Heller opens himself to town hall format

Members of the town hall crowd who could not get in chanted and made their own speeches.

Members of the town hall crowd who could not get in chanted and made their own speeches.


Dean Heller was once one of Nevada’s most admired public officials. As secretary of state, he made a point of leaving the door to his inner office open to the public, and while he didn’t always work in that office, it was more than just a stunt. Many Nevadans and tourists stuck their heads in to say hi. Friendly and accessible, he welcomed them all.

The admiration was not built only on gestures, either. His performance in office was skilled and capable. In a 1998 U.S. Senate recount, Heller as chief elections officer was fair and evenhanded, his surefooted handling of the politically sensitive chore later being compared to the bumbling, partisan Florida secretary of state who handled the 2000 presidential recount.

So his conduct after he moved to D.C., first as a U.S. House member and then as a senator, became subject to widespread comment. He became relatively reclusive for a politician, restricting himself to appearances before safe sites and groups, GOP events, and obligatory campaign debates.

He said his preference in having contact with the public was through conference calls with several citizens at a time, but those did not serve much of a purpose in informing the public of his stands. Neither the audio nor transcripts were released, and one participant we spoke with said Heller got more information than he gave out, suggesting they were more like focus groups than town halls.

After a Heller appearance at a raucous chamber of commerce event in Carson City, his reluctance to hold town meetings became as much of a focus of news coverage and public complaints as his positions on issues. The result was that when he agreed to a joint April 17 town hall in Reno with U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei, it was guaranteed to be packed.

Indeed, some people suggested he had done his Greta Garbo thing in order to draw a big crowd. Others, having experienced his reluctance to appear in public, did not accept that explanation. There was substantial anger in the hall at Heller’s high-handed treatment of the public.

Amodei sometimes seemed to be present to give his fellow Republican cover. Heller linked his and Amodei’s policy positions, as when he said both he and Amodei had opposed efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

The event probably undercut Heller’s previous ability to cut into the Democratic vote because the crowd pushed him into defending things he had done to placate Republicans who think him too moderate, such as posting a Reagan quote attacking Democrats.

He was asked why, before voting for a Trump nominee for Supreme Court, he failed to support a vote on Obama’s nominee, and Heller then equated Republican and Democratic tactics: “I guarantee you, in four years, if there’s another opening, everybody in here will be opposed to that person.” That avoided the issue, which was not opposition to nominees but the failure to allow a hearing and vote.

Heller seemed to suggest he opposed Planned Parenthood because some of its offices offer abortion: “The question is should federal funding cover some of the activities that occur in Planned Parenthood.”

Nevadans voted 63 to 37 percent in a referendum to support legal abortion.


Journalists used terms like combative and contentious to soften the hostility in the hall as much as possible. Of course, this is an era when a president has made it legitimate for journalists to use the term lie to describe his statements, so language goes just so far in making cosmetic changes.

Not everyone got inside the meeting, which prompted some to grumble that “Sen. Heller hadn’t booked a large enough room.” The outcasts made speeches on a boulder and passed out faux million dollar bills that represent the million dollars that allegedly leaves Nevada to purchase fossil fuels every 70 minutes.

Jim Romaggi of Sparks, among the outdoor excluded, sent us a message:

“Overheard some better-dressed Trump supporters. Them: ’We could get in if not for all these paid protesters from California.’ Me: ’Nah.’ Them: ’There’s a thousand cars out there with California plates.’ Me: ’Come on, that’s silly.’ Them: ’I bet you $100!’ Me (no dummy): ’Shake!’ After a very short walk past rows of all Nevada license plates, the bettor and his pal stopped and dug out a paltry $10 bill. Of course I declined, and show my $100 bill just to prove that at least I am for real. After some more right-wing whining about political dissent, the bettor welshes, and as a parting shot calls me a communist! Firsthand Trumpism—loudly assert a total BS claim, then can’t put up, but won’t shut up either. Oh, and, uh, I’m still waiting for my $100.”

It is not yet known whether Heller intends to also do a town hall in Clark County, where most Nevadans live.