Claim against Heck resurfaces

A hotly disputed claim that helped torpedo Republican Joe Heck's 2008 state Senate campaign now threatens to undermine his run for Congress.

This time it's the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union peddling the notion that Heck, a physician, voted against a vaccine for cervical cancer.

And with about $700,000 in spending behind the latest ad and another spot making dubious Social Security claims, observers from both major political parties say the representations could hurt Heck's chances of ousting Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., from the seat representing Congressional District 3.

"This is as irresponsible of a television ad as I have ever seen. Ever," said Ryan Erwin, a Republican political strategist and Heck supporter, of charges in the cancer ad. "They are brutal. The question would be whether people know they are lies."

Ricky Feller, deputy political director for the union, defended the ads, saying, "What we said I feel comfortable with."

Billy Vassiliadis, a Democratic political strategist and longtime Titus friend, agreed the ads could affect the outcome of the race "if a lot of voters in the district are forming a first impression of Joe Heck based on these commercials."

One of the union's ads says Heck is "Dangerous to women" and focuses on a 2007 vote in which it says Heck opposed a vaccine against cervical cancer.

It goes on to say Heck said women wouldn't need such a vaccine if "they didn't engage in risky behavior."

It also says Heck wants to privatize Social Security.

In reality, Heck voted against a mandate that insurance companies cover Gardasil, a vaccine against the human papilloma virus, which can be a precursor to cancer.

And Heck didn't say women wouldn't need the vaccine if they didn't engage in risky behavior. He referenced risk factors, some of which are behavioral, during testimony on the bill.

The National Cancer Institute lists smoking, sexual activity and use of birth control pills as cervical cancer risk factors women have some control over, although there are other uncontrollable risk factors.

"It is not even misusing what I said," Heck said of the ad. "It is totally changing what I said."

Heck said he opposed the mandate because it could increase the cost of insurance.

"When we're trying to get more people covered, the last thing we want to do is add more mandates and drive up the cost," he said.

Heck said he also had concerns at the time because the drug only recently had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and there were reports it was associated with negative, and possibly dangerous, side effects.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention documents thousands of "adverse events" following Gardasil use, but also recommends vaccination to prevent most types of cervical cancer.

It's the second time the claim has cropped up as an attack on Heck. In 2008 Heck lost a close race to Democrat Shirley Breeden. Near the close of the campaign the state Democratic party sent mailers making similar claims against Heck.

The claim has some defenders.

In a recent letter to the Las Vegas Sun, Jessica Brown, past president of the Nevada chapter of the National Organization for Women, said the claim holds water because the virus, called HPV, is closely associated with cervical cancer and "a vote against coverage of the HPV vaccine is a vote against protecting women from cancer."

In addition to recycling the cervical cancer vote claim, the union ads alleges that Heck supports privatizing Social Security.

The ad says if it were up to Heck "women's retirement would be privatized, gambled away on Wall Street."

It cites a May 4 interview with Nevada News and Views in which Heck said people "should have the right to voluntarily take their portion of Social Security withholding and invest it as they deem appropriate."

He went on to say the plan should be voluntary and not include employer contributions to Social Security.

A second ad focuses exclusively on the claim Heck wants to privatize Social Security.

Feller said the ads are paid for from the union treasury, something made possible by a recent Supreme Court ruling that loosened restrictions on corporate and union spending in elections -- a ruling cheered by Republicans.

The union expects to be on television through Sept. 6, then it will evaluate whether to continue.

"We're looking at how much money the candidates have raised, where other independent expenditures may or may not be going," Feller said.

The ads are independent of the Titus campaign, but public employee unions are among Titus' biggest campaign contributors, according to campaign finance records.

Titus spokesman Andrew Stoddard said Heck's Social Security position is fair game.

"He has basically said he is for a system that would create private accounts," Stoddard said. "That is privatization."

When asked about the cervical cancer claims in the AFSCME ad, Stoddard took a neutral position.

"The vaccine is something that is important for women," he said. "He opposed requiring insurance companies to cover the vaccine for HPV which causes cervical cancer."

Asked whether Titus would use the charge in her campaign, Stoddard said, "I don't know if that is an issue we'll be discussing down the road or not."

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at or 702-477-3861.