After months of requests from constituents across the state, the Senator finally budged. Yesterday, U.S. Senator Dean Heller (R) finally held his first public town hall of 2017. He joined forces with Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Carson City) to welcome about 600 of their constituents to the Reno-Sparks Convention Center to answer questions…
Or at least, Rep. Amodei answered quite a few questions. What did Senator Heller have to say for himself?
Senator Dean Heller did not hold one public event in Nevada this year… Until yesterday.
Senator Heller claimed yesterday he held a town hall in Carson City this past February. He did not. Instead, he and Amodei attended a private, paid-ticket event hosted by the Carson City Chamber of Commerce. Back then, attendees inside and protesters outside demanded Heller and Amodei do public town halls to speak with more constituents free of charge.
That demand has been even louder in Southern Nevada, as Heller has still done zero free public events in the Las Vegas area. Even as fellow U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and the Southern Nevada U.S. Representatives have frequently met with constituents at public events, Heller has thus far limited himself to private, paid access events in Southern Nevada.
Against this backdrop, Heller finally did some Q and A with about 600 lucky constituents in Reno.
In contrast to last Thursday’s #HellerTownHall with no Senator Heller in Las Vegas, the Senator had nowhere to hide yesterday when the tough questions began to pour in. Immigrant civil rights activist Elvira Diaz confronted Heller with the story of Gabriel, a friend who had lived in Nevada for 28 years and even recently passed the citizenship test. Despite his nonviolent record and success in jumping through legal hoops, Gabriel was recently deported. “We’re afraid. We need to stop ICE [deportation raids].”
Vivian Leal provided another poignant moment during the town hall. “I’ve been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis since 1999. Look at me. I’m here thanks to my health care.” She pressed Heller multiple times for details on his plan for health care reform, particularly for other Nevadans with pre-existing conditions. Heller responded with his support for “high-risk pools”, an insurance program that Leal explained she couldn’t afford.
Several other constituents also asked about Heller’s constantly changing tune on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Several more constituents pressed for details on Heller’s flip-flop on funding Planned Parenthood health care programs. Like the ACA, Heller indicated yesterday he will defend federal funds for Planned Parenthood health care… Even though Heller cast the deciding vote on March 30 to allow states to defund Planned Parenthood health care.
Battle Born Progress’ Annette Magnus asked the very first question after noting she drove all the way from Las Vegas just to speak with Senator Heller in person. Magnus asked why Heller told her he couldn’t meet with former U.S. Supreme Court Nominee Merrick Garland last year, but quickly agreed to meet with Neil Gorsuch… And said nothing when Gorsuch refused to meet with Senator Cortez Masto.
Senator Heller also ran into trouble when constituents asked him about climate change and the environment. Senator Heller proclaimed, “No Republican has done more for the climate than I have.” Constituents then fired back with Heller’s deciding vote for climate denier Scott Pruitt for EPA Secretary and ongoing opposition to protecting public lands like Gold Butte and Basin and Range. Heller declined to say much on either, instead deferring to Rep. Amodei to plead his case to the audience.
Constituents had even more questions for Heller during his rare appearance at a public event in Nevada. After the town hall concluded, I and several other journalists patiently waited for Heller to address us. He did not. Instead, he dismissed me and a KUNR reporter before we could ask any questions.
“We don’t do interviews post [town hall]. We only did interviews pre[-program].” – Senator Heller and his staff to me.
For the record, I never received any notice of media availability before the town hall program. I was even asked to stay in a sort of media purgatory outside Reno-Sparks Convention Center. I ultimately had to accompany a Rewire reporter and a Reno-based freelance writer to use a side door just to cover the event.
I had several questions in mind for Senator Heller yesterday. Chief among them was whether he will do more public town halls in Nevada this year. When the program ended, a constituent shouted, “Las Vegas needs a town hall!” We still don’t know if Heller intends to take that advice.