A Filipino-American group on Saturday endorsed Republican U.S. Sen. Dean Heller after backers of his Democratic challenger U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley protested outside the event and were moved by police.
Emotions ran high outside Ray's Asian Cuisine as about half a dozen Filipino-Americans and veterans' activists yelled objections to the Heller endorsement from a new political action committee, formed to fight for compensation for Filipino World War II veterans who fought alongside American troops.
But Luke Perry and Ceasar Elpidio, founders of the Filipino American Families of America in Politics that endorsed Heller, were unbowed by the protests and by the split in the Filipino community in the close Senate race. The two men said Heller had been helping the families of World War II veterans to finally get compensation and recognition for their military service while Berkley and Democrats had let them down.
"This is the beginning of the Filipino force, starting with the World War II issue," Perry said, displaying a growing list of signatures of Filipinos who support Heller. "We're going forward to win this thing for Senator Heller."
Heller said he was grateful for the endorsement, which came at a news conference in front of about 50 members of the Filipino community who back him, including two of five elderly Filipino veterans in Nevada and their families. The veterans, nicknamed "The Mighty Five," have been denied compensation because U.S. military records don't show their service, although they have proof from Filipino military and guerilla rosters.
"I think it's unfair that our Filipino veterans are not getting what they deserve," Heller told the group after posing for photographs with dozens of supporters. "You can count on us, myself and my staff."
Heller introduced a bill last week, the "Filipino Veterans Fairness Act," that would require the Pentagon to examine more military and historical records to try to verify the World War II service of nearly 25,000 Filipino veterans who have not been compensated. He vowed to keep pressing the issue until it is resolved.
In the audience were retired Philippine Air Force Brig. Gen. Cesar Poblete, 86, and Romeo Barreras, 83. They both served as teenagers, 16 and 15 respectively, beside U.S. soldiers in the Philippines. Both went on to serve in the Korean War. Barreras was awarded two Purple Hearts after being shot twice during the Korean conflict.
Barreras said he volunteered and carried messages from a general to the front lines, riding a horse.
"Some horses were not tame so the general gave me his to ride," Barreras recalled.
Was he in danger? "Almost every day," he said, smiling at the memory.
Now, he has cancer, which returned in 2007 after 10 years of remission. He's weak and uses a cane.
"I want to be recognized," he said, adding money is not the issue. "I have all my papers."
Marilyn Horton, the daughter of Poblete, said she's upset that some Filipinos are angry that the World War II-era veterans and their families are supporting Heller because he has taken up their cause.
"We don't have anything against them," she said. "It's not right that they haven't received benefits."
The issue of compensating Filipino veterans is decades old.
In 2009, Filipino World War II veterans who are U.S. citizens were granted a one-time, $15,000 benefit under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the $800 billion stimulus bill that Berkley voted for and Heller opposed. Other Filipino veterans of the war still living in the Philippines could receive $9,000.
The Filipino veterans approached Heller about helping them two years ago, they said, after Democrats such as Berkley proved ineffective and the Obama administration, too, failed to do more to cut the red tape.
"What impressed us about the senator is he took our issue and studied it," Elpidio said, adding Heller then acted. "That's the type of senator we want - someone to burn the midnight oil to put this legislation through."
Before Heller arrived, several Filipino-Americans backers of Berkley clashed verbally with Heller supporters in the parking lot outside the restaurant in a shopping complex on Desert Inn Road, near McLeod Drive. After staff from the Family Dollar store complained, Las Vegas police asked the protesters to move to a public sidewalk.
Several Democratic operatives helping Berkley's campaign were in the crowd, including the spokesman for the Nevada Democratic Party, Zach Hudson, and Zac Petkanas, who worked on U.S. Sen. Harry Reid's 2010 re-election. Reid's political operation is working to elect Berkley so he can retain control of the Senate.
Ceasar Elpidio's wife, Beverly, told the protesters to leave and chastised them for coming.
"These people are trying to ruin my husband's reputation," she said after they refused to go. "These people are just troublemakers. The World War II veterans are dying and they're telling us to forget them."
But Leo Fortuno, a Berkley backer, said the Filipino protesters' main objection is that the political action committee was formed without a vote or any consensus from a nonpartisan Filipino-American group that has represented the community for years. The educational group is called "Filipino American Veterans & Families of America," which also has advocated for World War II Filipino veterans.
"I don't like what Luke Perry is doing. They said Filipino veterans support Heller, but I'm a veteran and I support Shelley Berkley," Fortuno said. "I do not like people thinking I'm being represented by this new group. They don't represent us."
Heller missed the clash, but said it's interesting Berkley's campaign seemed so concerned with his endorsements. "These veterans are the most important issue here today," Heller said. "That's why I'm here today. My opponent is spending more time worrying about my race than her race."
Berkley, a seven-term congresswoman representing Southern Nevada, has spent years courting veterans and the Filipino community. The Heller endorsement suggests an erosion of support for her among Filipinos, who account for about 4 percent of the state's population, or 100,000 people.
Asian voters generally lean Democratic, but Heller and other Republicans have been making gains ahead of the Nov. 6 election, especially in the business community. Five weeks before early voting starts in Nevada, Heller and Berkley are locked in a near dead heat with both candidates wooing every voter group to gain an edge.
The new Filipino PAC also announced it's endorsing GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and Nevada U.S. Reps. Joe Heck and Mark Amodei, who are both Republicans.
Petkanas, the Democratic operative helping Berkley, scoffed at the PAC. He noted it's not officially registered and doesn't represent the broader Filipino community in Nevada.
"To call them an organized group is incredibly disingenuous by the Heller campaign," Petkanas said. "The overwhelming majority of Filipinos support Shelley Berkley. The fact that Dean Heller has to make up a group to show he has support from Filipinos is incredibly telling about his lack of support."
Contact reporter Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.