By Paul Kane and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 13, 2008
LAS VEGAS -- Next Saturday, gamblers at the Bellagio, the opulent Las Vegas casino immortalized in the George Clooney blockbuster "Ocean's Eleven," will be treated to an unusual sight.
Just before noon, the hotel's dishwashers, cocktail waitresses, porters and bellhops will go on break and gather in a 30,000-square-foot ballroom to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama or maybe John Edwards to be the Democratic nominee for president.
A similar scene will play out in eight other casinos on or near Las Vegas's Strip as Democrats caucus in Nevada, the next stop in the party's fiercely competitive presidential race. There will be more than 1,700 caucus precincts across Nevada, but estimates are that the votes cast in the casinos could be more than 10 percent of the statewide total. Many of them will be cast by Latinos, the first time in the 2008 presidential race when that ethnic group will play a significant role.
Democratic officials, working with national party leaders, came up with the idea of caucusing in the casinos for the first time to increase participation in a town that doesn't know the meaning of a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday workweek.
Under rules set by the Nevada Democratic Party, only casinos that have been organized by the most powerful labor group in Las Vegas, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, were selected as caucus sites.
The unusual venue has set the scene for a different confrontation between Obama and Clinton, the two front-runners, than occurred in Iowa or New Hampshire.
In New Hampshire, Clinton fared best among working-class and middle-class voters, while Obama did better with higher-income voters and in college towns -- a demographic that Clinton at one point mocked as people who "don't need a president."
But in Las Vegas, Clinton, a senator from New York, is supported by many hotel and casino executives, while Obama has the backing of two key unions -- the Nevada chapter of the Service Employees International Union and the culinary workers, which announced its endorsement Wednesday after fierce lobbying from all three Democrats.
"Not only am I among friends, I am also among the best of the labor movement in this country," Obama, a senator from Illinois, said in a speech Friday night at the union's hall on the north end of town.
The same day, another union -- the Nevada State Education Association -- contended that Obama and the culinary workers are altogether too friendly, and asked a federal court to shut down the casino caucus sites because, the association said, they give preferential treatment to culinary union members.
State Democratic officials, who had been expecting the suit, said they had worked with each presidential campaign since last spring to craft the process, including the casino precincts, to drum up the largest turnout possible.
"The time for comment or complaint has passed," the state party said in a statement after the suit was filed by the teachers' union and several individuals. The union, which has not endorsed a candidate, has some leaders who individually support Clinton. It is using a law firm with at least one prominent lawyer who backs Clinton. (Another teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers, has endorsed Clinton and is airing radio ads in Nevada on her behalf.)
Culinary union officials dismiss the complaints as sour grapes from Clinton allies. "It's strange it's coming after our endorsement," D. Taylor, the secretary-treasurer, said of the suit.
Minutes from the meeting last March when the state Democratic committee approved the caucus process show that several of the parties to the suit were there and approved of the process.
Clinton raised questions about the caucus process when she campaigned here Thursday. Repeating an argument she made after she lost the Iowa caucuses, she said caucuses provide only a "limited period of time" for participation, as opposed to day-long primaries. "People who work during that [caucus] time, they're disenfranchised," she told reporters.
State party officials counter that the sites in the casinos are specifically designed to meet the objections raised by Clinton and to allow more people to participate in the notoriously cumbersome caucus process.
The casino caucuses are open to any shift worker, including cab drivers and employees at nonunion casinos, who is on duty midday Saturday within a 2 1/2 mile radius of the nine sites. They must present identification showing that they work on or near Las Vegas Boulevard, the Strip's official name. However, the logistical reality of Las Vegas -- where mega-casinos can be half a mile long and the Strip is clogged with cabs hustling gamblers around town -- is that it will be very difficult for workers in nonunion casinos to take the time to walk or drive to the caucus sites.
Culinary officials have been prepping their union's members on caucus rules -- the doors close promptly at noon, and no late attendance, for example -- at meetings for months. Although their endorsement of Obama came late, they predict a near-united front for him, adhering to the labor movement's notion that division weakens a union's hand, whether in contract bargaining or politics.
"We believe that everyone has the ability to choose on their own, but normally we all try to stick together," said Jennifer Grote, 44, who works in food service at the Paris hotel-casino and will serve as a caucus captain on Election Day.
"You cannot divide union workers," added Leain Vashon, a bell captain at the Paris.
Any members who want to oppose their leadership and support another candidate will have to do so in front of their co-workers, wearing their casino-issued work clothes identifying themselves as members of the union.
At the Bellagio, executives estimate that between 4,000 and 5,000 employees will be working at caucus time. While they have been accommodating so far, executives say they cannot possibly let every worker take more than an hour-long break on Martin Luther King Day weekend, which will be extra busy.
"It's not perfect for us. We've got a business to maintain," said Gordon Absher, spokesman for MGM Mirage, which owns the Bellagio and three other casinos hosting caucuses.
Despite Obama's organizational advantage, Clinton has hardly given up in Nevada. After touring a Latino neighborhood that is home to many culinary workers Thursday, she returned here yesterday with former housing secretary Henry Cisneros in an effort to peel away Latino votes.
With Obama getting the support of the dishwashers and housekeepers, Clinton has the backing of such political players as former governor Bob Miller, former Las Vegas mayor Jan Jones, and Rory Reid, son of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (who has stayed neutral in the race).
Her campaign convened a conference call with casino executives Friday to attack Obama for his opposition to expanding casino gambling in Illinois while he was in the legislature there. They said it was hypocritical of him to accept the endorsement of the hotel and casino workers while having previously criticized the industry on which their livelihoods depend.
Taylor, the culinary union leader, pointed to Clinton's prominent backers as evidence that "the entire Democratic power structure" supports her, saying that makes Obama the underdog.
The competitive nature of the fight is exactly what Nevada Democrats hoped for when they used Harry Reid's clout to give the state an early place in the primary process. The state party bills the contest as "the test in the West" -- the first battle in the western half of the nation.
"Nevada is right in the eye of the storm, and it's wonderful," Harry Reid said in an interview last week.