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August 20, 2018

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Berkley’s ethics woes bigger obstacle in Washoe County

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Left: Dean Heller speaks at the grand opening of the Mandarin Oriental at CityCenter on Dec. 4, 2009. Right: Shelley Berkley laughs with constituents during a "Congress on the Corner" event Jan. 14, 2011, at her Las Vegas office.

Since allegations that Shelley Berkley’s advocacy on kidney care benefited her husband’s medical practice first surfaced, the congresswoman has countered with one unwavering response.

“My only concern was for the health and well-being of the people of Nevada,” Berkley said Monday in an umpteenth reiteration of her defense. “I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had stepped back. ... They needed me.”

Berkley’s defense picks up on an image that she has long tried to portray in Southern Nevada: that she is a congresswoman whose first concern, always, is constituent service.

Unfortunately for Berkley, the message may not carry as well in the parts of the state she needs to win this Senate election.

“I don’t think anybody in the north’s going to buy this,” Eric Herzik said. “In rural Nevada, there’s an automatic bias against her ... and now this is the key point of information about her. I just think that makes an uphill climb even harder.”

While Southern Nevada is home to the swing districts of Henderson and the 3rd Congressional District, there’s an equally important swing county in the north: Washoe County. And Berkley has never had the chance to perform a constituent service, or build a reputation for herself as a person who might put that calling above her personal interest there.

For a Democrat to win the state, or even just a northern district, he or she must perform reasonably well in Washoe. Those who have, like Sen. Harry Reid and President Barack Obama, have gone on to claim Nevada in their columns. Those who haven’t, like Rory Reid in 2010, have lost.

“How separate the vote for that Senate seat is from the presidential vote is a big question,” said David Damore, professor of political science at UNLV, who pointed out that it’s in Washoe County where downticket Democrats have normally seen the biggest drop off. “If people go in and vote for Obama, and few of those people vote for Berkley, that’s bad for her.”

For Berkley, Washoe County has been problematic. Her name recognition is low — last year, a poll from Public Policy Polling showed that over half of likely voters in Northern Nevada had no opinion of her.

Her campaign has since spent considerable effort building up her profile there. They have had ads running in Washoe County since May, including one showcasing her efforts to bring a VA hospital to Southern Nevada — her crowning achievement in constituent service. The campaign has also launched a significant ground game in Northern Nevada.

While Berkley hasn’t nearly closed the polling gap, her numbers have improved: While she was trailing Heller in Washoe County by 17 points last fall, a more recent NBC poll from the end of May shows her still trailing Heller in Washoe County by 12 percent. (That poll did not calculate approval ratings of Nevada Senate candidates.)

But Republicans now expect the House Committee on Ethics’ decision to investigate Berkley to help them exploit her vulnerability as a lesser-known candidate than Heller.

“This [ethics investigation] is going to play poorly for her everywhere in the state, especially in Washoe,” said Darren Littell, spokesman for the Republican National Committee’s Team Nevada office, who pointed out that Berkley became known statewide for her role in Sheldon Adelson’s ethical problems, as well. “When she runs ads, people will ask themselves: 'Is she just saying that? It seems to me that she’s not such a good person that I can trust.'”

Berkley stands accused of using her seat in Congress to lobby, along with the rest of the Nevada delegation, the federal government to keep a dialysis center open at University Medical Center and, on her own, push members of Congress to keep Medicare reimbursements for kidney care from being reduced. Those efforts have become an ethics problem because her husband, Larry Lehrner, is a kidney doctor, whose medical practice in which he has a 9 percent stake had the only contract at UMC to provide kidney transplants.

Downstate, familiarity with Berkley, and the UMC’s kidney care services, have led her political supporters to come hastily to her defense.

“Our indigent hospital, where I used to be chairman of the board, had a couple of programs they ran out of money for, so they just eliminated them,” Reid said Tuesday. “One dealt with cancer. ... Those people had no place to go. I’m not sure how many didn’t make it. They also decided about the same time to eliminate the dialysis program.

“I and the rest of the Nevada delegation did whatever we could to keep that program going. Why? Because it saved lives. It should have absolutely no bearing on Shelley Berkley. She did the right thing.”

But in Washoe County, where residents will travel to San Francisco’s health centers four hours away before they utilize hospitals eight hours away in Las Vegas, there’s none of the same institutional memory. There is, however, a long memory about southern politicians.

“There’s a little bit of northern smugness, that oh, another southern politician with ethics problems,” Herzik said, rattling off her predecessors: John Ensign, Dario Herrera, Erin Kenny, Mary Kincaid. “It’s like, oh, a southern politician again. I don’t want to make too much out of that; but you’re from the south. You’re not known as anything but a liberal woman Democrat from Clark County. At best, for her, this undoes any kind of effort that she made introducing herself to the northern part of the state.”

Democrats remain confident that Berkley will make enough inroads in Washoe County to keep her competitive. There is evidence to support she might: Her poll numbers in Washoe have only improved since she was first accused of ethical wrongdoing, even while Republican organizations had put up ads telling voters she was under a congressional ethics investigation. To be clear, Berkley wasn’t “under investigation” at the time, just under a review. But for the purpose of attack ad-making, it means little has changed since Monday.

Democrats also vehemently shun the notion that the allegations against Berkley will upset her campaign, in the southern or northern part of the state.

“Whether talking to voters in Las Vegas, Reno or Elko, this election is going to be about the same thing: How Shelley Berkley is someone who wakes up every morning eager to fight for middle-class families by standing up to those in Washington like Dean Heller who want to protect taxpayer giveaways to Wall Street corporations that ship jobs overseas,” said senior Nevada Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas.

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