Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army four-star general, on Tuesday praised Sen. Harry Reid for the “vital role” he played in securing land and $600 million for a new VA hospital in North Las Vegas.
Later this week, President Barack Obama will rally 3,000 supporters at the Aria hotel-casino and raise money for Reid’s re-election campaign. Obama also will speak to several hundred invited guests at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, about his plans to turn around the dismal economy.
The growing number of high-profile visits by the president and Cabinet secretaries such as Shinseki are tailor-made to turn around Reid’s dismal popularity ratings, too, at a time the Democrats and the Senate majority leader are being blamed for everything from record high unemployment to record debt.
“I’m happy the president’s coming,” Reid said, though “he’s got a plate full of problems.”
Government watchdog groups question whether taxpayers should pick up the tab for official visits that help Reid by highlighting his accomplishments as he faces GOP challenger Sharron Angle.
“Everyone has the right to ask the question why a top official is coming to stand next to Senator Reid and doing so on the taxpayer’s dime,” said Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics, although Republicans and Democrats have long used the same election year strategy.
On Tuesday at the VA hospital, Reid recalled with a smile that the first time he ran for the Senate in 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan visited Nevada to support Reid’s Republican opponent.
“We always try to say it doesn’t make any difference, but whenever (Reagan) came, my numbers went down,” Reid said when he was asked whether Obama’s presidential visit would help him.
Reid, who won the first of his four Senate terms in 1986, has seen his popularity ratings dive. More than half of Nevadans are unhappy with him, according to Mason-Dixon surveys for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Recent polls by Mason-Dixon and others show Reid running behind Angle by a few percentage points. But they also show the former Reno assemblywoman losing popularity as the Reid campaign criticizes her conservative ideas to cut federal spending and programs.
Last month, when former President Bill Clinton visited Las Vegas for Reid, he criticized Angle as too extreme. The former president then asked a rally, “Why would you give away the Senate majority leader who has delivered time and time and time again for the people of Nevada?”
That is the essence of the pitch Obama and other surrogates have been making, including first lady Michelle Obama, who visited Red Rock Canyon in June with Reid to promote exercise for children.
Republicans say that Reid is their No. 1 target and that outside help won’t help him win.
“The bottom line is Nevadans, not Washington insiders, will decide if six more years of Harry Reid’s backroom deals will do anything to reduce the highest unemployment in the nation,” said Jahan Wilcox, spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Although Tuesday’s event in North Las Vegas was billed as official, the partisan nature showed through. Shinseki thanked Reid and Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat. But he did not note that Republican Sen. John Ensign was a key co-sponsor who helped get the VA hospital built.
“He’s played a vital role securing the funding,” Shinseki said of Reid, adding Berkley also “played a role in ensuring that this project got off the ground.”
Asked whether Ensign was invited, Katie Roberts, a spokeswoman for Shinseki, said he was “notified of this event.” Berkley could not come. Roberts could not say how much Shinseki’s visit cost taxpayers.
“We were lucky that our schedules were able to coincide where Senator Reid and I are able to see this site,” Shinseki said as Reid campaigns during the July 4 congressional recess.
Shinseki said the VA hospital, with 90 in-patient beds and 120 community living center beds and other services, would open in 2012 to serve 60,000 veterans.
The VA hospital project is employing 600 construction workers, and the hospital, four outpatient clinics in Clark County and several related facilities eventually will create 2,200 permanent jobs, he said. He also said the economic impact would be an annual
$100 million in goods, services and staffing.
Obama’s visit on Thursday and Friday could help boost the economy, too.
“It’s great for the town. It’s great for the state,” said Alan Feldman, spokesman for MGM Resorts International, which owns CityCenter, which opened last year.
Nevada has a record 14 percent jobless rate and record home foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. Signs of economic recovery have been slow.
Feldman said 8,000 new CityCenter jobs are not all full time yet and might not be for some time to come.
This will be Obama’s second visit for Reid this year and third since last year. In February, he spoke at a high school and then to business leaders at CityCenter’s Aria. He raised $1 million for Democrats.
Obama is scheduled to arrive Thursday after 5 p.m. He and Reid will attend a rally at Aria, where a capacity crowd of 3,000 supporters have RSVP’d, the Reid campaign said.
The president then will star at a fundraiser at the casino, raising money for the Reid Victory Fund, which benefits Reid’s campaign and the Democratic Party, his campaign said.
Friday’s speech at UNLV is billed as an official event with Obama speaking about the economy to several hundred invited guests, a White House official said.
Not everyone is looking forward to Obama’s visit.
Helicopter tour operators will be shut down when Obama will be arriving and departing from Las Vegas because of airspace restrictions for security. In February, dozens of companies claimed they lost $500,000 to $700,000 in potential business.
John Power, executive vice president of Heli USA Airways, Inc., said he would lose about $80,000 by having to cancel five departures.
“This is ridiculous,” Power said. “We tried to fight this before, but there’s just no flexibility.”
Contact Laura Myers at lmyers @reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919.