By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 18, 2008
LAS VEGAS, Jan. 17 -- A federal judge on Thursday refused to shut down nine casino-based sites for Saturday's caucuses, delivering a victory to Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in what has become an increasingly bitter Democratic contest here.
U.S. District Judge James C. Mahan rejected the argument that conducting some of the caucuses in casinos would give Obama an unfair advantage because he has been endorsed by the state culinary workers union, which employs thousands of casino workers. Siding with lawyers for the Democratic National Committee, he said federal law "recognizes the parties have the right to determine how to apportion delegates."
The DNC, working with Nevada Democratic officials, approved the at-large precincts last summer to accommodate people who will be working when the hour-long caucuses are held at noon on Saturday. Any shift worker employed within a 2.5-mile radius of the Strip is allowed to participate, but those sites are expected to be dominated by culinary workers, many of whom are Latino. State party officials estimate that casino caucusgoers could account for as much as 10 percent of the total turnout.
The lawsuit, brought by a state teachers' union that has endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), led to a nasty dispute between her campaign and Obama's, escalating tensions just days after the two tried to defuse a racially tinged dispute.
The Clinton campaign has denied playing any formal role in the suit but has been critical of the casino caucuses.
The group Unite Here, which represents 440,000 textile and hotel workers and is the parent union of the culinary workers' organization, began running a Spanish-language radio spot in which, according to a translation provided by the Clinton campaign, a narrator says: "Hillary Clinton does not respect our people. Hillary Clinton supporters want to prevent people from voting in their workplace on Saturday. This is unforgivable. Hillary Clinton is shameless."
The ad goes on tout Obama's candidacy and his defense of workers' rights.
Chris Bohner, a representative of the culinary workers union, said the union's leadership was deeply offended by the lawsuit.
"We can't think of a more negative and disgraceful political tactic than publicly supporting a lawsuit that would disenfranchise thousands of workers, bellhops, dishwashers, housekeepers, recent immigrants who've just become American citizens," Bohner said. "The ad intends to point out the fact that the Clinton campaign is supporting this lawsuit, which is entirely appropriate, and we completely stand by the ad. We've waited for the Clinton campaign to denounce the lawsuit, and they didn't."
Clinton aides said Obama, who had criticized ads from outside groups affiliated with former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) when they ran in the Iowa caucuses, has been "strangely silent now that a labor union is attacking the Clinton campaign.
"In Iowa, Senator Obama and his campaign went out of his way to attack labor unions for independently promoting other candidates," said Phil Singer, a Clinton campaign spokesman. "But in Nevada, he's looking the other way as they falsely attack his opponents."
Bill Burton, Obama's campaign spokesman, said in an e-mail that the Clinton objections "take some chutzpah."
"The fact is their camp clearly would like to have worker's voices silenced and they need to live with that unfortunate position," Burton wrote.
Obama and Clinton also sparred on Thursday over the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site, a huge concern for voters here. Clinton hit both Obama and Edwards with a radio ad questioning the strength of their opposition to the site.
The ad noted that Edwards had previously supported the Nevada repository, while Obama had raised campaign funds from officials in the nuclear industry. The Obama campaign responded with statements and a hastily arranged conference call to underscore his consistent opposition to the Yucca site.
Edwards, fighting for his first win of the primary season, challenged remarks that Obama made about former president Ronald Reagan in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal. Obama, who has aggressively courted Republicans and independents, told the newspaper: "I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it."
In response, Edwards said that Reagan "did extraordinary damage to the middle class and working people, created a tax structure that favored the very wealthiest Americans and caused the middle class and working people to struggle every single day."
A poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, scheduled to be released today, is expected to show Clinton with a nine-point lead in the state, although turnout is considered such a wild card that not one of the campaigns is willing to predict the outcome. Republicans will also caucus Saturday, although only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is making an aggressive play in the state.
The 2004 Nevada Democratic caucuses attracted fewer than 10,000 participants and took place after the nomination of John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was virtually a done deal. This time, with its prominent early spot on the campaign calendar, the number could climb to 75,000, according to some of the campaigns.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk in Washington contributed to this report.