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July 28, 2014

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Q+A: Democrat Erin Bilbray explains her strategy to unseat Congressman Joe Heck

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Steve Marcus

Kim Wallin, right, Nevada state controller, talks with Erin Bilbray during a candidate day at the County Government Center. The event is chance for county employees and the public to talk to candidates for public office.

Almost a year into her campaign for Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, Democrat Erin Bilbray hopes she’s made inroads with voters.

It’s not an easy sell. The Republican she’s trying to unseat, Rep. Joe Heck, has almost twice as much campaign cash on hand and has had a relatively quiet two years without any major missteps. This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it is running a 30-second ad on behalf of Heck as part of a $3 million national campaign, and the Washington Post rates his seat as 95 percent safe.

But Bilbray has had a few breaks lately. She received a high-profile endorsement from the national pro-abortion rights organization EMILY’s list, and she’s one of a dozen Democratic candidates picked for specialized training by the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Come November, anything can happen in one of the nation’s last true swing districts. Nevada’s 3rd district includes Henderson and Summerlin and runs south to Laughlin.

Bilbray spoke to our Washington, D.C., reporter over the phone about her campaign:

You launched your campaign in July, and there’s still six more months to go until the election. What are you finding sticks with voters so far?

I think first of all is making sure we preserve Social Security and Medicare. That’s really important to CD3 (Congressional District 3). We’ve made a huge commitment to our seniors, and we have to honor those commitments. That’s been a huge issue, as well as the economy and jobs. Then the other issue is they want leadership that’s willing to cross party lines and make things happen.

A USA Today poll out this week shows Republicans have their biggest advantage this election in two decades. That suggests you’re campaigning against a pretty national partisan wave of red. How do national trends like that factor into your campaign?

As a native Southern Nevadan, I would say that national trends mean nothing to us here. We always have done our own things. So that doesn’t make me nervous at all. What I’m really hearing from people is they want a change. They want leadership, and they want somebody that will represent their values as CD3.

How do you plan to make your criticisms of Heck stick with voters in this swing district?

I think the biggest issue is his inability to get anything done. We haven’t seen him do anything on any of the things we really care about. And I also think the vote with this Ryan budget (Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., put forth a nonbinding budget earlier this year that the House voted on more as a campaign issue than real policy) is really going to hurt people in CD3. Things like changing Medicare into voucher programs, student loans — seniors will have to start paying back their student loans when they’re in college — these are all big issues to this district, and he’s not representing Nevadans and he’s not getting anything done.

Let’s switch to policy for a minute. A climate change report released this week predicts more extensive droughts in places like Nevada, and of course Lake Mead and the Colorado River are already in dire straits. What are your ideas for a national water strategy, and how would you try to bring that about in Washington?

I think one of the areas that we really missed the boat was investing in research dollars so that we had sound science, and we know how to set environmental policy. That’s another thing that Heck has not been supportive of. And for a place like Southern Nevada that’s so dependent on Lake Mead, if we would have had better science to make policy decisions, we could have adjusted our conservation needs. I want to have sound science to set policy, and we need to invest in that type of research to have it.

On another policy question, what are your thoughts about decriminalizing marijuana in Nevada and the implementation of medical marijuana licenses? Should it be legalized outright?

Medical marijuana is not one of my top issues. But let me say this: I have two little girls. If one of them was sick, and this was a way to alleviate their pain or suffering, you can bet as a mother, I would do anything to stop that pain.

What federal agency is doing a good job in its work in Southern Nevada? Which agency is doing a poor job?

I think that Southern Nevadans, they know that we are not getting our fair share … of federal money. I think that that would be a big fight, making sure that we’re getting more resources allocated to Southern Nevada. But I think there are some federal agencies that are doing their job trying to make things better. But I think the biggest focus is trying to get more resources allocated here.

Transportation dollars I think are key. We know that Nevada has some of the most unsafe roads in the country. We should be reinvesting in that infrastructure. Highway 15 and Interstate 11; if we can get that to happen, that’s going to boost the economy — not only with construction, but the tourism dollars that’s going to create is long-term positive impact for Southern Nevada. I also think that we should have more federal dollars invested in alternative energy here as well. We have an over-abundance of sun and wind here, and I think we really could be harnessing that, not only to keep our our costs down and to make us less dependent on foreign oil, but I think we should be manufacturing and creating more jobs here.

I know your campaign has had some trouble, especially the beginning of this year, when your former manager Bradley Mayer left the campaign. How are you moving forward, and is there anything you wish your campaign has done differently?

I think there was more made out of that than was there. Bradley and I are still good friends. We went to the same high school; we still talk. I guess if there’s anything that I would have maybe done differently, I think we would have launched with a bigger launch in the very beginning in July. But in fairness, I think we were pretty disciplined and focused on what we needed to do, which was raising money. It was harder on me and harder on all my grassroots support, but I think we were smart and did it the right way.

Are you confident with the campaign cash on hand? (Bilbray has about $689,000 compared with Heck’s $1.4 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

We need more. We always need more. We know that when people hear my message, they know that I represent their values. And we have to raise money so people know who I am. They like hearing about what I did with Emerge Nevada (a 2006 organization Bilbray founded that trains female political candidates); they like hearing about my husband (pediatrician Noah Kahn) and I opening our free clinic (to provide children health care). People like that I spent all my lifetime really trying to solve problems in Nevada. I’m proud. I’m so proud; I’m such a desert woman.

If you do get into Congress, you’ll (likely) be in the minority of a body even you’ve described as dysfunctional. How will you handle it?

I think that one of my talents and my abilities is to communicate with people, and I think that I am very good at looking at the bigger picture and getting the facts together. And I think that being able to do that, I’m going to be able to be a voice to the middle class and really communicate to both sides. But I don’t concede that I’ll be in the minority if I’m elected. There’s some pretty amazing candidates running across the country.

And a lot of focus on women candidates.

There really is a lot of women, and that’s exciting. And I hear a lot about that. People are excited; they see women as problem solvers. I feel like I get more done by 9 a.m. than Congress does in an entire week. And I think a lot of women are like that. My day today started at 5 a.m.; I was answering emails, I was dealing with things on the campaign, I was making dinner, I was making lunches. I just think as women, we get more done because that’s what we’re used to doing. We have to solve problems, so I think that’s what we’re seeing all the excitement about.

Is there any advice your father, former Rep. James Bilbray, has given you on running?

I think one of the most important pieces of advice he’s given me is to keep an even keel. Don’t get too excited and don’t get too upset. Just always keep an even keel. That would be the same advice I’d give to my own daughters.

What’s next for your campaign?

Expect to see me a lot of places and working incredibly hard. And you will. I see a great grassroots campaign knocking on a lot of doors, and you’re going to hear someone that really sincerely represents Nevadans in this district. I’m very proud to have been battle born.

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