Debate crowd cheers Fiore and Gilbert, jeers Heller 

By: - January 7, 2022 12:19 pm

Eight Republicans running for governor appeared together in Reno Thursday night. (RedMoveNevada screengrab).

Republican gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Sen. Dean Heller tried to hit all the right notes at a Republican debate Thursday night among eight candidates for governor, but his repeated pitch that he’s the only true conservative in the race fell flat, cut off each time by a chorus of jeers and boos from naysayers in the crowd at the Atlantis in Reno.

Heller, once an ally of then-President Donald Trump, famously landed on Trump’s bad side after voting against repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  

“I had a conversation with the President, with President Trump just a couple hours ago,” Heller said, triggering laughter from the crowd. “And we talked about multiple issues. But one of the things that we talked about was that we have corrupt election laws here in the state of Nevada. And how are you going to fix those?“  

Reno attorney Joey Gilbert and Las Vegas City Councilwoman Michele Fiore received the most enthusiastic support from the raucous crowd.  Fiore said she paid $75 to bring a cardboard cutout of Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo emblazoned “No Show Joe.”  Lombardo, also a candidate in the Republican race, declined to take part in the event, according to organizers. 

Ending vaccine and mask mandates, imposing new restrictions on voting, and putting an end to the teaching of critical race theory, a graduate-level concept that is not part of the K-12 public school curriculum, topped the list of candidate priorities.  

“My platform is simple,” said Fiore. “We’re gonna ban the vaccine mandates everywhere else. We’re gonna ban critical race theory, and we’re gonna stop voter fraud.”

“Number one – better jobs, stronger economy,” Heller said of his priorities. “Number two, we want better schools. We will never shut the schools down in Nevada when I am governor. And finally, number three, and that is that we want safe neighborhoods. You want to live in a dangerous neighborhood? Live in a sanctuary city. This is what’s happening in Clark County. If I am governor, we will never have sanctuary cities in this state.”

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee promised to clean voter rolls “and make sure the dead people are off and all the people that moved out of state. Number two, we need to stop illegal immigration. It is going to destroy our country. … Three. I am also unvaccinated. I do not believe in the COVID requirements.”

Businessman Guy Nohra says his priorities are education, election integrity, economic expansion and what he called the “post-COVID hangover. It’s not just COVID. It’s everything else that COVID has created.”  

Gilbert, who has sued to eliminate a variety of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-related executive orders, says ending mask and vaccination mandates is his top priority. 

“That’s all gone on day one,” he said. “Number two is election integrity. … And three is our schools are broken schools. These are no longer public schools or government schools. None of this stuff belongs in there. The CRT, the transgender nonsense, it’s all out.”

Candidate Tom Heck said he’d institute across-the-board 10% budget cuts, ensure freedom of speech, and “stop the political indoctrination of our kids.”  

Dr. Fred Simon says his priority is fixing health care, which he says has been damaged by Obamacare. He also cited school choice and competition as a priority. 

“We need all of the smut and the ideology taken out of the schools because what has happened, the Marxists have come into health care and education,” he said. “And lastly, we need voter integrity and if we get better integrity, we become red again.”

“I love our freedom, and that’s what I like to uphold,” said real estate investor Barak Zilberberg, vowing to “make sure that we turn this state red.”

On crime 

“We’ve got to give our police the funding that they need and the ability to do their job without domestic terrorists holding protests and saying defund the police,” said Fiore. “When those domestic terrorists come in our territory, we stand out there with our guns, too. Because you know what, when they shoot sideways, we shoot.  Because we know how to shoot, we win.”

“If you want to live in a dangerous city, live in a sanctuary city,” Heller repeated, noting he’s endorsed by the Nevada Police Union

Lee suggested the governor “is hiding up in Carson City” and noted North Las Vegas is “number four in crime now in the state. We were number one.”

“If you want to stop crime in the state of Nevada, you’ve got to vote for conservative Republicans top to bottom,” said Nohra. 

“Las Vegas is more dangerous than 85% of the other big cities in this country,” Gilbert contended. He attributed the problem to “handcuffing police” and to “political judges and district attorneys.”  

Las Vegas has 409.7 crimes committed per 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics compiled in 2020. Nationally, the FBI says 345 crimes were committed on average in 2020.  

A similar area, San Antonio, has a higher incidence of crime than Las Vegas with 469 incidents per 100,000 residents.  Portland has a lower rate at 302 crimes per 100,000, as does Pittsburgh, which has a rate of 227 crimes per 100,000 residents.  

“I have spent 30 years dealing with gang members when they’re injured and listening to them,” said Simon. “We have to fix education.” 

“The reason we have the crime problems we have in this country today is because a quarter of a million illegal immigrants are coming across our border every month,” Heller said. “And our federal government sends them to sanctuary cities.”

On schools

“The first and foremost thing we have to do is keep these children in school, get them to their teachers and make sure that the parents are responsible for the academic standards of that classroom, not the school board,” said Heller. 

“We have more private schools, more parochial schools, and more charter schools in North Las Vegas,” said Lee. “We believe parents know where they want to send their kids and that’s where we want them to go in our community.”

Simon blamed teachers for failing schools.  

“Ideologic liberal college has given us ideologic liberal teachers,” said Simon. “You have to have choice and to have choice, you have to have competition.”

“We already put school choice and vouchers in 2013 and ‘15 on the ballot and we passed it,” Fiore noted in response to a chorus of calls for vouchers. 

“Our teachers need a pay raise. They’re undertreated,” said Zilberberg, prompting boos from the audience. He also suggested designing a curriculum to address “real life functions, such as accounting, money management.” 

Heller advocated for more skills training in schools to alleviate the need for students to go to college.  

“It’s not that we lack vocational programs,” Gilbert said, adding “65 or 85% of fourth through eighth graders are functionally illiterate. They can’t pass drug tests.”

Gilbert was later unable to substantiate the figures he stated.

In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated 16 percent of Nevada students were “lacking basic prose literacy skills.” The low end of the estimate was 9.5% while the high end was 25.3%.

Lee said Nevada’s counties need “smarter school board trustees to help work with us.” 

On homelessness

Homelessness is “a sickness,” said Lee, who said the issue, along with education and health care, are the greatest problems plaguing the state. 

“We will see if we need more psychiatric hospitals,” he said. “We’ll look at things to help these people. They are our residents. They are our brothers and sisters.”

Zilberberg wants to ensure panhandlers are paying taxes. 

“They should have a QR code and I will have homeless patrols out there, looking out and making sure everyone pays their fair share of taxes,” he said.

“Guys, the problem with the homeless is not that there’s a lack of programs, lack of assistance, lack of education, anything to help them,” Gilbert said. “It’s the lack of them wanting to help themselves.” 

He encouraged authorities to enforce laws prohibiting homeless individuals from congregating in certain areas. Faced with jail or “cleaning up, they’ll choose the latter.” 

“There is a degree of ignorance on the subject that we just heard,” said Simon. “We need facilities that take care of the mentally ill, do drug rehab, and job rehab as well.”

Fiore said she and the City Council “took a lot of heat from the ACLU and a lot of people when we implemented our Corridor of Hope and our homeless ordinance to where the homeless couldn’t be going on private properties and staying in front of our businesses and defecating in our streets.”

She went on to say homelessness is “not all about mental illness. It’s about sometimes moms that are getting away from abusive relationships and taking their kids and need a place to go.”

Heller attempted to lay blame at Sisolak’s door for the seemingly intractable problem.

“When Trump was president, our homeless problem was at a minimum,” he said. “And then what happened? What happened?  We had a governor that shutdown this state for 75 days.”

Heller said homelessness “is a mental health problem. And the government is going to have to solve this problem.”

On individual judgment vs. the will of the voters

Would candidates substitute constituents’ desires for their own judgment?

“I am pro life and I’m proud of it,” Heller said, noting he was probably in the minority of public opinion. “But, I will never change my position on this issue.”

However, Heller has already changed his position.  

In 2006 he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal “I’m a Mormon and I teach Sunday school every week, but I do back a woman’s right to choose abortion. It is the conservative position.” 

Lee, who like Heller is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, said he would rely on his own judgment to decide tough calls.  

On economic diversification

“The more development we have, the bigger the water issue we have. How about we take care of the businesses and the people who live in Nevada now instead of bringing more businesses and more people,” Simon said, concluding “we work out our water issues before we bring in any further development.”

“We must manufacture goods and produce our goods here in Nevada and invite people to the American dream,” said Zilberberg, adding “he will give free land as well. Because we have so much land we’re going to give free land.”  

“Economic development has to do with better growth. It has to do with better schools. It has to do with safe neighborhoods. That is what we need,” Heller said.

Nohra suggested existing industries should be strengthened. 

“R&D with mining is very, very important,” he said. “Now you know we compete with China for rare materials. Nevada has rare materials. We should be getting this here.”

“You know, 80 to 70% of our water’s used by our ag partners,” Gilbert said, suggesting government investment in “more efficient irrigation systems, we can save 20 to 25% of our water. Imagine what we could do with that.”

Heck said as governor, he would “focus on free market economy and we’re gonna double the fees for California to buy our energy and water.”

“You want economic development? You got to get rid of these regulations,” Heller said.  “Washington, D.C. is not going to save America. The governors are going to do that job. That’s what’s going on in Florida. That’s what’s going on in Texas. That’s what’s going on in South Dakota. It’s the governors that are driving policy.” 

On fighting voter apathy

“We need voter ID,” said Heller, a former Nevada secretary of state. “We need to get rid of ballot harvesting. We need to get rid of cheat by mail. And we need to make sure that no non-citizens can vote in elections.” 

“Independents want good health care. Independents want their kids to get educated. Independents want safe cities. Independents want Voter IDs,” Simon said, presumably of non-partisan voters in Nevada, who now outnumber registered members of both major parties.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.

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