Heller exhorts Dayton students to strive for leadership

David Mirhadi/Nevada Appeal U.S. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, speaks to a leadership class at Dayton High School on Friday. As a Carson City resident, he told the students that he beat long odds to serve as rural Nevada's representative to Congress.

David Mirhadi/Nevada Appeal U.S. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, speaks to a leadership class at Dayton High School on Friday. As a Carson City resident, he told the students that he beat long odds to serve as rural Nevada's representative to Congress.

He walked into the Dayton High School gymnasium, decked out in dusty cowboy boots, jeans and a charcoal sport coat.

He shook hands with the school principal and eschewed standing in front of a podium, opting to get as close to his potential constituents as possible.

Had visitors not taken notice of his two smartly dressed assistants in the audience, Dean Heller could have passed for a motivational speaker, extolling the virtues of community service, democracy and leadership.

The first-term congressman came to Dayton High School stressing his Carson City roots over Beltway politics.

No matter where you come from, with the right tools, you can succeed, he said.

"For a kid that grew up here locally, to become a U.S. Representative means that anybody in this room can do the same thing," Heller told a group of about 50 students from Dayton High's leadership class.

Heller came as a guest of the school after freshman Haley Johnson, 15, sent the former Nevada secretary of state an e-mail asking if the congressman had any advice for young students.

"I didn't know what to expect," Johnson said. "I thought it would be a good experience for our class to see a real leader."

Heller, who said he travels back to Nevada from Washington every weekend, responded in kind and was met by a captive audience.

He talked about his experiences tubing the Carson River as a youngster, and how people told him that someone who wasn't from Washoe or Clark counties could never be elected to represent the state in Congress.

Once he got to Washington, D.C., Heller said, fellow representatives told him he'd never see any legislation he introduced get passed, and that he'd never take a seat on any influential conference committees.

After all, Heller was just one of 13 freshman Republicans elected to Congress in 2006 - the smallest such incoming class of Republicans in nearly a century.

Since coming to Washington, D.C., the three-time Nevada secretary of state and former statehouse legislator has helped pass legislation aiding the city of Reno with railroad right-of-ways and was a key sponsor of a bill that led to a 50-year agreement on the use of water from the Lower Colorado River for southern Nevada, Arizona and California, thereby protecting water resources for Northern Nevada.

Heller's congressional district is the largest district that doesn't otherwise encompass an entire state.

While he's happy representing much of the state in Congress, Heller said he misses spending the bulk of his time in the Silver State.

"Nothing compensates for the time I'm not at home," Heller said, noting that he missed every one of his daughter Emmy's track meets this season.

"Next year, I'll miss votes just to go to her track meets," he told the students. "It's that important."

Heller joked that he's not as tight with members of the national press as he is with reporters back home. Asked by one student if it was hard to be judged harshly in the press, Heller told a story about how one newspaper not from Nevada noted that Heller appeared to spend too much time on his hairstyle.

What the press didn't know, Heller said, was that he's the only member of Congress whose mother still cuts his hair.

Heller, who spent more than a decade as Nevada's secretary of state, also told students to be mindful of the power of registering to vote and then showing up at the polls.

He succeeded in public office, he said, in part because of his ability to communicate effectively with people from all kinds of backgrounds. He didn't grow up with much, he told the students - his mother was a school cook, his father a mechanic.

"If I can't understand the vastness between those who have and those who have not, I can't get elected," said Heller, who is facing a challenge this year from Democrat Jill Derby. "Communication is the number one ability, I believe, that you have to have, to be effective."

Junior Kayla Skog, 17, said she thought Heller's message was true.

"It was really inspiring," she said. "It made me think of what I can achieve, and I thought he was relaxed and he could get his message across to our level."

• Contact city editor David Mirhadi at dmirhadi@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1261.

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