In the horizonless, low-slung neighborhoods on the northeast side of town — a place where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has a base of support — there are worries that former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, freshly unveiled in the top tier with his debut debate appearance Wednesday, could use his vast fortune to buy the election.
The dread among Democrats is unfolding here in full view of their political nemesis, President Trump, who trolled his would-be opponents this week by sleeping in splendor at the Las Vegas hotel that bears his name — just up the street from the stage where Democrats debated — and by scheduling a rally here for the afternoon before their caucuses. As if on cue, pigeons wearing miniature Make America Great Again hats have been fluttering around town, released from their coops, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal, by a shadowy Democratic-needling group that goes by the acronym P.U.T.I.N. — Pigeons, United to Interfere Now.
Trump has mocked the Democrats for their bumbling rollout at the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, when a glitchy vote-counting app snarled everything, including the results, the careers of some local politicos and the party’s reputation. Fearful of a repeat, Nevada dumped the app company, which also had been poised to handle the caucuses here. Still, there has been a lingering queasiness among Nevada caucus volunteers.
On Tuesday night, the last day of an early-voting period that has drawn large crowds, there was no sign outside the caucus site at the Chinatown Mall, a few steps from the Harbor Palace Seafood Restaurant, where Biden was speaking. But inside the mall, with less than an hour to go before voting closed, a long line snaked past vendors selling Chinese lucky cats with perpetual-motion paws and a foot-massage video on a continuous loop.
“I’m worried, very worried,” says Linda Luebeck, a Vegas lounge singer and Biden fan who had found herself a seat to rest on the sidewalk.
On this warm evening, Luebeck is making a little breeze by waving a paper fan bearing a picture of Biden.
“He reminds me of my dad,” she says with a hint of wistfulness in her voice to the woman sitting beside her. Dad, it turns out, suffered from cancer a few years back in his early 80s.
“I just hope he recovers,” Luebeck says.
She’s talking about the recovery of Biden now — not her dad. Dad’s already gone.
Luebeck does not find it ironic that she is wearing rose-colored glasses.
To her left, beneath a sign that says “Dim sum daily,” another Biden supporter is handicapping outcomes.
“If Bernie gets it we’re doomed,” says Theresa “Cheech” Yanni, who owns a business that sells aromatherapy rice bags and doggy bandannas.
She can’t imagine an avowed democratic socialist winning a national presidential election.
On the other hand, “if Bernie doesn’t get it we’re screwed,” she says, fretting that the Vermont senator’s supporters won’t vote for whomever defeats him.
Across town, voters queue up outside a union hall and dig each other deeper and deeper into a tangle of guidelines. A tall man in a baseball cap is certain that he can name just one candidate on his ballot — which is essentially a list of ranked preferences — and leave the second and third choices blank or uncommitted. A woman in a red union T-shirt thinks she can fill in the same candidate’s name on each line of her ballot.
“I’ve heard people say you can do that,” Shannon Bilbray, a Las Vegas consultant, says with a shrug. “But I don’t know if you can do that.”
In a strip mall, half an hour from the riot of casinos that defines Las Vegas for outsiders, the kids are chanting and stomping their feet. Call and response.
“We have nothing to lose but our chains!”
“We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
These teenagers and a few early 20-somethings — products of the Mexican and Central American diaspora whose families pray the Catholic rosary — have found a hero in a white-haired, Brooklyn-born Jew from Vermont who is older than some of their grandparents. They gather each afternoon — some of them children of deportees, others at risk of deportation themselves — to get their canvassing assignments in the offices of Make the Road, an immigrant political mobilization group. The group has endorsed Sanders, who has been atop the polls here in Nevada, a state with a large Latino population that is the first barometer of that key demographic.
Before they leave to knock on doors, they tell their stories. The teenage girl whose single mom cleaned houses to make ends met. The teenage boy who once lived in a house with no walls in Mexico, but whose parents named him Kevin Justin — an homage to the American boy-band stars Kevin Richardson and Justin Timberlake.
To them, Sanders represents a kind of idealized future — or at least the promise of something approaching it — with his advocacy of humane immigration policies, free health care via Medicare-for-all, free schooling.
They look with wariness at their television screens, fat with paid political ads. They’ve heard neighbors and some of their peers opening their minds to Bloomberg and his bottomless pockets.
“They keep saying Bloomberg is going to beat Trump to death with his money,” says Ulises Romero, an 18-year-old electrical trade school student whose family is from Mexico.
But as he walks through streets lined by humble houses, some with cars on blocks in the driveways and barred windows, he doesn’t have to do much to sell his candidate. Maria Beltran, an aproned woman who interrupts making a batch of tamales to answer the door, declares, “Yo soy puro Bernie,”— I’m pure Bernie.
Across the street they find another Sanders fan in Destiny Armendariz. She’s got $9,000 in student loans and can only keep up with the interest payments on that debt. Sanders, she hopes, could make it all disappear.
Such hopes worry establishment Democrats who fear Sanders is unelectable in a general election.
“I for one am increasingly concerned that if Democrats go ahead and nominate Senator Sanders, we will be looking at four more years of the crazy Trump train on steroids,” says Jim Manley, a Democratic political strategist who served as communications director for former senator Harry M. Reid, an unparalleled Nevada kingmaker. “Medicare-for-all is a political loser, as are several of his other grow-the-government ideas like the Green New Deal. Trump will have a field day with him, because no matter what some of his supporters say, we are not, and will never be, a socialist country.”
(Reid set the political world ablaze Thursday when he told The Washington Post that Sanders — or any other candidate — shouldn’t be handed the nomination if he finishes first, but falls short of the required number of delegates.)
And so, a conundrum, a nagging question, rises for Nevada Democrats, the same facing Democrats across the nation: Who am I?
“Donald Trump burned the playbook, and this year the Democrats buried the ashes. There’s no conventional wisdom anymore,” says Billy Vassiliadis, the legendary Las Vegas marketing guru whose firm developed the Las Vegas tourism slogan, “What happens here, stays here.”
Vassiliadis and his high-powered business friends are worried, he says, that Sanders not only can’t be elected, but will bust the U.S. economy with expensive government programs.
“The party is in the process of figuring out if it is the party of AOC [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 0f New York], or Nancy Pelosi [the House speaker from California] or Barack Obama. Is it the party of Pete Buttigieg [the former South Bend, Ind., mayor and top-tier presidential candidate]?” Vassiliadis says, over lunch at his sprawling offices at the foot of Red Rock Canyon. “I don’t think we know.”
To get to the Democratic debate here, you had to wind through the smoky windowless clatter of the Bally's casino, where you might forget whether it was night or day. At the top of one set of escalators, a giant black X touts the "Sexy, Topless Revues," which come in various forms, including burlesque and "Country Kick'n."
Burlesque holds itself out as a front-runner, having been voted best in the city three years in a row, we’re told.
The contest held down the hall was far less clear. The billionaire candidate on the Nevada caucus ballot (businessman Tom Steyer) was not on the debate stage; the billionaire who is not on the ballot (Bloomberg) was.
On the debate stage, the presence of Bloomberg, who is not participating in the early caucuses and primaries, was not welcome. The five other candidates greeted him in a manner reminiscent of children who don’t want to make room in the sandbox for the new kid who has arrived on the shiniest, fanciest bicycle they’ve ever seen.
Right from the beginning, Sanders blasted him on stop-and-frisk, the law-enforcement policy from Bloomberg’s time as mayor that has been criticized for targeting African Americans. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar accused Bloomberg of trying to bully her and the other two moderates onstage, Biden and Buttigieg, to drop out.
Buttigieg was fretful about Bloomberg and Sanders leaving them all in the dust: “Most Americans don’t see where they fit if they’ve got to choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.”
Bloomberg’s halting, widely panned performance did little to quell the interest of the media horde in the spin room after the debate. They welcome him to the sandbox, jamming seven-deep to listen to Howard Wolfson, a top Bloomberg adviser, do damage control.
While Wolfson went on, two women with a Biden campaign sign stood alone on the red carpet of the spin room.
“Are you the Biden spinner?” a lanky journo asks one of them after nearly an hour had passed.
“Ohhhh, no. We’re waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting.”
When Biden’s ever-polished spinmeisters finally arrives, the horde mostly wants to talk about Bloomberg and the rough treatment he got onstage.
Cedric L. Richmond, the Louisiana congressman and Biden spinner par excellence, pounced on that.
“I will say, ‘Welcome to the party.’ ”