Nevada lieutenant governor candidates clash in Vegas

In their first debate, the top two candidates for lieutenant governor on Wednesday clashed over taxes, education, immigration, gay marriage and health care as well as the best way to boost Nevada’s recovering economy.

Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, aggressively attacked state Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, throughout the morning debate, calling him “my opponent” and saying he represents “the status quo” while she would bring new ideas to the No. 2 job in the Silver State.

“I’m here to represent everyday Nevadans and he’s here to represent his corporate friends,” Flores said. “There’s a lot of rhetoric but not real solutions.”

Hutchison, who became more confrontational as the 80-minute event went on, countered that he had worked with Democrats in the Nevada Legislature to get moderate laws passed despite criticism from conservative Republicans.

He also plugged GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval, who has endorsed Hutchison and campaigned with him across Nevada, saying Sandoval wants him to be his “partner” and the governor’s policies have helped drop the state’s unemployment rate to about 8 percent from 14 percent in 2010.

“I will not apologize for living the American dream,” said Hutchison, who has run a private law practice for nearly two decades. “I’ve worked for everything that I have,” he added, saying Nevadans deserve the same opportunities that he has had. “That’s not something to be attacked on. That’s something to celebrate.”

The race is one of the most closely watched contests on the Nov. 4 ballot. That’s because more is at stake than the No. 2 post, a part-time job that focuses on tourism, transportation and economic development. The political futures of Sandoval and U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who supports Flores, are in the mix, too.

Republicans hope the governor, who’s expected to easily win re-election this year, will challenge Reid in 2016 in the Senate if he’s free to leave his post in the trusted hands of his chosen GOP lieutenant.

Both Hutchison and Flores, however, said they expect Sandoval to complete his four-year term through 2018, although they each made the case they’re ready to step into the top job if he doesn’t.

“He wants me to be his partner,” Hutchison said, adding he already knows all the state senators and is ready to become president of the Senate, another duty of the lieutenant governor. “My experience has given me the opportunity to fill that position if necessary.”

Flores said of Sandoval, “He didn’t have to choose me for anything. I chose him (as my partner).”

The debate was held before Hispanics in Politics, a group that leans Democratic but has backed Republican candidates, too. More than 100 people crowded into the forum at the Dona Maria Tamales Restaurant in downtown Las Vegas.

In an unusual move, the candidates were allowed to read questions ahead of time that were posed by Fernando Romero, president of the group, during the hour debate. During a 20-minute town hall session, however, surprise written questions were provided by the audience.

Flores read from several pages of notes during the debate.

“The status quo is not working,” said Flores, who repeated the phrase half a dozen times, working off talking points.

At one point, Flores, who was a teenage gang member who stole cars while growing up in Las Vegas, joked that unlike Hutchison she had never been “handed the keys” to anything. She has since turned around her life.

“A couple of times, I just took them,” she added to titters from the audience.

On taxes, both candidates said they oppose a proposed 2 percent margins tax on business, which is Question 3 on the Nov. 4 ballot. But Hutchison said he also has backed a proposed $600 million tax hike on the mining industry in order to “start the discussion” over how best to pay for education.

Flores accused him of “playing politics,” backing a change in how the mining industry is taxed to distract voters from the margins tax. She said she backs broad-based tax reform, something that has failed in the Legislature for decades.

On education, Hutchison noted Sandoval boosted spending by $500 million during the 2013 session. And he said more money should be targeted to expand all-day kindergarten, offer English classes for immigrants and reduce class sizes. As well, he said he supports school choice so poor students can attend classes at better institutions. And he said extra school spending must come with education reform to ensure bad teachers aren’t protected.

“Parents should make the decision about which schools are right for their children,” Hutchison said.

Flores said she won’t be happy until the state fully restores education funding it cut during the recession, some $1 billion. She also is against school “vouchers,” or choice, which she said still won’t level the playing field for students.

“That’s not equality,” Flores said.

There wasn’t much difference between the candidates on immigration with both supporting comprehensive reform. But Hutchison, like other Republicans, is against President Barack Obama taking executive actions to stop the deportation of young immigrants who grew up here. Hutchison said he agrees those young immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S., but he said a law should be approved as part of immigration reform so the change is permanent.

Flores questioned Hutchison’s immigration credentials and record. But Hutchison said he has worked with Democrats in the Senate to back driver’s permits for immigrants who are in the country illegally and to crack down on “notarios,” a Flores bill aimed at preventing immigrants from being taken advantage of.

On the proposed legalization of same-sex marriage, the two candidates are at opposite poles — Flores backs it, saying it could add to the tourism industry in Nevada. Hutchison, a Mormon, said his religious beliefs prevent him from supporting same-sex marriage, although he said he’s against discrimination for gays in society.

Flores clearly did her homework. She noted that 76 percent of her legislation had passed and was signed by Sandoval, while Hutchison had a record of 26 percent. Hutchison said it’s more difficult to get bills heard and passed when a lawmaker is in the minority. The Democrats have controlled both the Senate and the Assembly since Hutchison was elected in 2012.

Flores also slammed Hutchison for challenging the constitutionality of Obama’s Affordable Health Care law for free at the request of the governor. Despite his opposition, he supported Sandoval in expanding Medicaid and setting up a state-run health exchange to implement the law, which remains controversial.

On economic development, both candidates argued for diversifying Nevada’s economy behind gaming and tourism. And Hutchison noted Nevada is one of six states where Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are being tested. He said the university engineering departments are offering a degree in drone operations with thousands of jobs expected to be created.

“His policies have been working,” Hutchison said of Sandoval, adding he plans to continue along the same path.

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter: @lmyerslvrj.

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