Senate race scrutiny hazardous to Berkley’s political health

A savvy political consultant once deflated me, saying it didn’t matter if I wrote a negative story about his candidate. The only thing that really mattered was the headline.

“Nevada Congresswoman’s Cause Is Often Her Husband’s Gain” from the New York Times is one of those headlines he wouldn’t have liked, since it is sure to be repeated in television ads and political mailers next fall against Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev.

The headline that matters was accompanied by a photo of Berkley and her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, and it is perfect fodder for a negative piece against Berkley, who is trying to knock U.S. Sen. Dean Heller out of the Senate.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Thursday headline saying “Berkley answers conflict claims” isn’t going to be much help to her. The online version reads: “In hindsight, Berkley says she should have disclosed.” Her GOP opponent is more likely to use the online version, since it sounds like she is admitting she did wrong.

I said before Berkley should run for her safe Democratic seat in the House, even if the district is redrawn. Part of my reasoning then was because of all the negative publicity dredged up during her 1998 election, about her ethically questionable advice offered when she was the government affairs adviser to Las Vegas Sands boss Sheldon Adelson.

She told him that one way to gain support from Clark County Commissioners Erin Kenny and Yvonne Atkinson-Gates was to offer favors. She also urged Adelson to make campaign contributions to judges, saying they “tend to help those who helped them.”

Berkley wasn’t advising anything illegal, but it sounded sleazy, just like the latest bad headline.

Was Berkley helping Nevada’s patients or her husband’s practice when she and other congressional delegates fought to block federal regulators from closing a kidney transplant program at University Medical Center?

In her first public comment on the matter, she conceded to the Review-Journal’s Steve Tetreault that she recognized there could be a perceived conflict of interest since her husband benefits from his contract with UMC.

If Shelley Berkley saw there was a potential conflict, why didn’t she run her efforts on behalf of kidney care past the House Ethics Committee?

The New York Times reported that wasn’t the only time Berkley used her power to intervene on kidney care issues before Congress.

“Ms. Berkley’s actions were among a series over the last five years in which she pushed legislation or twisted the arms of federal regulators to pursue an agenda that is aligned with the business interest of her husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner,” wrote Times reporter Eric Lipton.

Without a doubt, health care is one of Berkley’s passions. Her written response to the Times pointed to 78 pieces of legislation she sponsored or co-sponsored that were health related, but not to kidney care.

She survived the bad publicity of her 1998 congressional race because she was in a heavily Democratic district.

But now Nevada is one of seven swing states, which political expert Larry Sabato predicted will decide if the presidential election goes Republican or stays Democratic.

Nevada Republicans will be fired up. When they see Heller is one of their own, they’ll likely vote for him, too. Berkley can win if the Democratic get-out-the-vote machine succeeds in dragging the supporters of President Barack Obama and Berkley to the polls, which right now looks like a tough assignment.

If Berkley had resisted the siren call from the Senate, she could have kept on fighting for kidney care issues, and probably no one would have questioned whether it was a pure effort to help patients, or a less than pure effort to help her husband’s practice.

The spotlight shines much brighter on the perception of ethical missteps when one chases a Senate seat.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at or call her at (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at

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