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An interview with former US Senator, gubernatorial hopeful Dean Heller

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Election 2022 Governor Nevada
AP Photo/John Locher, Pool

Former U.S. Senator Dean Heller waits before a Republican primary debate for Nevada governor Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in Las Vegas.

For nearly 30 years, Dean Heller was a mainstay of Nevada politics.

A former Secretary of State congressman and finally a U.S. senator, Heller now has his sights set on the governor's mansion.

However, he faces stiff competition if he wants to challenge the system.

He's one of more than a dozen Republicans looking for his party's nomination next month.

We spoke to him as part of KNPR's 2022 election coverage. 

For more candidate interviews and our full 2022 election guide, click here


This interview has been edited for clarity.

JOE SCHOENMANN, HOST: Why are you running for governor?

DEAN HELLER: Well, think about when I left Congress, the border was secured. Gasoline was below $2 a gallon. We hadn't had a recession. We didn't have a pandemic. We hadn't had inflation. There wasn't a war in Ukraine. Think about all that. That's it's all happened in the last couple of years. And I'm watching people struggle, people are really struggling out there. I mean, think about it with the price of gasoline, we've had nine days in a row now with an all-time high and gasoline prices and people can't feed their babies. Because there's no formula out there. I'm telling you, people are struggling today. And if you think you have an opportunity, or even a responsibility to help your fellow citizens, you jump into this race, and I and 14 others did do that. So I call this the Iowa caucuses. This is the time to get out there, get into people's homes, talk to them, ask them about the concerns they have, and they're eager to share it with you.

Support comes from

SCHOENMANN: All kinds of issues we can talk about, you just reeled off a bunch of them. But I do want to talk about Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court is poised to overturn that Roe v. Wade, which is a 50-year-old decision that grants women the rights to an abortion and protects them federally. It won't have an immediate impact in Nevada due to protections that are in state statute. But some conservatives say if they're elected, they would look for ways to repeal that law. What would you do? Would you work to protect or overturn Roe v. Wade at the federal level?

HELLER: I think you're right, Joe, they won't have immediate effect here in the state of Nevada, because we have a statute right now, that does protect it, all that's going to happen with the Supreme Court is you're just going to take the decision down to the states which frankly, my opinion, that's where it should have always been. I'm a 10th amendment guy, if it's not in the Constitution, it's the state that should be deciding these particular issues. And so it'll come back down to the state. Again, it's gonna take legislation, it's probably gonna take a vote of the people in order to change, change the laws that we have here in the state of Nevada. That's how I got put in place. I'm pro-life, I don't want that to be confused. And I'm proud of the fact that I'm pro-life and I would do whatever I could do to protect an infant, and to protect these babies. But needless to say, it will take a lot of work, a lot of active work by a governor, and I'll do what I can to make Nevada's pro-life as possible. 

SCHOENMANN: What do you think is the top issue in this campaign?

HELLER: Right now, it's gasoline prices. Nine days in a row, nine days in a row, we've had all-time highs. If you take that gasoline prices, and I mentioned baby formula, people are talking about that election reform, people want to see some integrity in our election process. We go on and on and on. There's a lot of issues out there right now that people are very unsatisfied fight about immigration, they have problems with immigration, they have problems with the, you know, protection of the Second Amendment, so on and so forth. So, there are a lot of issues out there that they're talking about. But right now, it's all about the economy. It's all about gasoline prices. And it's all about inflation in the fact that our government's growing. Government loves inflation, let's be very clear, government loves inflation, because the higher the inflation, the more money the government gets. So, when people are struggling, struggling to pay their bills, or what they're actually doing at the same time is growing the size of their government. So, if you go down to Home Depot, and you buy something for $100, and your sales tax is 5%, you pay $5. But if you go back the next day because of inflation, that same products $120, you now pay $6 to your government in sales tax. And that's problematic. People are struggling and they shouldn't have to pay for larger government at the same time that they are struggling. So, I've got, I have a proposal. And that proposal would be to reduce our sales tax by the increase in inflation here in the state of Nevada and give some relief to some of the struggling families.

SCHOENMANN: Yeah, you mentioned election reform. So, I gotta ask this question. Do you believe Joe Biden is the duly elected President?

HELLER: Well, we all know who the president is. And it's the guy that's given us open borders. It's the guy that's given us inflation. The guy that has given us $5 gasoline prices. That's a guy that has given us a war. It's kind of poorly managed the pandemic. Yes, I know exactly who that guy is. And that's Joe Biden.

SCHOENMANN: I kind of, sort of want to ask you about what some people would term your apparent shift to the right. For most of your political career, you are considered a pragmatic man, moderate. It appears that's changed in the last several years despite voicing concerns over Donald Trump's fitness to serve in 2016. You began to embrace the former president and in 2018, openly embraced a relationship with him. How do you think that relationship has served you or not, politically?

HELLER: Oh, I don't have a problem supporting Donald Trump and his policies. I've spent some time with him. And we've had numerous conversations when I was in Washington, D.C., I spent a tremendous amount of time in the Oval Office, talking to him about issues that are important to the state of Nevada, and he was very open minded. And we did have our differences. And frankly, some of them played out publicly -- the difference that the two of us had, but in his words, you know, we're like brothers. Behind closed doors, we had our arguments, but when we walked out, we were always on the same page. But when it comes to his policies, his policies were right on. And, you know, maybe his style was tough for some people. And he may have said a few things. But I'll tell you, I'll tell you, I don't know anybody that would take a few bad tweets today to get his policies back in place.

SCHOENMANN: On a scale of one to 10, because you are running for the governor's seat, how would you rate Governor Sisolak handling of the pandemic and why?

HELLER: We've done exactly the opposite of what he did. Why we've done exactly the opposite. Sisolak did exactly what California asked him to do. Everything California told Nevada to do. They did. We shut down our businesses, we shut down. We picked winners and losers. They shut down our churches, we shut down. We shut down our schools. We did everything that we were asked to do. And the result is this. The mortality rate that we have here in the state of Nevada, it was still higher than Texas. And Texas didn't do any of these things. So, all this pain, all this angst got 60% of the small businesses in Nevada, they're still struggling because of what this governor did. The bottom line is we should never shut the state down. We should never have mandated this stuff. The vaccine and the masks and all that I do not think that it served about a well --

SCHOENMANN: You mean individual businesses mandating it, because it was never really a ticket. The vaccine was not mandated by the government. 

HELLER: Sure, it was. Sure, it was Lombardo, was the first state agency to mandate a vaccine to sheriff deputies in Clark County. He was the first one. I mean, it's amazing to think that we had a sheriff that was more liberal than the sheriff of Los Angeles who refused to enforce the vaccine mandates in Los Angeles County. And yet we had a sheriff here in Clark County that was the first agency to mandate the vaccine.

SCHOENMANN: Speaking of Joe Lombardo, he is probably considered maybe your top opponent right now. He's been endorsed by Donald Trump, who you favor greatly. And he has been criticized by some of your other opponents as being a failure is a sheriff here. Would you consider that same description of him?

HELLER: Yeah, I don't think that's far from the truth. I mean, if you take a look at it, I was just at a candidates’ forum and man was speaking there. … We have you have homicide rates now that are 50% higher than they were when this guy started. Let me just answer the question. No, the answer is no. And the question is, are you safer in Clark County today than you were eight years ago? The answer is no.

SCHOENMANN: Do you think that's because of him? Because that's happening all over the country. I mean, every state in this country has seen higher homicide rates.

HELLER: Well, also, violent crime, violent crime is up 45% here in Clark County. If you want to live in a dangerous neighborhood. Here's the bottom line if you want to live in a dangerous neighborhood, live in Sanctuary City. And this sheriff kicked ICE out of Metro. When he kicked ICE out of Metro, he no longer took illegal immigrants and sent them to the federal agencies in order to ship them back. All he did was practiced start practicing catch and release. And that made Nevada made Clark County more dangerous. And so no, I do not think that. That as sheriff, he has served Clark County well, and I believe that message is out there loud and clear. If you support open borders, if you support sanctuary cities, if you support, catch and release … if you go on this radio station that we're in right now talking about defunding the police, which he did, you're not a good sheriff.

During this interview, Heller made some erroneous statements that are worth noting. He said Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who is one of his opponents, kicked Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of Clark County jails. And he insinuated that Las Vegas is a “sanctuary city.” Metro did announce in 2019 that it would end a federal program that involved local police doing some of the work of immigration officials. However, the agency also made it clear that it will continue to work with ICE. And it's important to note that neither Nevada nor Clark County recognize immigration sanctuary in any legal capacity.

SCHOENMANN: Let's talk about climate change. The state’s made significant investments in moving toward greater reliance on renewable energy. Would you continue to support that?

HELLER: Yeah, absolutely. I support all the above, which means from nuclear all the way down to solar. I think we ought to take a look at renewable energy. I think we have to increase the technology to that. I don't think you can turn this thing overnight. I think this is what this President the Democratic Party is doing to America right now. The reason we have all time high gasoline prices, the reason they shut down the pipeline. And the reason they're taking away some of the drilling practices in some of these other states is because they're trying to get gasoline prices so high to try to force us into electric cars to force us to use alternative energy sources and, and it's wrong. And you can already see, California is already warning about blackouts. We don't have enough electricity today for the services we need. And now we have a federal government's trying to force us into electric cars. And there's not enough energy in order to provide the energy to run those vehicles.

SCHOENMANN: Housing costs. Homelessness is rising, housing costs are skyrocketing in Nevada, especially in Northern Nevada. In Reno, the home the average home price and median home price is much higher than Las Vegas right now. At more than 20 years ago, Nevada's legislature enacted caps to protect homeowners’ property tax caps to keep them from being driven out of their homes by higher properties, because at the time values were skyrocketing here. And so, this is a question that is just came up in a proposal this week from some group who are talking about caps on rent increases rent increases of 30% are being seen this year it by some people, some people even in this office, other people are talking about rent control. What are your thoughts on that? 

HELLER: Well, first of all, the sheriff supports rent control when I do not believe the markets have to play out. But the problem is his government is making bad decisions. The reason rent is so high, the reason is so difficult in order for us to get into starter homes  -- they are almost extinct now here in the state of Nevada. If you're a young adult, trying to get into your first home. And the reason is because we're making a lot of bad government decisions. And one of the biggest problems is federal government owns 87% of the state. Fact that we have a footprint here in Clark County, or footprint in Washoe County, and you can't grow. You can't grow, you can't build more homes, but you're limited, obviously, by some of the natural resources, including water, and your ability to do that. It's making the supply lower and lower, and the demand is getting higher and higher. And that's why you're seeing the kind of increases we have. I used to do a land's bills when I was back in Washington, D.C., which increase the footprint of the cities here and here in Las Vegas and in Reno. And that was the ability for them to build more homes so that we could give produce the supply that was necessary and keep these prices down. … it's so problematic that you can't increase supply. So, what's going on in Las Vegas? What's going on in Reno, is we're building up now instead of building out. And so, you're having towers of apartment complexes, and it's just getting more and more expensive until the federal government does what's necessary and state government for that matter. provides the opportunities for more supply out there. We're gonna have difficulty here in this state.

SCHOENMANN: Are you worried about water? The first intake pipe that was built here more than 50 years ago is now exposed to the air. Are you worried about that? Would that be a priority for the governor? And what do you think can be done at the state level?

HELLER: Well, I've worked at the federal level on this, but this would have worked at the federal level, we were talking about the Colorado River Compact and trying to look at the reallocation of water that's coming down this river. Obviously, it's getting less and less. Clark County, let's just be very clear, Clark County has done a very good job when it comes to conservation. And they've taken great strides. We've also banked a lot of water here in Southern Nevada, also meaning that we have let the Colorado River go to Arizona, go down to California, we can bring that water back when and if we need it. And I think we have probably good 10 to 20 years of good bank water here in the southern end of the state. And the Southern Nevada Water Authority has a lot to be proud of in fact that the fact that they have been able to achieve this at this point, but where are we going to be 25 years from now? That's my concern. Where are we going to be? I think we're okay 10 to 20 years from now. But if this drought continues, we're going to have to look at some major changes and I don't know what those changes are, it’s probably going to have to happen at the federal level. But you know, my things that I've talked about, whether that's bringing water down from the north, and I'm talking about states like Oregon and Washington or bringing over water over from even the Mississippi River and dumping it into the Colorado River. We need some big plans. An argument is if we can do a highway system across this country, we certainly can do a water program. And we need that kind of infrastructure. If we could bring water from these rivers that just go right into the ocean, bringing into the Colorado River and reallocate some of that water out there. I think we could solve a lot of problems. But again, that's a federal issue. And I don't think a governor would be that involved outside of lobbying for something like that. Yeah.

SCHOENMANN: That is a big part of that job, cheerleading and getting together with other governors. The idea you're talking about it was one that was actually presented probably 25 years ago or less by the former head of the water authority here for a brief period of time.

HELLER: But let me be very clear, I do not support taking water out of the northern end of the state or rural areas of the state. Okay, and bringing it back down to Southern Nevada. And that was an idea that they exercise and looked at for quite some time. It was never supported that it would not support drying out some of these aquifers at the northern end or the eastern end of the state and bring it down to down south.

SCHOENMANN: Education is a major issue. The Clark County School District annually ranks near the bottom nationally. What would you do improve to improve public education in Nevada?

HELLER: Well, the first thing I do is I'd break up the school district here in Southern Nevada. The school district is a fifth largest in the country. It's way too big. I want Mesquite to have its own school district, I want Boulder City to have its own school district. I want Summerlin, North Las Vegas, Henderson to have their own school districts, this school district is too big administrators can't control it. But that's not even the first thing to do. First thing that you do is you don't close it down. We have a governor right now that in his first term, he's locked children out of school, it's half of his first term. Imagine locking children out of their schools for two years. Today, we have second graders that can't read, we got third graders who can't write, we got fourth graders who can't do arithmetic. My daughter received a notice from the Washoe County School District -- every fourth grade parent, asking them to buy those flashcards for multiplication, and teach your kids multiplication because in fourth grade, you're supposed to learn to learn division. But in third grade, they didn't learn multiplication, you can't teach division without knowing multiplication. So now they're begging the teachers to teach their children how to multiply so that they can teach them division. Do not shut the schools down, keep the kids in school teach them. And by the way, I'm a big fan of vouchers and school choice. So if you've got a child in a school, a parent has a right to move that child to another classroom, if you don't like that you can move them to another school. If you don't like that you can move them to a charter school, a private school or even teach them at home. 

SCHOENMANN: Looking back at it 2020, people can say ‘I never would have done that.’ But looking back, if you were in charge back then, and knowing parents were fearing not just for their own lives or for the lives of the elderly, but also their children. Don't you think you might have considered that as well closing schools down to protect the kids?

HELLER: I think a good governor gives the decision to the parents and to the adults in the state. South Dakota didn't do that. South Dakota has the lowest unemployment; they had the fastest economic growth in the country. Texas didn't do that. They have low, low unemployment, and very high economic growth. And yet the mortality rate here in Nevada was higher than then Texas. So, it's very clear that these decisions that this governor made at the behest of California, Oregon and Washington did not work. And yet we're still struggling to this day. 60% of small businesses in Nevada are struggling. Our small businesses are overtaxed. They're over regulated, and they simply can't find people to do the work. And that's education. We got to get these kids back into school stop closing down the schools, stop mandating and, and just give scientific evidence to the adults so that they can make the decisions for themselves.

Throughout that interview, Heller made some comments that were either wrong or half true. Most of those focusing on his opponent, Sheriff Joe Lombardo of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. First, Heller said Lombardo supports rent control as a way to address the state's rising housing costs. When previously asked whether he would support rent control, Lombardo said he was not opposed to it. However, he went on to say that he was not fully up to speed on the intricacies of the policy and did not want to make a blanket statement. Heller also said Lombardo supports defunding the police. In a June 2020 interview with 8 News Now, Lombardo said he supports defunding the police “in some aspects.” He then went on to explain that he would have “no problem with that, as long as it's used appropriately in something that would benefit law enforcement since launch.” In his campaign, however, he has reversed that position, saying he would oppose all efforts to defund police.

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