Daunting challenge

Photos By Dennis Myers The Democratic candidates seeking to oppose Republican U.S. Rep. Dean Heller are, from left, Ken McKenna, Nancy Price and Sam Dehne.

The northern Nevada district for the U.S. House of Representatives is generally considered a safe Republican seat. No Democrat has ever won it. In the last two elections, national Democrats have poured resources into major efforts to win the district without coming close. In the 2006 election, Republican Dean Heller won the seat with a 5 percent margin over Democrat Jill Derby. Two years later, with the same candidate matchup, the margin was 10 percent.

This year it’s less likely that national money will be committed to a Democratic challenge, but three Democrats want to try, anyway. Nancy Price, Ken McKenna and Sam Dehne are competing for the chance to take on Heller.

Price was elected to a seat on the Nevada Board of Regents and served a six-year term. During that term she received an award from Common Cause in August 1993 for her efforts to keep regents meetings open to the public.

She is running for the House as a supporter of President Obama. She noted incumbent Heller’s shift from a moderate to a conservative stance since he went to the House. “I think Dean Heller has changed since his time in the Assembly, and I think the country needs somebody from here who will support the president as much as possible.”

“We need a constitutional amendment to undo the idea that corporations are people, and I think that single thing, along with campaign finance [changes] would help what’s wrong with Washington.”

Price was critical of Congress’s decision to repeal the second Glass-Steagall Act, a 1933 law that barred banks from the insurance and investment businesses. The repeal also removed portions of the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956, which had prohibited a bank holding company from owning non-financial companies. The repeal is now blamed by many—including some Democrats who supported it—for triggering the Wall Street meltdown, though Democratic leaders have not sought to reinstate the law.

She said she left the Republican Party when the GOP failed to crack down promptly on torture in Iraq. “That was kind of the final straw of working within the Republican Party, because our troops are in danger when you have policies like that,” she said. She also believes that if the United States is to have any hope of repairing its battered reputation around the world, it needs to hold its officials accountable for such policies—including the false information used to justify the Iraq invasion.

“I think in order for us to regain our place in the world, we have to do something about what went on with regard to the run-up to the war,” she said. “If it were up to me, we’d have a trial for Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush. … But short of that, to have some sort of formality that shows that we recognize what was done and what was done was wrong.”

Price spent 24 years in the National Guard, retiring as a chief master sergeant, and also worked for the Air Force writing curriculum.

McKenna is a Reno attorney, probably best known for the 1990 lawsuit he filed against the band Judas Priest on behalf of families of two fans who attempted suicide, one succeeding and the other left badly disfigured. McKenna was elected to the Nevada Board of Education two years ago.

McKenna prefers not to focus his campaign on issues, at least yet, because he sees the real problem as gridlock and dogmatism more than policy. He thinks an old-fashioned partisanship is making Congress dysfunctional in this day and age. Referring to Heller, he said, “I think he votes with the party, in that he is influenced by the current party politics, which is that you cannot do anything that would be independent, that would make his vote for Nevadans come first. His vote is for the party first, and Nevadans—take it or leave it. And I think that’s sad. … Everybody has become so partisan that they take a position, and they can’t adjust that position. It’s no, no, no, no—without any concept of, ‘Well, maybe, could be, I might be able to compromise.’ … You can’t just say no or you can’t just say yes. … I don’t know everything. And I’m not a hundred percent right or wrong about anything. Nor is anyone else. The world is fluid and it has a lot of aspects to it, so I really get upset at Washington when I hear this, ‘We’re just going to say no to everything’ because it’s party politics. Those people are drawing paychecks to do a job, a very, very difficult job that requires a lot of work and lot of effort and to just say, ‘I’m going to say no, and I’m not even going to study the problem or investigate the issue or consider alternatives’—they should be fired. They would be fired in the private sector.”

He says he is a political conservative and is skeptical of overextended federal power, but says the public is also at fault.

“We have this general dissatisfaction among a lot of voters—independents, conservatives—vocal people don’t want the federal government interfering in much or having as much power as it has. … But when we have a crisis of such a high magnitude as an oil spill, then we need the federal government, and everybody says, ‘Why didn’t you get here yesterday?’ So you have to have that understanding between federal government intrusion and abuses on states and individuals and the corollary federal government ability to get big things done that states and individuals and local governments cannot get done. You’ve got to find that balance.”

The candidates were also asked why they wanted to take on a race in such a difficult district at a time when Congress is so polarized and unpleasant.

McKenna said, “I don’t know. I have always had a bug, a personal bug for politics, gosh, probably since before I was old enough to vote. But I’ve never acted it out. I always held back and said, ‘Who needs it? Who needs that insanity? Who needs that abuse? Who needs that frustration?’ And I’ve always talked myself out of it. I don’t know what happened. I lost my will to talk myself out of it. … I just thought, ‘If you’re going to do it, get off the bench and do it.’ And so, yes, here I am. I’m signed up. ”

Price said, “I think I know how to slough off that sort of thing and keep my eye on what’s important.”

Dehne declined an interview, saying that he has stopped talking to all reporters: “I’ve got nothing to say to the media anymore, because you know how disgusted I am of you and all of your cohorts. So you don’t deserve an answer from Sam. I will do what I’ll do, and I will clean things up. That’s all. Nothing personal.”

His website says if elected he would seek changes in voting systems to protect against fraud in elections, a public vote on whether nuclear waste should be stored at Yucca Mountain, and a new federal investigation of events surrounding the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedies.

Dehne is a pilot who spent five years in the Air Force, later became an airline pilot, and retired from the Air Guard as a lieutenant colonel. He now describes his work as “citizen watchdog.”

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About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.