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Heller takes heat at Latin Chamber lunch

Sen. Dean Heller working the room at the Latin Chamber of Commerce luncheon. 5/12/17 (Jeff Gillan | KSNV)

It started nicely.

A networking event featured lots of smiles with the senior Senator, as he stopped by table-after-table of organizations looking to make new connections. It was the warm-up next to the ballroom where, in a few minutes, he’d be speaking at the Suncoast during the Latin Chamber Luncheon.

The Latin Chamber of Commerce is friendly turf for Dean Heller, who has diligently courted the Hispanic community for years.

“Senator Dean Heller – when I call he always calls back,” said Chamber President Peter Guzman as he was introducing the guest of honor.

But as Heller has seen before in Nevada, he probably knew what was coming.

Taking the podium, he said, “there's a lot of anger on both sides of the political aisle.”

And that anger didn't take long to show up. It began almost immediately.

“Why don’t you stand up to Trump?” a woman asked, as she stood and heckled, complaining Heller has not done enough for Latino jobs.

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That woman was not alone: person, after person, after person – about six, by our count – interrupted Heller on different issues. In response, the crowd booed, and the protestors were quickly surrounded by union members of Laborers Local 872, who escorted them out of the ballroom.

Protesters have complained Heller has not been accessible and that these interruptions are their only avenue to be heard. Heller’s office, in response, says the Senator has held telephone town-halls, along with other appearances in the state. Those too, in Northern Nevada, have seen their share of protest.

“I’m getting used to this,” Heller told News 3 afterward.

He’s facing a tough reelection – some pundits call him the most endangered of the eight GOP incumbents up in 2018 – and I asked him if today’s public display of anger is part of something much bigger.

“Actually, I don't think it's a groundswell. I think you have a small group of people who are frustrated, and I get that. And frankly, I concur with some of the frustration,” Heller said.

Heller's appearance comes after a tumultuous two weeks.

Last week, the GOP-controlled house narrowly passed an Obamacare replacement that Heller says stinks.

He’s particularly worried about the Medicaid rollback that could force Nevada to shoulder the cost of hundreds of thousands of people who got coverage under Obamacare.

“What I’m trying to make sure is there is not a quarter-billion hole left in the Nevada budget,” Heller says, echoing concerns of his fellow Republican, Governor Brian Sandoval.

Heller says he’s working on an amendment that would boost spending on Medicaid – the program for low-income Americans – to make sure more people get covered.

Heller also says the House bill doesn’t go nearly far enough to protect those with preexisting conditions. To win passage last week, House Republicans threw in an extra $8 billion to cover those with prior illnesses.

“I think that number has to be somewhere between 13 to 15 billion in order to cover the individuals in these high-risk pools,” Heller says.

Heller’s health care bottom line: “If Sandoval’s not happy and if this doesn’t work for the State of Nevada, I won’t support it,” he says.

Then there's the FBI director President Trump fired Tuesday ... just as Congress and the FBI investigate if Russia helped the Trump campaign.

“Everything concerns me at this point. Certainly, I'm uncomfortable with the timing of all of this, and that's why I think an independent prosecutor should be on the table if, in fact, the select committee in the Senate and House cannot get to answers,” Heller says.

On Thursday night, the New York Times reported President Trump, in a January dinner at the White House, asked now-former FBI Director James Comey for his loyalty, something, the Times reports, Comey did not give.

Washington woke up Friday morning to a stunning tweet from the President: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press,” a not-so-veiled threat, critics said, intimating Trump was taping.

Heller says he won’t comment on what President Trump sends out on Twitter.

“Responding to presidential tweets is an industry in itself,” he says.

Heller also weighed in briefly on the controversy consuming Carson City: the allegations, first reported by The Nevada Independent, that Attorney General Adam Laxalt improperly tried to get the head of the Gaming Control Board to intercede in a lawsuit on behalf of Laxalt contributor and Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson. Democrats plan hearings.

“I know they’re going to have hearings in the legislature and frankly I think they should have hearings in the legislature,” Heller says. “But beyond that, I don’t have any comment.”

In the meantime, his constituents won’t let the Senator forget an election is coming.

Outside the ballroom, Heller spoke to ShaeAnn Clements, one of the people who interrupted his speech.

“I do know that ACA (Obamacare) has its flaws but it has also saved my life,” Clements told him.

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