Election 2004

The Silver State for Kerry?

Early voting is underway in Nevada, and Kerry is ahead by 7,000 votes. But there's a lot more at play in the Silver State.
It is election crunch time as the end game shifts into high gear, and the presidential race is too close to call in a number of states – that is, if one trusts the polls.

And as election day closes in, there is a separate question: with the predicted chaos and glitches, will we know who has won on election night, or will we have an ongoing donnybrook long after Nov. 2?

A very close race is certainly the case in Nevada, where the tension is already rising as early vote totals are being tallied. While current polls, particularly the Zogby tracking poll, have Bush winning Nevada by a few points, the early voting returns, already in record numbers, suggest something else.

At this point virtually every state faces some potential for confusion over voting procedures, mechanical glitches or law suits and Nevada is no exception. Interestingly, Nevada is the only state that has paper trails attached to its electronic machines, but that also could breed confusion because voters cannot take the paper with them, like a receipt, since as the theory goes, having proof of how you voted might facilitate vote buying.

In Nevada, the focus of voting is Clark County, which contains Las Vegas, and is the area where most of the state's inhabitants reside. It is possible for a candidate to win Nevada just by carrying a large majority in Clark County while losing in every other county. That scenario almost worked for Gore in 2000, when the only county he won was Clark, and lost by a small margin.

It could work this time around. According to the Ralston Report as of Tuesday, 183,252 Clark County voters had already gone to the polls – a record 24,042 on Tuesday alone. Add 34,744 absentee ballots delivered to election offices, and the total is 217,996. That means about a quarter of southern Nevada's registered voters have already cast ballots – that adds up to a lead for Kerry's of 7,042 for the early vote, and a slim lead in absentee ballots of 143. Kerry's total lead in Clark County is 7,185, adding up to a three percent advantage over Bush so far. Since most analysts see more Republicans voting early than Dems, the early lead for Kerry is seen as a good omen for the Kerry camp.

Behind the vote totals there is a much larger Nevada story. For many, Las Vegas is off the hook. It's the coolest, most-hyped destination in the continental United States. Suddenly more people are traveling to Las Vegas and spending more money there than most thought possible.

Much of the credit for its striking economic boom is the hotel and gambling industry's sexification of Las Vegas. A lot of the new Vegas is a far cry from the family fare and amusement rides of old. These days, the city is aimed at liberating the libido. And the high roller owners of Vegas are raking it in. A record $32.8 billion was spent in Vegas in 2003. And apparently the effort to stimulate the collective horniness knows no bounds, as many new high-priced, sex-themed attractions are in the works, and $6.2 billion in new construction is underway.

As the intense, claustrophobic struggle for the presidency slogs on, what Las Vegas' "irrational exuberance" means politically is still up in the air. Ultimately, will the financial success of liberating Vegas from its inhibitions be a plus for the more tolerant Democrats in a country where the Republicans often stand for sexual abstinence and repression? Or will a state where ironically straight-laced Mormons exercise enormous power stay in the Republican column, as it did in 2000 when Bush scored a three-point victory over Gore with 21,500 votes? Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the AFL-CIO and now the CEO of the well-funded America Coming Together still thinks Nevada's five electoral votes will go for the Democrats this year. "We feel that Nevada is a good bet for a 'take away state,'" he said. And with number crunchers having various scenarios for a tie in the Electoral College, Nevada's five electoral votes are very, very important – especially if Kerry holds all the states that Gore won in 2000.

A Boom Town with Party Bosses

Nevada, overwhelmingly dominated by Las Vegas, is a tough state to figure; anomalies abound. Despite widespread poverty throughout the Southwest, the Las Vegas region is arguably the most vibrant in the country at this moment. It is hands down the fastest-growing city in the U.S. with more construction underway than any other city. One direct result of the growth is low unemployment with some workers in the fast food industry making over $9 an hour, almost twice the country's minimum wage.

Nevada has a lot of economic contradictions. It is a "right-to-work" state (meaning that workers can opt out of joining unions), but it also has a strong union presence. The 50,000-strong Culinary Workers Union, part of the national Hotel and Restaurant Workers (HERE) are legendary, both in their service to members and their grassroots clout in local politics in Las Vegas and across the state.

At the same time, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), under the new leadership of Executive Director Jane McAlevey, is beginning to flex its political muscle in Vegas, particularly after Local 1107 won a big victory on behalf of nurses and other hospital workers in recent contract negotiations and showed grassroots power in recent political primaries. Meanwhile, the national SEIU, which by some accounts is investing more than $60 million in the effort to defeat Bush, has prioritized Nevada meaning that some of the hundreds of SEIU members who have volunteered to go to work in swing states (while still being paid by the union – SEIU calls them "heroes") are in Nevada.

In Las Vegas, the corporate casinos and developers rule, and their cash buys everything, and that includes the politicians. It's something the local Republicans and Democrats have in common. With so much money in play, payoffs seem to be prevalent in Nevada. Currently no less than six current and former elected officials are under investigation or indictment, including officials of both parties.

The parties in Nevada have more in common than corruption. Both senators – Democrat Minority Whip Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign – are Mormons. Reid exercises lots of influence – his son Rory Reid ran for and now serves on the Clark County Commission, and no wonder. Most agree that the Commission is the most powerful body in the state, overseeing the Nevada strip, which is in the unincorporated portion of the city, while colorful mayor Oscar B. Goodman, a strong proponent of selling the sexier side of Las Vegas, rules a very small fiefdom north of the strip. The Clark County manager, Thom Reilly, and the head of the Clark County airport, Randall W. Walker are two of the other key power brokers in the state.

A Mountainful of Politics

A final point of affinity between the Republicans and Democrats in Nevada is that both are against the disposal of all the nation's nuclear waste in Yucca mountain. The public is against it as well; a recent poll had 54% of Nevadans against Yucca, with 39% supporting it if the state received "federal benefits" for storing it. Yucca figures to be the biggest local issue for Nevadans in the presidential race, and Bush and Kerry are divided on it. Bush has generally supported bringing all the nuclear waste to Yucca, while John Kerry has voted six times in the Senate against bills relating to the Yucca plan. The Kerry campaign sees this as a big wedge issue for the Nevada voters. Katie Selenski, director of the New Voters Project's Nevada office says "issues like the storage of nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain are motivating young people to reach out to their friends and neighbors to vote in record numbers."

Kerry made a pledge in May of this year that, "there's going to be no nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain" if he were elected. Kerry reaffirmed his pledge on Aug. 10 at an evening rally before more than 12,000 people at the Thomas & Mack center in Vegas, and according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Kerry said that the Bush administration "has pursued a relentless, purposeful policy to push the science no matter what the science says."

A Soft Strategy for the Left

The closeness of the races in the Southwest has garnered the attention of national groups like America Coming Together and the New Voters Project. It is unclear how much impact the outside groups will have on Nevada. One possible critique is that the groups trying to deliver Nevada for the Democrats are putting too many of their resources in Clark County.

At first glance, that strategy would seem to make sense. In the 2000 presidential elections, southern Nevada – where 80 percent of the state's electorate resides – accounted for 63 percent of the votes cast in the presidential race. Al Gore carried only Clark County (Las Vegas), while Bush won 16 of the 17 counties in the southern part of the state, and Bush won the state. It is clear that a campaign that focuses only on Democratic base turnout in Clark County is not enough to carry the whole state. America Coming Together claims to have a statewide focus in Nevada, but perhaps too many resources are being used in Las Vegas.

America Coming Together (ACT), operating full blast in a number of swing states, was late-forming in Nevada. One insider's sense of ACT in Nevada is that it has been slow to get rolling and has not been making much of an impact. Some suggest that the ACT Nevada leadership is from out of state and lacks roots or experience in the desert.

Ty Weinert, political director of SEIU local 1107 in Las Vegas, says that despite there being 20 organizations ranging from 527's (these are organizations permitted to conduct political activity – running ads, registering voters, etc. – but aren't allowed to coordinate their work with specific candidates) labor organizations (Culinary/UNITE HERE and SEIU at the forefront), and other non-partisan groups active in the state, "a less Clark County-centric strategy is needed for those who would like to see Kerry/Edwards win Nevada," which Bush won by a mere 21,500 votes out 600,000.

Cooking Up Politics, Latino Style

A big factor in Nevada politics is the role of the Culinary Workers Union, which has membership that is roughly 45% Latino. Part of the union's success is in creating the Immigrant Worker's Citizen Project – aimed at assisting members with naturalization, and registering them as new voters. Another group, Voices for Working Families, has aimed to register 15,000 new Hispanic voters, according to Las Vegas City Life. Also New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's non-partisan Hispanic-focused Moving America Forward (MAF) has registered more than 9,000 Hispanic voters in Clark County since June. Twenty-two percent of Clark County is Latino, according to the 2000 census.

The Las Vegas Culinary union success story is the tale of how John Wilhelm, sent to Las Vegas years ago to prove his mettle, helped to produce one of the biggest union organizing success stories in recent years which eventually led to his taking over as head of the national Hotel and Restaurant Workers.

The ambitious Wilhelm, who is often discussed as a possible successor to AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, recently engineered the groundbreaking merger of HERE with UNITE, the textile workers' union. Wilhelm will be co-president with Bruce Raynor, the head of UNITE. The shorthand explanation of the merger is that UNITE, by dint of savvy investments many years ago, is a wealthy union with a rapidly shrinking worker base. In contrast, HERE has a huge gambling and restaurant industry to pursue across the country, but lacks the resources to do it – as some would say, "a match made in heaven." Suddenly there were big stakes for for HERE, particularly in Atlantic City where some of the casinos have been struck by HERE workers, and key leaders have been scattered around the country. Nevertheless, it has been very important for HERE to refocus its attention on Nevada, and make sure its vaunted political operation at Culinary Workers is in high gear this last week if Kerry is to win the state.

So there you have it: Las Vegas is a wild mix of sex, gambling, enormous growth, Mormons, political corruption, nuclear waste, and grassroots voter registration in the barrios by a powerful local union. What does all of this add up to? Check in with the Las Vegas oddsmakers. Chances are, the prospects are even money.
Don Hazen is the Executive Editor of AlterNet.
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