Monday, Aug. 31, 2009 | 3:15 p.m.
Two busloads of conservative activists rolled into Las Vegas today with two things on their mind: halting proposed health care legislation and ousting Nevada Sen. Harry Reid.
The Tea Party Express, an outgrowth of the modern-day TEA (Taxed Enough Already) parties held around the country on April 15, is on a 34-stop tour that spans from coast-to-coast, holding rallies to decry what organizers call out-of-control government spending and to encourage conservative voters to begin organizing for 2010 elections.
The caravan today stopped at the Sports Center of Las Vegas, on Sunset Road east of Las Vegas Boulevard, where several hundred supporters gathered in the parking lot.
During five stops in Nevada -- which ties with Texas for the state with the most stops on the tour -- Tea Party Express organizers also focused their attacks on Reid, the powerful Senate majority leader who supports the “public option,” a health care reform proposal that would, in part, provide government-funded health insurance to an estimated 47 million uninsured Americans.
Rally speakers decried Reid’s support of the legislation, which they say will come with tax increases, and called on Reid to apologize for a recent comment that Tea Party attendees are “evil mongers.” Organizers said efforts to portray the rallies as gatherings of angry, disaffected mobs are inaccurate and nothing more than attempts to dismiss the concerns the rallies raise.
“I see one big, national town hall meeting,” said Mark Williams, a conservative talk radio host from California who is on the tour. “And you know what? Washington is scared.”
In a statement, Reid spokesman Jon Summers said the “evil mongers” quote was taken out of context.
“That comment referenced people who have been using hate speech and signs, not people who are simply expressing their opinions,” Summers said.
The Tea Party Express also gave face time to four Reid challengers: Former Nevada Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, businessman Danny Tarkanian and former Marine and Nevada Test Site employee Bill Parson, all Republican challengers; and Henderson resident Edward Hamilton, who had declared his candidacy for Reid’s seat as a Republican, but announced at the rally that he planned to file instead as a Democrat to give Reid a primary challenge.
Former State Sen. Joe Heck, who is challenging fellow Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons for his seat, also spoke at the rally.
The majority of the comments focused on the current health care proposal and Reid’s role in backing it.
“This is not just about how we run our health care system,” said Lew Uhler, founder and president of the National Tax Limitation Committee. “This is about how much control the government has over your life.”
Uhler called on everyone at the rally to contact six Republican senators who are working to reach a compromise on health care reform and tell them to stop.
“We’ve got to kill (the proposal) black-flag dead,” Uhler said. “Then we can start over.”
Their words found many a welcoming ear within the crowd. Henderson resident Peter Kempf said he was at the rally because he feels that those who have dissenting viewpoints on health care reform, like himself, deserve a fair hearing.
“I think it’s important for those of us who have served our country to come out and be heard,” he said. “We may not prevail, but it’s important for us to be heard in a respectful manner. The real problem we have with health care in our country right now is that those people who have a contrary opinion of how our problem should be fixed are being ignored.”
At least one person at the rally, however, showed up to support Reid and proposed health care legislation. Before the rally began, Las Vegas resident Irv Nickerson paced on the fringe with a sign that proclaimed: “We support: Obama Recovery Plan; Health Plan” on one side, and “We oppose: Bush Policies; Cheney Policies; Stupid People” on the other.
Between verbal sparring matches with the rally’s supporters, Nickerson said he conducted his solitary counter-protest to make sure other viewpoints would be represented at the rally.
“Somebody had to speak up,” Nickerson said. “There is another side to this. I’m being attacked on all sides, but you have to stand up for what you believe in. I really support Obama’s plan; I think it’s what we had to do.”
Las Vegas resident Sue Heiselman, a political independent, said she has soured on both of Nevada’s senators, Reid and Republican John Ensign, and that she attended the rally because she is concerned about how government spending will affect her grandchildren.
“I’m here for my grandkids,” she said. “They have no one to speak for them. This is not about a party or a person. We’re venting simply because we feel like we have nowhere else to go. (Representatives) don’t answer our calls, they don’t answer our e-mails, they don’t answer our faxes. They just dismiss us.”