The Hispanic vote has become such a powerful force at the ballot box in Nevada that candidates in close elections grab at any chance they can to gain an advantage at the polls.Case in point: the Senate race between Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.
During their second debate Thursday night, Heller was asked why he supported making English the official U.S. language, which is something that angers Latino activists.
"I want to make sure that everybody succeeds that's here in this country. That's the goal," Heller said in the live televised debate. "That's why we continue to push English."
Maybe he should have stopped there, but he went on to say he backed immigration reform because now it's too difficult and costly to become a legal resident or U.S. citizen.
"If you want to come here, should you have to pay thousands of dollars to hire a lawyer?" he asked.
"Should you have to wait years in order to immigrate? So the principles that I'm trying to support are trying to make these people succeed. I want them to succeed here in this country."
Heller’s use of the phrase “these people” prompted cries of outrage from the Berkley campaign, which reached out to her Latino Democratic supporters to dutifully pile on.
The Berkley campaign arranged a telephone conference call Friday morning with several of her Hispanic supporters, including Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas.
“I think it really just demonstrates callousness to this community,” Flores said of Heller’s comments.
She and others called on Heller to apologize.
The Heller campaign noted Berkley herself has used the term “those people,” including in 1999 on the House floor when she praised Federal Judge Lloyd George for swearing in new U.S. citizens.
“This very sensitive, very compassionate man welcomes these people as new citizens to our country, and he does it with such charm and dignity that it makes us all very proud to be Americans,” Berkley said, speaking about the dedication of the Lloyd George Federal building in Las Vegas.
More recently, at an Oct. 3 Hispanics in Politics forum, Berkley used the pronoun “these” while talking about young illegal immigrants who want the DREAM Act to pass so they can become U.S. citizens.
“"These youngsters , when they go to college or when they volunteer for our armed forces and serve this nation overseas, when they come back to this country, they are entitled to a path to legal status. My opponent is against it. I’m for it. That’s one of the major differences in this election.”
Flores said there was a difference in Berkley’s use of the demonstrative pronoun “these” to describe immigrants because she has a record of welcoming them to America and Heller does not.
“It’s not just about one little comment he made during one little debate,” Flores said. His use of the term “highlights his previous record” and “demonstrates how he feels about this particular community.”
In the debate, Heller said he supports military veterans being allowed to become citizens and he wants those seeking an education to have opportunities, too. But he said he doesn't back the DREAM Act as written because it would be akin to amnesty, which he doesn't support.
A Hispanic supporter of Heller’s stood up for him on Friday. Reynaldo Robledo, who owns Roberto’s Tacos, attended the debate and said he agreed “100 percent” with Heller.
"I don’t know why they’re making a big deal of it. It didn’t bother me at all,” Robledo said in an interview. “I know Senator Heller wants minorities to succeed because that benefits everybody.”
Robledo was born in the United States, one of 13 children of his Mexican parents, who came here legally in the late 1950s. He has 43 franchise outlets in Southern Nevada, all of them operated by more than two dozen Mexican immigrants or citizens of Mexican descent, he said.
“I tell all my operators you have to learn English. It helps you in business,” Robledo said.
Heller’s campaign said Friday Berkley is reaching to gin up anger among Latinos, a community the Republican has been courting both publicly and privately for support.
"Dean Heller is committed to supporting programs that help non-English speakers succeed,” said Heller spokeswoman Chandler Smith. “He believes learning English and a quality education are critical to success for everyone. Senator Heller meant no disrespect, just as Congresswoman Berkley meant no disrespect when she used the exact same phrase when discussing immigration issues."
The Berkley campaign refused to back down.
"Nice try from the Heller campaign, but they are grasping at straws by going back to a 13-year-old video that doesn't say what they want it to,” said Berkley spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa. “When Dean Heller said 'these people,' he was using 1950s rhetoric to talk about Latinos. It's clear Berkley was referring to a specific small group of people, not singling out Latinos or immigrants as "these people" like Heller did last night."
With early voting starting in one week on Oct. 20, Berkley is working hard to shore up her support in the Latino community before the Nov. 6 election. A series of recent polls has shown that she’s falling far short among Hispanics in comparison to President Barack Obama.
A Latino Decisions poll released earlier this month showed Obama with a big 78 percent to 17 percent edge over his GOP challenger Mitt Romney among Nevada Hispanics. That same survey showed Berkley leading of Heller, 58-26.
In a Las Vegas Review-Journal poll published this week, Heller was edging Berkley 43-41 among Hispanics. The overall survey showed Heller leading Berkley 47 percent to 39 percent.