

“I don’t think Berkley was in much jeopardy of not winning a majority of Hispanic voters,” said David Damore, a UNLV associate professor of political science. “But she can solidify her position by getting out early, and there is also the matter of how big that Hispanic vote is.

There is still a pretty untapped reservoir of potential Hispanic voters out there, and perhaps she will get more to register and participate.”

Heller’s office did not respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment.

On his campaign website, Heller outlines a three-step strategy for immigration policy: “Start by enforcing existing immigration laws, fine businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and construct a border wall and provide the border patrol with the resources necessary to end the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.”

Heller also has repeatedly stated his objections to any immigration reform that is seen as an “amnesty” for those here illegally.

Some Hispanic voters are siding with Heller, even if they do not agree with his positions on immigration.

Alex Garza, vice president of the Las Vegas nonpartisan civic group Hispanics in Politics, said he was tired of the rhetoric coming from both sides.

“I see the Democratic Party as pandering to Hispanics on one side. They promise Hispanics the world every two to four years and deliver nothing, zilch,” said Garza, 41, a Realtor and an executive with a home loan lending company. “On the other side, the Republicans have gone overboard in the other direction and have taken too hard of a stance.”

Garza is a Republican and said he is planning to vote for Heller even though he disagrees with the senator’s position against the Dream Act and other reforms. Garza is also a member of the Latin Chamber of Commerce and said that after Heller missed the meeting with that group he did make an effort to reach out again, noting smaller meetings with Hispanic community leaders and a Hispanics in Politics breakfast in January.

“Immigration aside, you have to start looking at what policies the candidates have and what will more directly impact the Latino community,” Garza said. “Are the policies they are promoting helping the economy? Are they helping to create jobs? Are they helping with the foreclosure issue? You have to weigh these important factors.

The poverty rate and foreclosure rate among Latinos has risen more than any other group under the current administration.”

Republican strategists have been keen to point out the Obama administration’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform or the Dream Act while Democrats still held both houses of Congress.

Democratic strategists stress their party still promotes those programs while the GOP candidates for president are opposed to them.

A Nevada Democratic strategist said they would argue that if not for the Republican opposition, the Dream Act and immigration reform could have been passed by now.

The finer points can be hashed out as the election race ramps up, but Berkley has taken the lead in framing the two candidates’ positions on immigration with an eye toward galvanizing Hispanic voters behind her and giving herself a cushion with other swing voters and independents.

“For the Berkley campaign, what this does is boxes (Heller) in,” Damore said. “The more people know his early positions the less room he has to finesse his way out it. Once they get that message out, he can’t start backpedaling.”

Berkley draws stark contrasts with Heller over immigration - Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012 | 2 a.m. - Las Vegas Sun