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Missed meeting costs Heller at least one Latino vote

Back on Jan. 6, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller decided to brave the Hispanics in Politics breakfast, a monthly gathering that’s a must-do stop for candidates looking for support in Nevada’s growing Latino community.

I say “brave” because Heller had been facing down bad publicity ever since he’d canceled – at the last minute – an October 2011 meeting with the Latin Chamber of Commerce after his staff called to tell an en-route Heller that a campaign video tracker was waiting, along with a chamber board member who just happened to work for his Democratic opponent, Rep. Shelley Berkley.

Heller turned the car around, and the Latin Chamber cried foul. So his star turn at January’s Hispanics in Politics breakfast drew a larger-than-normal crowd. Heller held his own through questions about immigration and, specifically, the DREAM Act, which he opposes. That’s when Latin Chamber President Otto Merida, a Republican, stood to tell Heller that while they agreed on politics, they parted ways on immigration. What’s the future of the Republican Party if the GOP can’t find a reasonable solution to that issue? Merida wanted to know.

Heller replied that he would be glad to meet with Merida to see if the two of them couldn’t hammer out a compromise. That meeting never took place.

“That never happened,” Merida said Monday. “He never called us or did anything to try to get close to us.”

Merida – who endorsed Berkley in April – says his concerns about Heller go beyond immigration and the current race. During Heller’s years in the House of Representatives, representing a district that included parts of Clark County, Heller never reached out to the Latin Chamber, Merida said.

“We have always been concerned with his commitment to our community,” Merida said. “I was concerned that he never really cared much until he ran for the Senate.”

What about that canceled meeting with the Latin Chamber board? Merida says that meeting never happened, either, although he allows that attempts were made, but the two sides couldn’t agree on a venue. Merida wanted Heller to come to the Latin Chamber’s downtown offices, the site of the original canceled meeting, but Heller preferred his office in the Lloyd George courthouse. (Surely, no campaign video tracker could crash that meeting.)

But the negotiations over scheduling finally broke down, Merida said. “To tell you the truth, after what happened, the board was not that enthused about it,” he said of rescheduling. “They gave up on us and we gave up on them.”

The Heller campaign said a meeting eventually took take place, but with only some members of the board. That group did not include Merida. The campaign says scheduling issues have prevented a meeting between Heller and the full board to this day.

But that doesn’t mean Heller is ignoring the community. Both the Heller campaign and Team Nevada – the collaboration between the Mitt Romney presidential campaign and the Republican National Committee – have Hispanic outreach coordinators. Daily calls to Hispanic community members are made from headquarters, and Heller has unveiled a 125-member Hispanic support network behind his campaign.

Republicans from pollsters to strategists to Romney himself have worried about losing Hispanic votes to Democrats, and they’ve been at great pains this campaign cycle to compete for Latino support. But Republican opposition to the DREAM Act as well as comprehensive immigration reforms with a pathway to citizenship limit how far that kind of outreach can go. (Some of the harsh rhetoric from some members of the GOP on the issue doesn’t help, either.)

As for Merida, he’s made up his mind for Berkley. As for that long-ago promised meeting with Heller? Let’s just say he’s not waiting by his telephone.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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