Election 2016

Nevada Was Supposed to Be a Firewall for Hillary to Stop Bernie, But There's Clearly a Shift Underway on the Cusp of the Caucuses

On the ground in South Nevada, a visit to events for Sanders and Clinton show two very different energy levels.

In three decades of covering campaigns and working on some -- including the race that first elected Bernie Sanders to the U.S. House -- I have never felt the vigor, vibrancy and focus like the afternoon party that Karyn Doddy and her husband hosted for organizers of the Sanders’ campaign in southern Nevada.

Some of the people there, like Doddy, were not new to political campaigns, including big ones that won. “He’s doing better that Obama did -- he is such an easier sell,” said Doddy, a 56-year-old African-American physician, as she ducked into her kitchen to make room for another tray of cupcakes with icing that traced the outlines of Sanders’ head and glasses. “Barack Hussein Obama, this black kid from who knows where, who has been a senator for no time at all? Bernie has been consistent. They know him.”

The “they” that Doddy was referring to was the extraordinary range of Sanders supporters that she keeps meeting -- including some life-long Republicans who were at her luncheon and said they intended to caucus for Sanders on Saturday and why. Again and again, people said that Sanders was saying what they know already to be true, and want to believe can redirect the country.

Doddy had personal reasons for being miffed at Hillary Clinton -- what you would never hear on national television or the Internet. As a doctor who supports a single-payer health care system, she said Clinton’s ill-fated health care task force under her husband’s presidency showed the worst management style imaginable and made it impossible to have a national health care discussion for a generation, until Obamacare passed.

“She did such a horrible job with Hillarycare,” she said. “It was behind closed doors. It took 20 years to deal with it again. I hold her personally responsible for that. That is her management style,” she said, and raised another personal issue. “This is my pickiness. I’m 56. Don’t talk to me about girl power. And don’t send me 100 emails a week asking for a dollar. How is she speaking to me?”

But Doddy’s comparison of what the national political press calls Sanders growing momentum here -- to what the Obama campaign was doing when they won more delegates than Clinton in 2008 -- was truly intriguing. In her living room, the stars weren’t visiting celebrities who had just flown in and were there -- such as Susan Sarandon and Gaby Hoffman -- but truly talented organizers like Electra Skrzydlewski, an outreach deputy for the campaign who wore a black tee-shirt with an image taken from the stage at a Sanders rally and said, “Street by Street, Block by Block.”

“We are so gratified for everything that you are doing,” she told perhaps 75 people packed into a large living room who were a mix of organizers, precinct captains or had signed up with the state’s Democratic Party to run some of the caucuses on Saturday. “If you haven’t activated your power in this revolution, visit the campaign field offices near you… Become our eyes and ears on caucus day!”

This was anything but a last-minute, disorganized get-out-the-vote meeting that can come at the end of a long and hard campaign. It was brisk, efficient and even covered nuts-and-bolts of what could go wrong on Saturday, where the state Democratic Party has set up voting centers where the front doors are likely to be bottlenecks. That’s because 10 precincts will be meeting in one location, and everybody, including people who want to register as Democrats that day and participate, will be checked in at one front desk. But every question raised -- and there weren’t that many -- got a quick and knowledgeable response.

Skrzydlewski, who also is African-American, said many of the people in this room had gotten together of their own accord before the campaign discovered them. “A good number of the people in this room sat around kitchen tables for months,” she said. “We talked about how we're going to build the strategy to do this. The power of grassroots like that cannot be underestimated.”  

And those Republicans who are going to caucus for Sanders?

“My parents are lifelong Republicans who are going to caucus for Sanders,” she said.

But so was 71-year-old Richard Arellamo, a Mexican native who became a U.S. citizen 20 years ago and has an extensive career in hotel administration and selling computers and telecom products. He speaks five languages, has advanced degrees from top schools in the states and Mexico, and has been a lifelong Republican until the current crop of candidates came alone, who he said are insane.

“We need a socialist in the government to balance the equation, otherwise we will be so profoundly screwed up,” he said. “And I am convinced that the United States will never be socialist. The industries will never allow it. The military will never allow it. But what he’s going to do with the banks is absolutely indispensable. It makes sense. It is macroeconomic thinking, not microeconomics like that way people handle their own finances.”

“When Bernie Sanders talks about taxing the banks and Wall Street, with that money would can definitely pay for the schooling of all the students in the U.S. and start the rebuilding of America’s infrastructure,” Arellamo continued.    

But how can a lifelong Republican be so confident and enthusiastic about Sanders, he was asked. Do you really consider yourself a Republican? “Yes, I do,” he replied. “But, as a lot of people, I position myself in the context of what is going on right now. We are trying to elect a president that will deal with all of the problems that the nation has. I am impressed with a candidate who has the big problems in his mind and how to solve them, and not the same old smaller stuff.”   

When talking earlier to Doddy, the hostess of the luncheon for Sanders campaign organizers and activists, it was jarring to hear her say that many Nevadans who would not vote for Obama in 2008 because of his mixed race heritage were easily sold on Sanders—especially older whites. Most of the national press surrounding Nevada speculates about who will win the state’s sizeable Latino vote. Nobody talks about white voters.     

Doddy said Sanders, of course, has reached out to communities of color. Did it matter that he came from an almost all-white state? “He chose to live in Vermont,” she replied. “He’s from Brooklyn. He grew up in the real world. He’s been very much of the people.”

But the larger point by this organizer who was part of Obama’s winning 2008 campaign here was that Sanders was bringing more people along than was being recognized in the national press.

“Bernie has tried to cultivate minority support,” she said. “But his programs speak to that community. But Bernie can get old white guys to vote for him. And that is so important to do. He resonates with so many more people than Obama.”

Thousands In The Streets

Another side of Las Vegas is gritty, hard-fought and determined. It’s the daily life of the city’s large working-class population that caters to the tourists visiting the famed Las Vegas strip, where the casinos and glittery lights and endless partying churns on and on. And it’s here where more than 1,000 workers from the Culinary Union Local 226 and others grabbed picket signs and bullhorns at 5 PM on Thursday to lambast Sunrise Hospital, where half of their 57,000 members get health care under an insurance plan from the Tennessee-based Hospital Corporation of America.

“Sixty-four million!” “Sunrise sucks.” “Check your bill.”

These were the chants led by union organizers in red tee-shirts saying the same thing. The protest was targeting HCA’s tactics in renegotiating its contract with one of the most powerful unions in Nevada—the one with the most Latino members. There was far more Spanish spoken in the picket line than English, and regular members showed tremendous discipline—not talking to the press, but sending reporters along to a handful of poised union leaders.

As the protest began, spokeswoman Bethany Khan got two calls from the Secret Service saying that Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton would be stopping by. Police motorcycles with flashing red and blue lights soon arrived, stopped traffic, and then the black SUVs showed up. The candidates got out, made a few remarks that most people didn’t hear, shook some hands and drove off.

“Both candidates came tonight,” Khan said. “She was here and walked the picket line. And he came maybe 15 minutes later.”

Khan said Clinton wished the protesters well, saying “I hope this helps.” Sanders “said thank you for fighting for affordable health care.” One protester said he also said healthcare was a right and not a privilege. The union has not endorsed a candidate in the caucuses.

Khan, ever the poised spokeswoman, said, “We welcome Sen. Sanders and Secretary Clinton to the streets of Las Vegas where workers are fighting for justice. We’re pleased to have their support today as workers protest.”

But no, she wouldn’t let reporters talk to those in line about whether they might be caucusing on Saturday and where workers’ sympathies lie with the candidates. Some other union staffers said the members were split, but wouldn’t make any guess. Khan said the union focuses a great deal on voter registration and said that historically 60 percent will vote in presidential years. But that’s later in the fall, not necessarily participating in the caucuses.

Just as the presidential campaign will move from Nevada after the state’s caucuses, the Culinary Workers’ fight with HCA over their health insurance costs will move on to the negotiating table early next week. There, a multi-year contract is at stake. The stakes in Saturday’s caucuses are also very high, but there was no clear indication of who this union’s members were likely to back.

Twice walking the picket line of more than 1,000 people only revealed a half-dozen people wearing campaign t-shirts—for Sanders. That’s quite a testament to union power, where a rank and file follow the instructions of their bosses to keep those political preferences to themselves.  

Hillary Clinton’s Nevada Team

A slightly bigger crowd of supporters filled the back parking lot of the Laborers International Union hall in the city’s northeast corner, where they saw their candidate, Hillary Clinton, on the big video screen broadcasting live from a nationally televised town hall. These heavy construction workers in orange t-shirts, Nevada precinct captains in blue campaign shirts, and family member were waiting for Clinton’s final event of the day -- a rally for supporters before caucus. They held up signs saying “pipelines = good jobs” and “Feel the Power.”

They cheered when Clinton told the town hall audience that she was first to call out Donald Trump for his anti-immigrant slurs. They cheered again when she said she “takes a back seat to nobody… so Wall Street never trashes Main Street again.”  

As they waited and the crowd’s energy waned, a Latino band took to the stage and played fast upbeat songs. That was a good time to talk to people in line at a taco truck about why they were supporting her and not Sanders.

“I like her because of Social Security,” said Jacinto Blanco, 63, a retired construction worker and former union member who said he worked on projects from building bridges to repairing the Hoover Dam. “That’s one of the reasons, and another for me, for helping dreamers. I know what she has done before… I am not a citizen, but my kids are. They are old enough to vote. That makes a difference with the immigrants. With me, they are three votes.”

When asked about Sanders, he replied, “Bernie Sanders? Yeah, I heard about him. He’s kind of socialist. He wants to share with everybody. What about people who don’t work? They are going to get benefits. It’s really because of his socialist ideas. Otherwise, I like him, but he’s too old too.”

It’s amazing to just listen to comments like these, because Clinton has been slow to commit to not cutting Social Security as a 2016 candidate -- which this fellow obviously didn’t know. But his tone was very typical of other Clinton supporters; it was pragmatic, measured and somewhat conservative.

Then there was Raynisha Wagner, 27, who had never seen Clinton in person before, and above all, wanted a women to be president.

“There needs to be a female president. She has my vote no matter what,” she said, then explaining. “There has never been one. And I feel she can give a lot to us. She is into giving females the same pay as men. We need a female president. It will change the world a little bit. Women know more than men.”

When asked about Sanders, she replied, “Bernie is good, but I like Hillary better. And her husband is another reason, too. Her husband did a lot for us, and she can do more than what her husband did… That’s as real as it gets for me.”

Standing on the sidelines and smoking a cigarette was Matthew Archuleta, 56, a bricklayer wearing a a blue Nevada precinct captain shirt. He said he was a lifelong Democrat who joined the campaign in November and has spent hours every day calling neighbors, knocking on doors, and cajoling people to commit to caucusing on Saturday.

“Why Hillary? For the experience,” he said. “And I trust her to make good decisions for us. I really do. Bernie says a lot of great things, but she has the experience.” He added that his mother, who passed away, always wanted to see a black man and a woman as president, and he felt a familial duty to work for Clinton.       

When asked what he expected on Saturday, he was unusually candid. “The Latino vote. They say it can swing an election, but that’s if they show up,” he said, referring to the many voting drives to register eligible residents. Then he said something surprising, which tracks what many recent polls are suggesting—even though Nevada polls are notoriously unreliable because the state has a highly transient population and Election Day voter registration.  

“I do think Bernie’s ahead,” he said, “because I think he will have a higher turnout. And he’s got people like my wife -- which pisses me off -- who says a woman shouldn’t be president. I hear a lot of that. I really do. Bernie knows exactly what to say. He’s filling that role right now at this time.”

When attending campaign events, it’s easy to mistake the microcosm for the macro trends. But a few minutes after talking to this precinct captain who lives nearby, a Clinton campaign worker came over and asked if I was a reporter -- because I was going over my notes. He said that the campaign wanted to keep reporters in a media zone and not have them talking to people in the crowd.

Make what you will of that strange exchange, but the overall vibe at Clinton’s rally was not exuberant but wanting. Perhaps her team knows what that precinct captain is finding; that Democrats in a state that was supposed to be a firewall to block anyone from challenging her nomination has thrown its support elsewhere.

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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