Cue the showgirls: State gets a shot as a political high-roller | TahoeDailyTribune.com
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Cue the showgirls: State gets a shot as a political high-roller

Brendan Riley

CARSON CITY (AP) – Nevada! What better state for longshot dreams.

Maybe that’s what Democrats had in mind this past weekend when they recommended that a political caucus in the gambling mecca be squeezed into the early 2008 presidential nomination calendar.

If the Democratic National Committee, as expected, blesses the plan next month, the Nevada caucus would fall between the leadoff Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. That could give Nevada a major say in choosing the nominee looking to break the Republicans’ eight-year grip on the White House.



If approved, Nevadans of Democrat and Republican ilk will be able to get responses to important issues such as immigration, education and foreign policy, said Cindy Trigg, co-chair of the Douglas County Democrat Central Committee.

“They’re going to have to come and talk to small groups of people,” Trigg said. “You’ll get some real answers and you’ll get to know the candidates rather than go through the bs you see on TV. I’m excited.”



Trigg envisioned one drawback.

“The only downside is people will be aggravated for a longer period of time by (political) phone calls,” she said.

Intense lobbying by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., helped his state secure the coveted spot, but it was more than slot machines, sequined showgirls, Celine Dion and Hoover Dam that made Nevada attractive to national Democrats. Organized labor’s strong presence, a growing Hispanic population, Nevada’s battleground status and campaign dollars enhanced its appeal.

“We’re the entertainment capital of the world, so people do look at us differently,” said Democratic state Sen. Maggie Carlton, who works as a coffee-shop waitress at the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip when the legislature is not in session.

“But when they see all the voting blocs they’ll realize we’re not just a tourist destination,” said Carlton, a 13-year casino employee and a shop steward in the 60,000-member culinary union.

Intent on adding diversity to the early voting, Democrats chose Nevada, a state that is nearly 23 percent Hispanic, 7.5 percent black, 5.5 percent Asian and 1.4 percent American Indian, according to the latest Census figures. That compares to Iowa and New Hampshire, which are both about 95 percent white.

Although Hispanics comprise nearly a quarter of Nevada’s population, they were just 10 percent of the voters in 2004, according to exit polls. Their preference: Democratic Sen. John Kerry over President Bush, 60 percent to 39 percent.

Andres Ramirez, a Democratic consultant and Hispanic activist from Las Vegas, said the caucus will help the party’s efforts to reach all minority groups while an early focus on Western issues will appeal to more than Democrats.

“Water and energy aren’t just Democrats’ issues,” Ramirez said. “They affect everybody in our state and around the West.”

Bush won the state in 2004 as he did in 2000, but the margin was close – 2.5 percentage points – enhancing Nevada’s reputation as a burgeoning battleground state. Voter registration between the two parties is about even, with Republicans up by less than 1 percent.

Early contests can build party strength, and in the case of Nevada and other battleground Western states, possibly change the results in the Democrats’ favor in 2008.

“We have to figure out how to win in more innovative and creative and out-of-the-box ways, and Western state wins are critical to the future of the Democratic Party,” said state Sen. Steven Horsford, a Democratic Party national committeeman who worked with Reid to get the early caucus.

Although Nevada is a right-to-work state, meaning employees don’t have to join unions, organized labor made recruiting in Las Vegas a do-or-die fight in the 1990s, signing up hotel and casino service workers.

It paid off with 145,000 union members, some 13.8 percent of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nevada ranks among the Western states with the highest percentages of union membership.

In 2004, union households chose Kerry over Bush, 56-42 percent, and favored Al Gore over Bush, 51-43 percent, in 2000, according to exit polls.

Nevadans, who gave $15.4 million in contributions during the 2004 election cycle, are political high rollers, donating at a rate of $7 per capita. That puts them in the same ranks as Californians, higher than Texans, but not quite in the range of New Yorkers. Like Texans, more than 60 percent of Nevadans contributed to Republicans.

As a total, however, the state ranked 30th in the nation, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Las Vegas accounted for $12.3 million in contributions, placing it 34th among metropolitan areas.

Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist and a member of the Democrats’ rules and bylaws committee that selected Nevada, said the early caucus is new territory for the state.

“Nevada can pay for their caucuses, unlike Iowa which must raise money from the candidates,” Brazile said. “So I hope this will alter some of the dynamics, but the candidates will have to work closely with labor, local activists and especially in the rural areas to get their message out.”

In 2004, the presidential caucus in Las Vegas was held on a high school football field. In 2008, Democrats could hold caucuses at the casinos. That image is a sharp contrast from gatherings in Des Moines, Iowa, or Portsmouth, N.H., where party activists have been known to spend weeks studying candidates’ issues papers.

From cities that sleep to one that never does – Las Vegas in Clark County, home to two-thirds of Nevada’s voters.

“There’s no question that Nevada is a very intriguing state, especially to Easterners,” said Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime Democratic strategist. “But that’s a positive, not a negative. We get added value from that national intrigue.”

The prospect of a media horde for the caucus will be a sober reminder to any campaign: Don’t count on “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”

Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Will Lester in Washington, and Tahoe Daily Tribune writer William Ferchland contributed to this report.


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