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Nevada state senator chases Hispanic vote in House race


Sam Morris

Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen listens to testimony during Day 3 of the special legislative session Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010, in Carson City.

Nevada state Sen. Ruben Kihuen has guided local and national Democratic candidates through Las Vegas' Latino neighborhoods for years, using his native Spanish, Mexican heritage and barrio know-how to legitimize Washington outsiders desperate to win the Hispanic vote.

Kihuen, 31, is now preparing to harness that reserve of goodwill to become the first Hispanic elected to Congress from Nevada. Kihuen, demonstrating the same folksy calculations that have propelled his young political career, filmed his campaign announcement Wednesday at the Hispanic-majority high school in Las Vegas where he graduated 13 years ago.

He was poised to formally announce his candidacy for one of Nevada's 2012 House races late Thursday.

His potential victory could solidify Nevada's status as a must-stop for candidates courting Hispanic voters. Hispanics here gave the state to President Barack Obama in 2008 and helped re-elect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid last year at a vulnerable moment of his career.

But Hispanics in Nevada have never had the clout to send one of their own to Washington.

"I plan on being the first Latino congressman from Nevada," Kihuen told The Associated Press. "I believe I am competitive in any district."

Kihuen said he will run in whichever district includes the most Hispanic voters.

The four House districts up for grabs in Nevada next year are still undefined, but the state's ballooning Hispanic population over the past decade means more Hispanics are voting in Las Vegas. People of Hispanic origin accounted for more than 26 percent of Clark County's population in the 2010 Census, an 80 percent increase.

An overwhelming number of Nevada's Hispanics share Kihuen's Mexican heritage, and many have voted for him in his three previous state campaigns.

"We don't want to go out there and be the Latino candidate," Kihuen said, but added that he also won't downplay his foreign roots. "Obviously, it is not going to hurt that I am of Latino heritage."

Kihuen has demonstrated his ability to woo Hispanic voters for years, winning his first elected post in 2006, when Nevada's immigrant-heavy Mexican, El Salvadoran and Cuban neighborhoods sent him to the state Assembly. Other candidates treated Kihuen in subsequent years as if he were the king of Nevada's Hispanic vote, courting his endorsements with unchecked praise and inviting him to host their campaign events.

"This is one of these guys, the minute I met him, I said he is going somewhere, he is going to be a big deal in Nevada and maybe he will be involved in national politics," Obama prophesized on the presidential campaign trail in 2007.

Kihuen was widely expected to enter the 2012 field, but had shied away from confirming his campaign for weeks as he and a team of Hispanic advisers calculated his launch. He has been courting votes and campaign contributions unofficially for weeks, meeting in Washington with Reid, whom Kihuen began volunteering for as a teenager, and Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, who is running for the U.S. Senate and whose House seat Kihuen could fill.

He also met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and with union, business and gambling leaders in Nevada.

Kihuen is by no means an invincible candidate. He is running for the U.S. House less than a year after he was first elected to the state Senate. The uncertainty of Nevada's 2012 voting boundaries means he could face a primary against several Democratic veterans, including several of his colleagues in the Legislature. Former Rep. Dina Titus, state Sen. John Lee and Assembly Speaker John Oceguera already have launched campaigns.

In a primary, Kihuen will likely have to assuage concerns about his anemic Legislative accomplishments after five years in Carson City and prove that his meteoric political ascent reflects more than his ability to produce a Mexican birth certificate.

Kihuen appears unconcerned with such criticisms and has eagerly framed his campaign launch around his humble roots. His campaign slogan is "Kihuen Cares," and his introductory campaign video focuses on his journey from the youngest son of poor immigrants from Guadalajara to a statewide advocate for Hispanics voters.

"People don't care about the process," Kihuen said when asked about his record in Carson City. "They care about someone who cares about them."

"Them" refers not only to Hispanics, he said. But it's clear that he counts Spanish speakers among his core supporters.

Kihuen choose to film his campaign video at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, where the student body is more than 70 percent Hispanic and where he was once elected prom king. He used a classroom for the Hispanic Student Union, a group he was member of when he attended the school. It's the same place where he launched his previous campaigns among teenagers dressed in sombreros, and where he will host his formal campaign launch on Sept. 22.

Kihuen said his parents became farmhands in California after moving to the United States when he was 8. His father moved the family after he was offered a managerial post at a Las Vegas shipping company when Kihuen was 13. His mother now works as a housekeeper.

"He's one of ours," said Isaac Barron, the teacher who oversees the Hispanic Student Union. "He has lived everything my kids have lived, all the pobrezas," Barron added, using the Spanish word for poverty.

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