Las Vegas Sun

September 19, 2019

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Outcry over Ruben Kihuen’s bid for city council seat overshadows race

Rep. Ruben Kihuen Hosts Immigration Roundtable

Steve Marcus

In this Sun file photo, former Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev, speaks during a roundtable at the Rafael Rivera Community Center Friday, June 29, 2018.

There are seven candidates running to represent Ward 3 on the Las Vegas City Council. State Assemblywoman Heidi Swank is asking residents to vote for any of them except one.

Swank founded the political action committee “No Means No, Ruben,” a group of politicians and community organizers rallying against former congressman Ruben Kihuen’s bid for city council.

Sworn into Congress in January 2017 after 10 years in the Nevada Legislature, Kihuen’s time in Congress didn’t last long. Less than a year into his term, the Democrat was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women with whom he worked professionally, including a Nevada lobbyist and a former campaign staffer. A nine-month House Ethics Committee investigation into the allegations found them to be credible and concluded that Kihuen violated House rules.

Amidst calls from national and state politicians that he should resign from Congress, Kihuen instead decided not to run for re-election in 2018. But in January, he announced his intention to run for Las Vegas City Council in Ward 3, succeeding Councilman Bob Coffin, who is not seeking re-election.

Click to enlarge photo

Assemblywoman Heidi Swank of the 77th (2013) Nevada Assembly District.

Kihuen’s campaign announcement on Twitter was met with swift backlash from some constituents, including Swank, who calls Ward 3 home. She said she felt compelled to start “No Means No, Ruben” to inform her neighbors of the accusations against Kihuen.

“As an elected official, we need to stand up for women who do report with credible reports. And I just didn’t see that I had any other choice than to try to educate people on the House Ethics findings,” Swank said.

When allegations against Kihuen first surfaced in news reports in 2017, he denied them, but apologized “for anything I may have said or done” to make his accusers uncomfortable. In response to the Ethics Committee’s report on Kihuen’s actions released in November, the former congressman gave another apology statement, though he also said he disagreed with some aspects of the report.

Now, Kihuen says he has moved past the allegations, and that voters in Ward 3 are ready to do the same.

“It has been 15 months since the allegations came out, and all I can tell you is it’s been a humbling learning experience professionally and personally,” he said.

Since he left Congress, Kihuen said he has met with groups of young men in the Ward 3 community to help them “avoid the mistakes I’ve committed in the past.”

“Not only have I used this as a learning experience for me personally, but I want to use it as a teachable moment for other young men who could commit the same mistakes I’ve committed,” he said.

But Swank isn’t convinced by Kihuen’s actions or statements, which she said seem generic.

“There’s a very big difference between ... saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ and also demonstrating that you’ve learned something and are trying to make amends,” she said.

In addition, Swank noted that Kihuen downplayed the allegations against him in an interview he gave this past month with the Spanish radio program Frente a Frente. In that interview, Kihuen reduced the allegations from multiple women of repeated, unwanted sexual attention to flirtatious banter and compliments, and emphasized that he had not been accused “of raping anyone.”

“Is that our bar? He really put these women through a lot, and if you’ve ever talked to somebody who has been sexually harassed, it is heartbreaking,” Swank said.

Kihuen did not respond directly to an interview question about whether he stood by those recent comments, and instead emphasized that the allegations aren’t a priority for voters.

“This a topic that, while it is important to talk about, it’s not mentioned at the doors,” Kihuen said.

“No Means No, Ruben,” which now includes two state senators, nine members of the Nevada Assembly, Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones and representatives of various advocacy groups, has been canvassing against Kihuen in Ward 3. The group has hired a field organizer to spearhead the canvassing, and it hopes to educate residents about the other options on the ballot.

“[Kihuen] has a lot of money, and we don’t have a ton of money, so we’re trying to use it as smartly as possible,” Swank said.

Although “No Means No, Ruben” won’t endorse any particular candidates, one candidate in the race has received some high-profile endorsements: educator and former Democratic Assemblywoman Olivia Diaz. Diaz has been endorsed by Clark County Commissioners Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Tick Segerblom, as well as Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto.

In an email to the Las Vegas Sun, Diaz wrote that she was “honored” to receive endorsements from both senators and from community members in Ward 3.

“I continue to work daily to earn other endorsements that represent all the hard-working men, women and children in Southern Nevada,” she wrote.

In their endorsements of Diaz, neither senator mentioned Kihuen and the accusations against him. But it is unusual for two Democratic senators to endorse a candidate in a local election in which multiple Democrats are running.

The State Democratic Party, for its part, is not weighing in on the contentious race for Ward 3. While the party previously expressed support for the women who accused Kihuen of sexual harassment, it has no plans to explicitly condemn his decision to run, a spokesperson for the party said.

Coffin also hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race to fill his seat. He says he hasn’t ruled out Kihuen, however, and described him as “well-qualified.”

“I’m not playing favorites out there,” Coffin said.

Kihuen and Diaz will face off in the April 2 primary election along with five other candidates: Aaron Bautista, Melissa Clary, Mingo Collaso, David Lopez and Shawn Mooneyham.

Clary is a well-known figure in the neighborhood because of her involvement in the Huntridge Neighborhood Association, a volunteer group that has advocated for neighborhood revitalization and various community causes, such as the future of the temporarily closed Huntridge Circle Park.

Clary’s campaign website lists experience in local politics and advocacy groups. She served on the Mining Oversight and Accountability Commission for the state and is a board member for Emerge Nevada, an organization that trains women to run for office.

Bautista is a special education teacher whose priorities for Ward 3 include addressing homelessness and crime, implementing community policing and growing the local economy, according to his website.

Lopez is a 25-year-old former Las Vegas Parks Commissioner and once interned for former Mayor Oscar Goodman. Collaso is a restaurant owner and Mooneyham is running to address homelessness in the ward, according to their campaign websites.

Although Diaz and Kihuen have gotten the most attention in the race, Diaz emphasized that “there are more than two of us running.” She declined to comment on Kihuen’s decision to run and noted that her campaign has focused on issues affecting the ward, not her competitors’ personal character.

“This has been an incredibly competitive race, and all I have focused on is engaging the constituents to hear about their top issues and concerns and let them know I’ll continue to work hard for the community that has helped lift me,” Diaz wrote.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.