Nevada Democrats in newly-drawn Congressional District 1 will have a choice of two progressive candidates on the ballot with incumbent Rep. Dina Titus, the dean of the state’s federal delegation in Washington, and liberal advocate Amy Vilela.
Eight Republican candidates are seeking the party’s nomination, illustrating GOP optimism that the once-Democratic seat is now more competitive after redistricting.
The background and experience of the eight Republican hopefuls give party voters a range of experience and candidates from which to choose.
Civil rights leader Jessie Turner Jr.; former state Judge Cynthia Steel; businessman Morgun Sholty; former Nevada Trump campaign aide Carolina Serrano; retired Army Col. Mark Robertson; former U.S. Rep. Cresent Hardy; pro-Israel advocate David Brog; and political activist Jane Adams are all running on the GOP ticket.
The party primaries in the congressional district are distinctly different, with Democrats emphasizing social and health issues, while Republicans are focused on border security, education, inflation the deficit.
In the Democratic race, Vilela, 47, said she is drawing on life experiences in offering new leadership in Congress. She’s the daughter of a single mother, and as a single mother herself relying on social programs experienced the heartbreak of losing her daughter, which she says was due to a lack of health insurance coverage.
“People need a champion. They need someone who knows the struggle and that lived experience,” Vilela said in a telephone interview.
Titus, 72, is touting her seniority and clout as House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee chair to continue the economic rebound that helped businesses and families following the coronavirus pandemic. She is seeking a seventh term in the House.
“I’ve used my voice to provide resources for those who need it most,” Titus said in an interview. “Although we’re recovering rapidly, we still have a long way to go. People live paycheck to paycheck, and I’ll like to make sure that our prosperity is permanent.”
Titus and Vilela backed opposing candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential caucus in Nevada.
Titus was the first Democrat in early nominating states to endorse Joe Biden for the White House. Vilela was Nevada co-chair of the presidential campaign for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent. Biden came in a distant second in Nevada, but went on to win the Democratic nomination and the White House.
On social issues, there is little difference between the two candidates, who champion civil, voting and LGBTQ+ rights, lower prescription drug costs, environmental causes and expanded health care access and coverage.
“This race has never been about who’s more progressive,” Vilela explained. “What this race is about is what type of leadership do we want in Congress … It’s not enough just to co-sponsor bills and just show up for a vote.”
Titus has been consistently ranked as one of the most liberal members in the House, an early champion of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, that expanded health care insurance coverage across the country.
Through her committee, she said she helped shepherd portions of the $1.7 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill through Congress that will bring federal improvements in roads, bridges, water systems and broadband to Nevada.
“I’m really proud of that,” Titus said.
She wrote legislation that carves out $750 million for tourism cities particularly hard hit by the pandemic. “That certainly describes Las Vegas,” Titus said. She’s also fought against Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste and sponsored legislation requiring local approval to store spent fuel, a position adopted by the Biden administration.
Tragedy leads to run
Following a hardscrabble upbringing and as once a single mother, Vilela used government assistance to care for her family and to get an educational footing that resulted in her rise to positions of chief financial officer, vice president of finance and owner of consulting firms.
She said she used those positions to advocate for people without a voice, and entered politics as a way to officially speak for those in need. Drawing on her own experiences, she aligns with the progressive wing of the party represented by Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
But Vilela’s motivation to run for Congress is the loss of her daughter, Shalynne, at age 22, in 2015.
A college honor student, Shalynne was driving from Kansas to Las Vegas and developed symptoms of a blood clot. Vilela said her daughter was denied sufficient treatment at an emergency room of a Nevada hospital because she could not provide proof of insurance.
Vilela said the death highlights the inadequacies and inhumanity of the health care system. She is pushing for universal health care, dubbed “Medicare for All,” that would provide coverage for those without company or union plans.
“Let’s talk about the morality,” Vilela said, asking if Americans are OK with losing 40,000 to 60,000 people each year “simply from the lack of health care?”
“Medicare for All” has been dubbed socialized medicine by many in Congress, who point to significant costs. Titus said she is a member of the Medicare for All Caucus and voted for Obamacare when it had a public option.
“We can move towards Medicare for All, but it can’t happen overnight,” Titus said. “We have to do it in a smart kind of gradual way.”
In the Republican Primary, Robertson, 62, of Henderson, Serrano, 37, of Las Vegas and Brog, 55 of Summerlin, have jumped out with strong fundraising in a crowded field of hopefuls who want to test the newly drawn boundaries of the district that diluted Democratic voter strength.
Both Serrano and Brog are named “On the Radar” candidates in the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Young Guns program take back the House.
Robertson and Steel, 69, of east Las Vegas, are running on the depth of experience in seeking the nomination.
Robertson, the first to file his candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, cites his military background in 10 foreign outposts and at the Pentagon in the Office of the Defense Secretary for Policy as qualifications for Congress.
And the first priority, for Robertson, like other Republicans in the race, would be measures to tighten security along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The crisis at our borders has got to end and that’s something that can be done, I believe, very quickly if we can get the executive branch to cooperate with Congress. Securing the border will be one of the first priorities I have,” Robertson said.
He would favor immigration reform that would include a pathway for citizenship for immigrants brought to this country as children, or Dreamers, but not those who entered illegally on their own and cut in front of those who have applied for citizenship and visas according to civil laws.
Robertson also cited his education and experience in finance with his priority to cut government spending, which originates in the House, and borrowing to cut the rising deficit and bring inflation under control.
Child of immigrants
Serrano, an American whose parents immigrated legally from Colombia, also said illegal immigration and border security would be her first priority if she is elected to Congress.
After stints in the hospitality business, an internship for a Republican lawmaker on Capitol Hill, Serrano came back to Las Vegas to engage in politics.
“That’s how I ended up spearheading Latinos for Trump,” an outreach effort for the presidential campaign in Nevada in 2020.
Drawing on both private and public workplace experiences, Serrano said the impact of illegal immigration is not only a threat to national security, but also to wages and workers on the lower end of the economic rungs.
“As someone from Las Vegas, we work on hourly wages,” Serrano said. “You’re constantly competing with people who will come over and work for cheaper wages.”
“Almost all Hispanics that I have met who are here legally, they are just as hardline on the border,” said Serrano, who has traveled to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas to see for herself how law enforcement deals with immigrant smuggling controlled largely by cartels in Mexico.
Although national Republicans have made lax border and immigration enforcement a campaign theme targeting Democrats in the 2022 midterm elections, the number of apprehensions and deportations actually decreased by half from the Obama administration to the Trump administration, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement reports.
‘Radical agenda’ at border
Brog, president of the National Conservatism group and an ardent advocate of Israel, said the lack of security that still remains at the Southwest border poses a continuous threat to Americans in the form of contraband like fentanyl, which claimed the lives of 66,000 people from overdoses last year alone.
“I now see this radical agenda really dominating the Democratic Party and really damaging our country,” Brog said.
“And we see all sorts of manifestations of it,” Brog added, from defunding the police movement that he claimed led to a rise in crime to weakening the border patrol and the rise in illegal immigration and fentanyl being brought into U.S. cities.
“We have a shot at taking back the House of Representatives,” Brog said. “If we succeed in this we could put the brake on the Biden administration and the worst instincts and impulses of an administration that’s dominated by this dangerous ideology.”
Brog also opposes legislation once dubbed the “Build Back Better” bill, but reduced in size because of Democratic opposition in the House and Senate.
If that Biden spending plan had passed, Brog said “inflation would be twice as bad as it is now.”
Longtime judge joins race
A candidate with a long background in public service, Cynthia Steel served as a Family Court judge from 1997 to 2019. She ran unsuccessfully for the Nevada Supreme Court in 2006.
Prior to that, Steel served in the state Assembly.
Steel said that in addition to immigration measures, a main priority should be restoring local control of schools and education to states and local communities.
Federal grants and incentives from the Department of Education have been used to steer curriculum and programs toward national goals set in Washington, lessening control that communities have on local education.
“We are the United States of America, not the uniform states of America,” Steel said.
Less concerned about hot-button education issues like Critical Race Theory and book banning, Steel said she is more worried about health care or counseling provided by schools to students without the consent or knowledge of their parents.
While there are times when such situations may be deemed necessary, Steel said more local control of schools could better address the needs of students and parents.
“Education and health care work should be the priority of the state,” Steel said.
The current system with federal guidelines set by the Department of Education, Steel said, “it just doesn’t work for me.”
She proposed using data from each state to build a model “and wean ourselves off the federal government and Education Department.”
Spending too much
Adams, 37, is a fiscal conservative Republican and activist who has worked on ballot initiatives on the local, state and federal level who was spurred to run for Congress because of federal spending while making it difficult for younger generations.
“They are not investing in creating wealth for the American people, and I noticed they are all multimillionaires,” Adams said of Congress.
Adams said her top priority would be to make Bitcoin, the decentralized digital currency, legal tender in this country.
“The federal government can print as much money as they want, but they can’t print any Bitcoin,” Adams said. She sees Bitcoin, which is not regulated, as an alternative way for people to build wealth.
Border protection also is a concern of Adams, who lives in Las Vegas and is concerned about drug and human trafficking.
“We actually have a human slave market here in Las Vegas, and I’m surprised that other candidates don’t talk about it,” Adams said.
To achieve border security Adams would look at existing U.S.-Mexico trade deals, crack down on gun trafficking south of the border, and enforce existing laws to curb illegal immigration and drug trafficking north of the border.
She said the border wall is symbolic and a way to deter people from coming, but doesn’t solve the problems.
“You can’t put a Bandaid over a wound like that,” Adams said.
Hardy, a former congressman who represented the 4th Congressional District from 2015 to 2017, said he could not speak when reached for an interview at a scheduled time. He referred questions to an aide.
Two other GOP candidates seeking the party’s nomination for the seat did not return emails or telephone calls seeking comment.
Turner is a civil rights and advocate for people experiencing homelessness with a podcast to speak out about the “morally bankrupt oligarchy of Politicians, Partisan Media and Tech Global Socialist” society, according to his website.
Sholty is a family man who is running on an America first campaign. He wants to improve education and is opposed to mask mandates in public schools imposed during the pandemic, according to his campaign website.
Titus has a distinct money advantage in the race. She has raised $1 million to date with $1.1 million in cash on hand following the March 31 reporting period, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Vilela has raised $392,269 with $46,509 in cash, according to FEC reports.
Heading into the Republican primary, Robertson has raised $489,697 with $263,3330 in cash on hand. Serrano raised $422,697 with $261,851 with cash available, followed by Brog with $284,348 with receipts and $263,595 left, according to FEC reports.
Sholty has raised $79,827 and $57,667 left, Steel had $7,309 in receipts with $1,819 cash on hand. Turner raised $100 and had $100 left. Adams and Hardy posted no funds raised, according to FEC reports.
Hardy entered the primary on March 18 and filed campaign paperwork to raise funds just before the March 31 cutoff.