1/14/08

Nevada Dems at one with unions

A key back-room battle in the contest to nominate a Democratic presidential candidate is raging far from the gaze of TV cameras in places like the workers' cafeteria of the Mirage Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.

There, activists like Amelia Moreland are trying to translate an endorsement from the state's most powerful union into support for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in the Nevada caucus next Saturday. Labor unions are especially crucial in the Democratic presidential race for their ability to organize and mobilize voters and get them to the polls.

Both Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton lobbied hard to for the endorsement of the Culinary Union which has 60,000 members. Obama won and his supporters now are trying to turn it into actual votes to balance Clinton's support from most of the rest of the state's Democratic establishment.

"We have to convince these people; it is tough," Moreland said, standing among chefs in white hats and cocktail waitresses in skimpy dresses. "If it is 20 percent (support) now, next Saturday it will be 80 percent."

Much of the politicking is in Spanish -- nearly half the union membership is Hispanic -- and name tags at the Mirage show birthplaces like Mexico, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

The vast underbelly beneath a Las Vegas hotel that houses cleaning, food and security operations is usually off limits to outsiders, but MGM Mirage managers agreed to allow a reporter to visit this weekend.

ECONOMIC MACHINE

Las Vegas has been a powerful economic machine, helping turn Nevada into one of the fastest-growing states in the country. Some 5,800 people are employed at the Mirage alone.

If large numbers of cleaning people, cooks, bartenders and others show up and support the union's choice, Obama could win because overall turnout is likely to be only in the tens of thousands in the state of 2.5 million.

This year is the first time Nevada is hosting a caucus. The process is complicated and party members stand for hours in groups to show support for favored candidates rather than voting in a secret ballot.

People usually vote near their homes, but the Democratic Party has agreed to set up caucus sites at nine Las Vegas Strip hotels so that those working can vote.

The plan has sparked a lawsuit from a teacher's union, which alleges it offers an unfair exception. Republicans are not offering casino hotel caucuses.

This weekend, Culinary Union president Geoconda Arguello Kline campaigned for Obama in the cafeteria. "Hillary Clinton is a good person, no?" Juan Candela asked in Spanish.

Kline agreed, but said Obama would be better for the union. Candela ultimately said he would back his union's choice.

Clinton's supporters are also making a major push. She has twice visited Las Vegas in recent days and is making big efforts in Hispanic neighborhoods. "We have built a ground organization unlike any other," said Ruben Kihuen, a legislator who has hosted Clinton in Hispanic areas.

A win in Nevada could boost a candidate leading up to the biggest day of primary voting, February 5, when California, New York and 20 other states make their choice.

(reuters.com)

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