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GOP candidates for Nevada governor target Sisolak at debate

Updated January 7, 2022 - 10:45 am

RENO — Eight Republican gubernatorial candidates made their first joint appearance on a debate stage Thursday night, attesting to their conservative credentials and largely speaking as one with grievances aimed at Democratic incumbent Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Over a boisterous but mostly collegial two and a half hours at the Atlantis resort, the candidates took turns answering questions at the event held by local Republican and conservative groups, combining to deliver not only a rebuke to Democratic leadership in the state but also a recitation of indignities arising from pandemic mandates, fraught elections, struggling schools and a wobbly economy.

The rivals were mostly gracious – if occasionally snarky – toward each other, focusing their attacks on Sisolak and another Republican candidate, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who did not attend the debate. In a letter to event organizers given to the press, the Lombardo campaign said the candidate would participate in debates only after the official March 18 candidate filing deadline.

The debate participants often mentioned the two in the same breath.

“We don’t need Sisolak with a badge!” Reno attorney Joey Gilbert taunted. The onetime professional boxer lived up to his former calling throughout the evening, serving up the sharpest spoken jabs at the governor. His vocal supporters in the audience of several hundred appeared to dominate the crowd, at least in volume and enthusiasm.

Crowded debate dais

In a format that made it difficult to stand out, five lesser-known candidates focused on getting their basic campaign message out while more seasoned campaign veterans — three current or former officeholders — touted their governing credentials and experience. The recurring theme was proving their conservative bona fides.

Occasionally, it backfired on them. Dean Heller, the former U.S. senator and secretary of state, drew groans and jeers when he touted himself as the “only proven conservative” in the field and a strong backer of former President Donald Trump and his political agenda. Heller, who early on had a knotty relationship with the former president and cut a more moderate political path before Trump’s ascendancy, mentioned repeatedly during the debate how he’d spoken to the former president earlier in the day.

With Heller and Gilbert on the debate stage were Las Vegas Councilwoman Michele Fiore, a former assemblywoman, and North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee; Fred Simon, a Gardnerville surgeon; Las Vegas real estate agent Barak Zilberberg; venture capitalist Guy Nohra of Reno; and Reno Air Force veteran Tom Heck.

The candidates all said they opposed mask and vaccine mandates and business closures instituted in response to the pandemic, attacked Sisolak’s extended use of emergency powers to fight it and blamed him for the state’s underperforming schools and for a weak, virus-hampered state economy.

They sounded longstanding Republican and conservative allegations of tainted or dishonest elections, concerns over undocumented immigrants entering the country, opposition to taxes and regulations that harm businesses, and alarm at liberal, “Marxist” undermining of education through the teaching of concepts such as critical race theory

Fiore leveraged her experience in both local and state government to produce some of the most on-point policy-focused answers to questions on topics that included governing priorities, response to crime, improving education, dealing with homelessness, promoting business development, and energizing voters to overcome political apathy.

Banning vaccine mandates “comes with economic growth,” she said. “Because when you ban vaccine mandates, we get our teachers, our hospitals and all of our staff back to work. We have folks that have been forced to resign because they refuse the vaccine.”

In contrast, Zilberberg strayed furthest from the topic in most of his answers, twice decrying the entire field, save himself, as RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only, in shouted tangents.

Simon and Heck frequently drew on their constitutional conservative values, Nohra his business experience and Gilbert his support for average citizens. He repeatedly touted his legal challenges to reverse various pandemic mandates on behalf of angry citizens, inadvertently leading to one of the night’s zingers at his expense.

“Joey, how many have you won, honey?” Fiore asked him.

“Only one,” he responded, adding later he looked forward to seeing Fiore at the next debate.

The event was streamed live and recorded.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Bill Dentzer at bdentzer@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DentzerNews on Twitter.

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