MY COLUMN: Gov. Sunny courts the Hispanic vote as re-election bid begins

It might be a stretch to call it the kickoff of Gov. Brian Sandoval's re-election campaign. But not much of a stretch.

And what better place to begin a bid for a second term than a place called Encore, the Strip casino where 15 prominent members of the Hispanic community gathered Friday afternoon to pay tribute (and a few bucks) to the Latino governor.

What's especially noteworthy about this group: Most did not support Sandoval in 2010 in his first race for governor against then-Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid, the senator’s son. Indeed, the Latin Chamber of Commerce endorsed Reid the Younger in 2010, at least partly a product of Gov. Sunny's cloudy position on illegal immigration, including his initial, full-throated embrace of Arizona's SB 1070, followed by a gradual "This kind of law isn't needed in Nevada" repositioning.

But that also was when the fiction that Rory Reid ever had a chance against Sandoval existed, before the Republican's relatively easy victory and his now-soaring popularity. And, of course, it was before a Latina attorney general emerged as a potential challenger to Sandoval -- Catherine Cortez Masto is widely believed to be interested in being governor, but not necessarily enamored of the idea of taking on the popular Sandoval.

The Encore event was organized by Tony Sanchez, a NV Energy executive very active in politics. Sanchez is a Democrat, and he's also long been associated with the Latin Chamber. And, in case you have forgotten, NV Energy is regulated by the state.

I'm told that both sides -- Sandoval and the Latin Chamber leaders -- have reached out to each other since the governor's election. And a series of high-profile Latino appointments by Sandoval helped lead to Friday's rapprochement (it's always good when they come bearing gifts, too, eh, Gov. Sunny?).

Those include:

--- Adriana Escobar to the bench

----Cisco Aguilar to the Nevada Athletic Commission

----Tony Alamo, Jr., to the Gaming Commission

The folks who showed up Friday, I'm told, chatted with the governor for an hour or so about economic development. Sanchez was there, along with fellow NV Energy executive Roberto Denis; Juan Mora of JS Products; Joe Hernandez, who owns an insurance company; Otto Merida, the longtime Latin Chamber chief; Cecilia Aldena, who owns medical clinics; Aner Iglesias, who owns King's Ranch Markets; local attorney Eva Garcia Mendoza; GOP activist James Campos and his brother, Joe; UNLV executive Luis Valera; and the aforementioned Aguilar.

Most of these people not only did not support Sandoval two years ago; they were hostile to his candidacy because of his remarks about illegal immigration. But the governor, emblematic of Republicans around the country and with the added cachet of being Latino, understands the changing demographics of Nevada and America. He probably took a peek at those exit polls here for Mitt Romney (lost by 50 percentage points among Latinos) and Sen. Dean Heller (lost by 40).

That's enough to give you a...sunnier disposition on Hispanic issues.

Sandoval also has hired Sonia Hoya, the longtime aide to ex-Sen. John Ensign, as his Las Vegas office boss, which also can't hurt with outreach to the Latino community. For a guy who wants to be anointed for re-election -- so much easier than running -- and who may have national ambitions someday, he's making all the right moves.

Of course, Sandoval surely knows what the national Republicans sometimes fail to comprehend – it’s one thing to make token gestures, such as appointments to state boards or the bench; it’s quite another to show that you speak the same language, literally (I hear Sandoval is learning Spanish) and figuratively.

That’s where the 2013 legislative session might come in, when Sandoval will have a chance to take positions on issues important to Latinos and sure to be raised by the Democratic leadership. Expect more signals to be sent.

Even if Sandoval does not have a race in 2014, he wants to increase his popularity with Hispanics, which already is much more robust since he ran. His standing among Latinos already has improved. You don’t get to 60 percent approval without some support in nearly all demographic areas.

Yes, Friday’s event only raised about $25,000. Yes, it's 700 days-plus until the 2014 election. But this display was not about dollars; it was about what surely will become a cascade of messages being sent from Gov. Sunny to the world.

Are you listening, Madame Attorney General?