Las Vegas Sun

June 21, 2018

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From watchdog to turtle: Democrats pounding Heller on Mnuchin


Yasmina Chavez

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) talks with a reporter following a get-out-the-vote rally at Congressman Cresent Hardy’s headquarters in Las Vegas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016.

Sen. Dean Heller may have snatched a defeat from the jaws of victory in his handling of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s confirmation.

Heller got off to a strong start, pressing the former CEO of mortgage lender OneWest Bank about how many homes the company had foreclosed on in Nevada. In the run-up to Mnuchin’s confirmation vote, Heller asked for the info seven times.

Pretty admirable, right? Here was a Republican senator sticking up for Nevada homeowners and sweating President Donald Trump’s nominee for info.

But then Heller went from watchdog to turtle. And in doing so, he added fuel to an aggressive campaign by Democrats to portray him as a Trump puppet.

On Jan. 27, he announced he’d met with Mnuchin and had received the info he’d requested. But he has declined to share the answers, and he fell in line with his party colleagues in voting in favor of Mnuchin.

In letters provided to the Sun by a confidential source, Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., requested the foreclosure info from both Heller and Mnuchin. No response. The Sun requested it twice from Heller’s office. No response.

The only information that has been revealed on the matter comes from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which says OneWest completed 3,654 foreclosures in Nevada between April 2009 and October 2016. The center cited California Reinvestment Coalition statistics as the basis for the foreclosure figure.

That’s a lot of foreclosures. Democrats referred to OneWest as a “foreclosure machine” and claimed the lender used predatory and irresponsible tactics, including robo-signing, to profit from the misfortunes of homeowners. Mnuchin denied those claims.

In a story published by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Heller said he voted for Mnuchin after receiving assurances that he would support the Mortgage Debt Relief Act and other initiatives that would benefit Nevada homeowners.

“We can either stare at the darkness of the past or we can focus our attention forward to the future where a strong economy and job creation are placed at the top of the administration’s new pro-economic agenda,” Heller said.

But for Democrats, who had already been pounding Heller for voting in favor of Betsy DeVos as Education secretary, Heller’s vote on Mnuchin made him an even bigger pinata.

Roberta Lange, Nevada State Democratic Party chairwoman, issued a release accusing Heller of helping Trump "fill the swamp by rubber stamping" Mnuchin.

"After pretending to ask tough questions a few weeks ago, Sen. Heller sided with Trump and cast his vote for a foreclosure king who lined his own pockets at the expense of those struggling homeowners," Lange said. "While Mnuchin gets to work staffing the Treasury Department with his Wall Street buddies, Nevadans can blame Dean Heller for this latest addition to Trump’s rigged Cabinet.”

Titus sounded off, too.

“During the height of the financial crisis, as head of OneWest Bank, Mr. Mnuchin profited from families who were losing their homes," she said in a release. "His company relentlessly pursued foreclosing on Nevada’s families, earning Mnuchin the moniker of ‘Foreclosure King.’ While Nevada continues to recover from the Great Recession, Mr. Mnuchin should not be anywhere near the Department of Treasury.”

So when Heller seeks re-election in 2018, will he regret not divulging the information and voting for Mnuchin?

Democrats, emboldened after Nevada swung blue in 2016, certainly see him as vulnerable. They’re also anticipating that backlash to Trump could send a wave of Democrats to Congress, which has intensified their efforts against Heller. (On a related note, the Nevada chapter of the National Organization for Women has scheduled a protest against Heller for 11 a.m. Friday at the Suncoast.)

Should the pendulum swing nationally and should Nevada remain blue, Heller may wish he’d remained aggressive on Mnuchin — at the very least holding him accountable by sharing the answers to his queries, and maybe even bucking the party and voting against him. Doing so would have strengthened his appeal to independent and moderate voters, who could be key.

But unseating a senator isn’t easy, and it’s unclear at this point whether the Democrats can find a candidate with the name recognition, experience, qualifications and sizzle to send Heller home from Washington. If Heller doesn’t face a strong opponent, his vote on Mnuchin or anyone else will be immaterial.

Either way, though, it appears Heller hasn’t heard the last about Mnuchin.

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