Nevada politicians welcome national spotlight
LAS VEGAS (AP) – Nevada politicos celebrated Saturday as they watched their state, known for high rollers and B-list entertainers, become an A-list player on the presidential campaign trail.
“Our world is about to change,” said Nevada’s Democratic candidate for governor Dina Titus, shortly after Democrats meeting in Chicago approved a 2008 presidential nomination schedule that puts the state in the No. 2 spot on the calendar and guarantees its voters a front seat for the prescreening of presidential wannabes.
“They’re already starting to call me,” Titus, a state senator, said. “I think this will be great for Western issues and for the state.”
The committee agreed to sandwich a Jan. 19 Nevada caucus between the Jan. 14 Iowa caucus and a Jan. 22 New Hampshire primary. It also added a Jan. 29 primary in South Carolina. The shake-up was backed by Democratic leaders who want to add more Hispanic and black voters to the voter pool picking the party nominee, and give Democrats an early foothold in the West, a region increasingly seen as a key to winning the general election.
The shift also will create a group of Nevada powerbrokers whose endorsements will be courted with campaign contributions and face time.
Sen. Minority Leader Harry Reid is expected to be chief among them, though Reid spokesman Jon Summers said the Nevada senator has promised not to play early favorites.
“Every candidate that comes to Nevada will come to the state on equal footing,” Summers said.
Another winner from Saturday’s decision was the state’s Hispanic community, which makes up about 23 percent of the population. One in seven voters in Clark County, home to two-thirds of state’s registered voters, is Hispanic, according to county estimates.
“Hispanics will play a major role in deciding who wins this caucus,” said Andres Ramirez, a Las Vegas political consultant and community organizer.
Ramirez predicted the switch would force candidates to take stronger positions on energy, water, economic development, education and – if Congress doesn’t act on proposed reforms soon – immigration.
But presidential hopefuls also will have to brush up on some Nevada issues.
“When we were in the spotlight in 2004 they got away with mostly (talking about) Yucca Mountain, and didn’t go much beyond that,” said Dennis Myers, news editor at the weekly Reno News and Review and a longtime political reporter.
In 2008, candidates will have to become well-versed in rural Nevada’s political dialogue – which has nothing to do with ethanol, he said.
“The rural here is a different rural than in Iowa or New Hampshire. It’s not agriculture, it’s mining,” Myers said. “The mining law of 1872 is an article of faith out there.”
Nevada’s political class has been sensitive to outsiders who’ve scoffed at the notion of caucusing in casinos, and shuddered at the thought of blackjack dealers and strippers picking the next nominee.
“We also have nurses and firefighters and casino workers, and they deserve to select the next president of the United States as much as anybody else does,” said North Las Vegas state Sen. Steven Horsford, who helped lobby for the change.
Myers noted the state parties have long held caucuses, officially called “precinct meetings.” The meetings have been held in saloons, but also in high schools. They’ve garnered the most attendees when hot issues, such as the Vietnam War, dominated the discussion. The presidential caucuses brought out about 9,000 Democrats in February 2004.
But this shouldn’t be confused with a “caucus tradition” on par with Iowa, experts said.
“Nothing is culturally ingrained in Nevada. The population growth is so rapid and the turnover so great that at any given time there are more new residents here than in any other state,” Myers said.
What the state lacks in institutional knowledge and party organization it makes up for in strong unions and the Reid network.
Reid and the Culinary Union, representing 60,000 cooks, maids, waitresses and bellmen at casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip, led the fight for the early contest.
Both saw their political stock rise with Saturday’s voice vote.
“This will be an enormous undertaking, but our state party is up to the challenge that comes along with this incredible opportunity,” Reid said in a statement. “We will make Democrats proud as the national political spotlight prepares to shine on our state. I look forward to welcoming all presidential candidates to Nevada.”