POLITICAL EYE: Kihuen counting on minority support

A Mexican mariachi band. Chinese dancing dragons. African-American break dancers.

The entertainment and the crowd at Ruben Kihuen’s official Democratic congressional campaign kick-off last week demonstrated the Hispanic favorite son’s support in the minority community.

Inside Rancho High School, where a teenage Kihuen once reigned as prom king and soccer star, more than 300 people gathered. Relatives and friends mixed with community and minority leaders who have already pledged to back the state senator’s U.S. House bid.

Nectaly Mendoza, a friend from junior high and the owner of Herbs & Rye restaurant, came to the rally with his girlfriend and two children, ages 6 and 1. They mixed with other families they knew.

“He’s just a great guy with great family values,” said Mendoza, who didn’t attend Rancho with Kihuen but hung out with his friend and his family even after the two started going to separate schools. “His dad took me everywhere with them, like to soccer games. I was part of the family.”

Mike Vaswani, president of the influential Asian American Group, said he is endorsing Kihuen early because he wants the minority community to elect Nevada’s first Latino congressman. Asians account for more than 7 percent of the state’s population — compared with 26 percent Hispanic — but are a growing political force in Southern Nevada, endorsing both Democratic and Republican candidates.

“We need one of our own, a minority, in Congress,” said Vaswani, who is of Indian descent. “Plus the Hispanics here need a leader in Washington, and I think Ruben can do the job.”

Rozita Lee, a Hawaii native and one of the founders of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, was among Democratic Party stalwarts and minority leaders who spoke at Tuesday’s campaign kick-off.

“I have never seen a more charismatic person than Ruben in the Legislature,” Lee said.

Kihuen will need more than charisma to win, however, especially if he faces a Democratic primary as expected. The lines for Nevada’s four congressional districts haven’t been drawn yet, but he is among half a dozen Democrats who are running or considering launching bids.

In his 20-minute speech to supporters, Kihuen switched from English to Spanish and back while urging the community to get behind him because he is one of their own. He didn’t offer any policy proposals, although he said he wanted to protect Medicare and Social Security.

“I’m running for Congress because I care about people like you, because I am you,” Kihuen said, adding he isn’t beholden to special interests or Washington. “I’m running to be your congressman.”

■ ■ ■

Popularity, a winning personality and a compelling personal narrative as the son of Mexican immigrants who came to America for a better life have gotten Kihuen pretty far so far in politics.

Kihuen, 31, served in the Assembly for two terms and was named best freshman in 2007 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s survey of members of the media, legislators and lobbyists. That first 2007 session, he introduced a bill that passed to require merchants to give the state 60 percent of the value of unredeemed gift cards that have not been cashed for at least three years.

Kihuen was elected to the state Senate in 2010. He didn’t introduce any bills during the 2011 session, but chaired a Senate Select Committee on Economic Growth and Employment. Kihuen didn’t register on the Review-Journal’s 2011 survey, neither as one of the worst nor one of the best senators.

State Sen. Mo Denis, the Democratic leader of the Hispanic caucus in the Legislature, said Kihuen has done a good job as a lawmaker, although he hasn’t made a lot of headlines — good or bad. Denis attended Kihuen’s campaign kick-off to back his fellow state senator for Congress. The two lawmakers have roomed together in Carson City during the past three sessions as well.

“He’s like my brother,” said Denis, who graduated from Rancho High School in 1979, one year before Kihuen was born. “I’m supporting him because he’s a better candidate than anyone else who’s running. And the Hispanic community is going to really get behind us.”

■ ■ ■

State Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, is expected to run for Congress as well. Denis said Horsford and Kihuen have agreed not to run in the same district to avoid splitting the minority community vote. That means it’s possible Kihuen could face former U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.

In 2010, Titus lost to U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., in the 3rd Congressional District. She isn’t expected to challenge him again for the swing district, but instead run in a safer Democratic district around Las Vegas. A former state senator, Titus has enjoyed support in the minority community.

At least one of the three Southern Nevada congressional districts will be more than one-third Hispanic and possibly up to 50 percent, depending on lines drawn by special court masters. Kihuen said he will run in whichever district has the most Hispanics, since he has long represented them.

“I think Ruben can beat Titus,” Denis said, adding that both he and Kihuen had been approached by national Democrats in Washington to run for Congress. “The White House wants more Hispanics to run, not just because we’re Hispanics but because we understand the communities we represent.”

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

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