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Mud Flies in Nevada Race

Attack ads in the contest for a new House seat irk voters. With control of the chamber on the line, each candidate expects to spend $3 million.

October 13, 2002|Tom Gorman | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS -- One of the nation's few competitive House races has evolved here also into one of the nastiest and most expensive.

State legislators drew the new 3rd Congressional District with roughly an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. Now Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera -- the Democrat -- and former state Sen. Jon Porter -- the Republican -- find themselves locked in a much bigger battle for control of the House.

Each side expects to spend at least $3 million on the race, which has forced Herrera to defend himself against ethics questions and Porter to answer accusations that he would put Social Security funds at risk.

With three weeks still remaining, many voters have had enough.

"You're attacking him, he's attacking you," George Saffeels complained to Porter, as the 47-year-old Republican campaigned recently at a weekend art fair. "I don't know who to believe."

Answered Porter: "I'm trying to discuss the issues, but the problem with political ads is, you don't have to tell the truth. There aren't any laws."

Knocking on doors three miles away, Herrera heard much the same thing from another frustrated voter, Robert Henderson.

"The fact that another politician will spend his time beating up someone over such a piddly amount of money, that's just wrong," Henderson said, referring to a controversy over Herrera's acceptance of a $42,000 no-bid contract to do consulting work for the Las Vegas Housing Authority.

"They're making political issues where they don't exist," Herrera later said. "My only regret is that my opponent continues to personally and viciously attack me on issues that aren't important to Nevada families."

Herrera, 29, the son of Cuban immigrants, moved here from Miami to attend college on a football scholarship, and became smitten with politics. At 23, he was elected to the state Assembly; at 25, to the Clark County commission. He has yet to lose an election and is embraced by Democrats as a potential role model in party efforts to court Latino voters.

He has since been pummeled for taking the housing agency's public relations job. Herrera denies any wrongdoing. Republicans also say Herrera did not do enough as a county commissioner to rein in the region's rising energy costs -- no small matter given Nevada's blast-furnace summers.

Porter, who trains insurance agents, served as a city councilman and mayor of Boulder City. In 2000, he ended his six-year state Senate tenure and ran unsuccessfully for Congress.

Democrats have attacked him as an insurance industry pawn who doesn't hold the interests of senior citizens at heart. They also link Porter with the Bush administration's support of Yucca Mountain as the nation's depository for highly radioactive nuclear waste.

In TV ads that pointedly feature the logo of the collapsed Enron Corp., Herrera also suggests Porter supports the privatization of Social Security and investing retirement funds in the volatile stock market. Porter says he has never supported privatization and opposes Social Security investments in Wall Street, although he entertained the notion two years ago.

Nevada is a state where neither major party enjoys a significant advantage. It has a Democrat and Republican in each of its two Senate and two House seats. In the 2000 presidential election, Nevada slightly favored Republican candidate George W. Bush, but metropolitan Clark County -- which includes Las Vegas -- voted for Democrat Al Gore.

Nevada gained a seat in the House as a result of the state's explosive, gambling-driven growth over the last decade. State legislators drew the new district's boundaries within burgeoning Clark County -- including parts of Las Vegas as well as Henderson, Boulder City and Laughlin -- to protect the Republican and Democrat incumbents in the state's other two congressional districts. The most recent registration figures show 2,200 more Republican voters in the new district than Democrats. Independents, who represent 14% of the registration, may swing the election.

"This campaign is a mud bath, with Porter being made out as the big, bad insurance executive and Herrera facing his own ethics problems," said Amy Walter, an analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Before the ethics stuff came out, Herrera was the Democrats' 'golden boy' -- young, charismatic, attractive.... The Democrats would love to take him around the country to help recruit Hispanic candidates and promote their agenda.

"There's nothing wrong with Porter," Walter said, "just a blandness that he embraces in a world of uncertainty."

At the art fair, Porter shakes more hands; an aide tags along, handing out campaign brochures. In a neighborhood a few miles away, Herrera knocks on more doors. "We're going to need you!" he tells everyone he sees.

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