The decision came after months of aggressive courting from candidates eager to win the support of the politically powerful group, whose endorsement has long been viewed as a major advantage in mobilizing Latinos and women, who make up most of its membership and have been a decisive political force in the state.
“We respect every single political candidate right now. We know they are great people,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said in a news conference two days before early caucusing begins in the state. “We will not endorse any political candidate. But we are committed to people voting, and we are going to work really hard to defeat Trump.”
The decision came a day after the union said it had been “viciously attacked” by supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for a flier the group issued this week that was critical of his proposed Medicare-for-all plan. The union, which insures about 130,000 workers and their families, has strongly opposed Medicare-for-all, arguing it would dismantle the organization’s health insurance program, widely considered one of the best in the state.
On Tuesday night, the union distributed a presidential scorecard to its members, outlining policy positions for six of the Democratic presidential hopefuls on issues such as health care and immigration. The flier said Sanders would “end Culinary healthcare,” which led to what union officials described as “hundreds” of harassing phone calls and Twitter attacks from alleged Sanders supporters, including personal threats to Argüello-Kline and other union leaders.
Those reports prompted other presidential hopefuls, including former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), to condemn the attacks and issue messages of support.
“No one should ever attack them for fighting and delivering for their members,” Buttigieg said in a Twitter message, in what appeared to be a critique aimed at Sanders’s supporters.
For his part, Sanders sought to be conciliatory. In a Twitter message and later a statement, he said he appreciated the work of the Culinary Union and, if elected president, would work closely with the group to fight for health care, pensions and fair wages. He also addressed the union’s claim of attacks from his supporters.
“Harassment of all forms is unacceptable to me, and we urge supporters of all campaigns not to engage in bullying or ugly personal attacks,” he said in a statement issued shortly after the union said it would not endorse. “We can certainly disagree on issues, but we must do it in a respectful manner.”
Thursday’s decision was perceived by some as a blow to Biden, who has looked to Nevada as a state that could boost his struggling nomination bid after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. Though it had pursued the union’s support, Biden’s campaign had echoed other Nevada political observers in recent days, telling supporters it believed the union would not issue a formal endorsement.
Still, Argüello-Kline praised Biden by name at Thursday’s news conference as a longtime ally to labor. “We know he’s been our friend,” she said.
This wasn’t the first time the union declined to formally endorse. In 2008, the group threw its backing behind Barack Obama, becoming the first major union in the country to endorse his bid for the Democratic nomination. But the endorsement angered many in the union’s rank and file, a number of whom ultimately supported Hillary Clinton — who won many of the caucus sites along the Las Vegas Strip, where casino workers turn out.
In 2016, the union was neutral in the race, but members overwhelmingly turned out for Clinton to help her clinch a narrow victory against Sanders, fueling rumors that the union had whipped up its support at the last minute, a claim it has denied. “There was no endorsement,” a Culinary Union official said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.
That has fueled speculation about what unofficial role the union might play in upcoming days as it mobilizes its members to caucus. On Thursday, Argüello-Kline said the union would continue to communicate to its members the policy positions of presidential candidates that did not align with union views, but she declined to mention Sanders specifically.
Some perceived the non-endorsement as an opening for candidates such as Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who are campaigning as the centrist alternatives to Biden. The former vice president is still looking to activate that old support. On Saturday, the first day of early voting, he is scheduled to campaign at the Culinary Training Academy, one of the union’s venues, in North Las Vegas.
One Democratic official close to the union said the decision not to endorse probably revealed that the membership is as fractured about which candidate is best positioned to beat Trump as other Democrats around the nation. “How do you even choose?” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the group’s deliberations. “In the end, they chose an issue that unites everybody: health care. And now we’ll see how that plays out.”
Bailey reported from Las Vegas.