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January 19, 2018

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Political memo:

When do two words spark an outrage? At the end of campaign season


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Sen. Dean Heller, left, and challenger Shelley Berkley wait for the start of their debate moderated by Mitch Fox and sponsored by the Nevada Broadcasters Association at Vegas PBS on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012.

We’ve reached the final weeks of the election — the time when campaigns (the competent ones, at least) gear up their scandal machines to amplify messages.

That means voters can expect outrage, then outrage at the outrage, and then counter outrage about the outrage that was aimed at the original outrage.

Clear yet?

The bottom line is that much of the commotion is carefully coordinated by campaigns desperately fighting to win political office — and not necessarily an organic groundswell of upset voters.

For instance, in the U.S. Senate debate at Las Vegas PBS studios last Thursday, Republican Sen. Dean Heller was asked by moderator Mitch Fox about his positions supporting English-only election ballots and education applications, making English the official language and ending “birthright citizenship.”

After a somewhat winding answer, Heller tried to explain himself this way: "So the principles that I’m trying to support is trying to make these people succeed. I want them to succeed here in this country.”

Some may have missed the controversial part in that statement. Heller’s opponent in the debate, Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley, seemed to have missed it entirely.

But Democrats pounced hard and fast on two little words in Heller’s statement: “These people.”

That night, Democrats had already put out statements from Hispanic state Sen. Ruben Kihuen, D-Las Vegas, condemning the phrase “these people.” And they swiftly arranged a Friday morning press call with members of the Latino community.

Jose Solorio, chair of the Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus, said he was deeply offended and called on Heller to apologize.

Astrid Silva, with DREAM Big Las Vegas, said the Hispanic community deserved an apology. “Our community will not stand for this,” she said.

But wait. There is a video (which reporters get emailed to them, but we’re not supposed to say where from, so let’s pretend we’re good researchers) of Berkley in 1999 referring to “these people” when talking about immigrants getting sworn in as citizens. More recently, Berkley at a Hispanics in Politics event said: “These youngsters when they go to college and volunteer for our armed forces.... are entitled to a path to legal status.”

The umbrage generated by the magic words “these people” or “these youngsters” depends on the record of the person saying it, said Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas. Heller’s opposition to comprehensive immigration reform and his vote against the DREAM Act demonstrates a pattern.

Pushed more on the difference, Flores said, “It’s not just about one little comment he made in one debate.

“It might not have been that big of a deal if he had used this language had he been in support of the Latino community since the time he had been elected,” Flores said.

Except the supposed insta-brouhaha to win the news cycle was over these two words, not Heller’s overall record.

And not every Latino watching the debate had the same reaction.

Reynaldo Robledo, a Mexican-American and owner of the Roberto’s Taco Shops franchises, was in the audience with the Heller campaign in Las Vegas on Thursday night.

He said the phrase “these people” didn’t stick out to him.

“There was no way I ever felt like he was talking down about immigrants,” Robledo said. “The words he used didn’t make me uncomfortable or anything at all... I don’t think he disrespected me or anyone.”

Heller’s campaign spokeswoman, Chandler Smith, sent a statement: “Senator Heller meant no disrespect, just as Congresswoman Berkley meant no disrespect when she used the exact same phrase when discussing immigration issues."

And now the Berkley campaign gets to racket the ball back across the court: "Nice try from the Heller campaign, but they are grasping at straws,” their statement said. “When Dean Heller said 'these people,' he was using 1950s rhetoric to talk about Latinos. It's clear Berkley was referring to a specific small group of people, not singling out Latinos or immigrants as ‘these people’ like Heller did last night."

Jeez, these people. And by that, we mean the campaigns.

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