U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., launched "Latinos for Shelley" Monday at her Las Vegas campaign headquarters as part of her campaign for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. (Photo by Laura Myers/Las Vegas Review-Journal.)
Backed by prominent Hispanic leaders, U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley on Monday launched "Latinos for Shelley," an effort to drive Hispanic voter turnout and boost her odds of defeating U.S. Sen. Heller.
"The fact is, most of the people standing behind me are not strangers to me," Berkley, D-Nev., said at a news conference at her Las Vegas campaign headquarters.
Indeed, Berkley has long-standing ties with dozens of Hispanic leaders, including those who have backed her in her seven successful congressional runs and worked with her on Democratic Party caucuses. Several dozen Latino leaders endorsed Berkley in her 2012 Senate race, representing a broad spectrum of Nevada -- education, business, politics, community services and Spanish-language media. They also included a few prominent Republicans such as Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce. He joined Berkley at Monday's kickoff with a dozen other Hispanics, including state Sens. Mo Denis and Ruben Kihuen and Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, all Democrats from Las Vegas, as well as Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics.
Berkley will need Latinos to win her close race with Heller, a popular Republican with strong support in rural and Northern Nevada where the former congressman is from.
"Yes," Berkley said when asked if she were counting on a strong Hispanic vote to win.
"Yes," she said again when asked whether Latinos would turn out for her in 2012.
U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., credited Hispanics for his re-election in 2010. They made up 15 percent of the Nevada electorate and voted largely for the Democrat.
Latino turnout is a key question in the upcoming election with some Hispanics unhappy with the economy and failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Nevada has suffered more than most states with high unemployment -- now about 12 percent -- and home foreclosure rates. And Hispanics, who make up 26 percent of the state's population, have been hurt even more with a jobless rate a few percentage points higher, according to most experts.
Berkley said she was certain Latinos would rather send her to the Senate than return Heller, whose party has been battling Obama on everything from health care reform and student aid to tax and immigration policy.
"Why would you elect people with the same policies that got us into this economic mess in the first place?" Berkley asked. "I think the Latino community is wise enough to be able to make a good choice."
On one major issue that has become a rallying cry for Hispanics, Berkley backs the DREAM Act. It would give children of illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship if they attend college or serve in the military. Heller voted against it, saying last January it could provide benefits to illegal immigrants that should go to U.S. citizens.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is working on a GOP version of the DREAM Act that would allow young illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. to study, but stop short of offering citizenship.
Berkley scoffed at the Rubio proposal, calling it "insulting to the Latino community."
"It's the DREAM Act without the dream," Berkley said. "There's no path to citizenship. I mean there's a stark difference."
"We're either going to do this and give these youngsters that came here -- through no fault of their own -- the opportunity to get in the back of the line and have a path to citizenship if they are in college or if they are serving in our military, or we are not. But calling something the DREAM Act when it has no dream whatsoever is insulting."
Heller's campaign said the senator hasn't taken a position on Rubio's idea since it's still being drafted.
The Republican refused to cede ground to Berkley in her campaign to fire up Latinos, saying economic issues will sway voters in November.
"Seven-term Congresswoman Shelley Berkley has voted for a national energy tax, a failed stimulus, a skyrocketing federal debt and bailouts for Detroit and Wall Street while Nevadans, especially the Hispanic community, still struggle with record-high unemployment," said Chandler Smith, a spokeswoman for Heller's campaign. "All Nevadans want a better life for their children and grandchildren, but the Berkley agenda is making things worse."