Clark Latinos aid Clinton victory

State Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen (D-Las Vegas) explains the procedures to Democratic caucus-goers last Saturday at Halle Hewetson Elementary School in east Las Vegas.

State Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen (D-Las Vegas) explains the procedures to Democratic caucus-goers last Saturday at Halle Hewetson Elementary School in east Las Vegas.

Photo By Jay Jones

Would there have been a heated exchange of words had Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama met face-to-face on Saturday morning, just minutes before the caucuses and in the wake of an anti-Clinton radio commercial that had her seething? We’ll never know. Their paths didn’t cross, but they were oh-so-close.

It wasn’t fate that brought the two frontrunners within a few feet—quite literally spitting distance—of each other. It was an offer of air time on a Spanish-language TV station. Anyone who still has doubts about the political clout of Latinos in Las Vegas should banish them after what happened on Saturday at KINC-TV. At the 11th hour—late on Friday—both Clinton and Obama agreed to participate in a live broadcast at 9 o’clock the following morning.

Barack Obama was smiling—in fact, grinning from ear-to-ear—as he entered the studio. He was bound to know that the latest poll of likely caucus-goers put him five points ahead of Sen. Clinton.

On the set, Obama joked with anchorwoman Adriana Arevalo, who is eight months pregnant, that he knew first aid in case she went into labor during the interview. There were some pauses as Arevalo asked her questions, in Spanish, and an interpreter repeated the questions, in English, into Obama’s earpiece. There weren’t any hardballs or curveballs; this was, clearly, an opportunity for both candidates to make their pitches directly to Latino voters.

“People have been losing homes here in Nevada because of the home foreclosure crisis,” Obama began. “Especially in the Latino community and the African-American community … people [are] getting low-interest loans that suddenly turn into high-interest loans.”

Obama then launched into immigration reform, saying the issue is one he has “consistently worked on.” But Obama avoided specifics, instead pointing to the fact that he is the son of an immigrant father from Kenya who came to the United States to study and ended up marrying Barack’s American mom.

The interview lasted 16 minutes—an eternity in TV terms and an amazing concession from campaign officials, who normally grant such lengthy access only to the likes of Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer. As Barack Obama walked into the station manager’s office to tape another interview, Hillary Clinton walked in the front door.

Just a couple of yards, and one wall, separated the senator from New York from the senator from Illinois. Had they met, the exchange might have been very interesting, since Clinton was clearly furious about the pro-Obama commercial that had aired earlier in the week. “I’m very upset about it,” were the first words out of her mouth as the 10-and-a-half-minute interview began.

Clinton was referring to an ad paid for by the Culinary Workers Union and aired on Spanish-language radio stations in Southern Nevada. It attacked the failed legal effort to stop hotel workers—many of them Latino—from caucusing in “at-large” precincts inside hotels along and near the Las Vegas Strip. “Hillary Clinton does not respect our people,” the announcer intoned in Spanish. The ad went on to describe the lawsuit as “unforgivable” and Clinton as “shameless"—a word she, too, used in her response during the Saturday morning interview.

“I think that they [the commercials] are offensive and shameless, and it’s so untrue,” she told Arevalo, a Las Vegas journalist who is an immigrant from Columbia.

Across town, in largely Latino east Las Vegas, the line of caucus-goers at Halle Hewetson Elementary School snaked across a courtyard and out into the parking lot, a tribute to the powerful organizing skills of State Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, a Las Vegas Democrat.

This precinct—number 4387—is Kihuen’s home turf. He has lived in this neighborhood since his family emigrated to Las Vegas from Guadalajara when he was 8 years old.

The freshman legislator won his seat in 2006 the old-fashioned way—by knocking on lots of doors and talking with lots of voters. His youth and charisma have given him celebrity status in the Latino community. He used those charms to encourage his constituents not only to caucus, but to support Hillary Clinton, whom he endorsed last November. More than 140 people heeded his call to action, many of them wearing Clinton T-shirts or buttons. As chair of the caucus, Kihuen began by telling people, “We’re making history here today.”

In the first show of hands, Kihuen’s appeal had worked. There were 108 very vocal Clinton supporters and just 30 relatively subdued Obama fans. One couple initially supported Dennis Kucinich, but ended up joining the Obama camp. The lone John Edwards advocate eventually moved over to Clinton’s side of the school’s multi-purpose room. When the hands were all lowered and the mathematical calculations were done, Clinton had earned 12 of the precinct’s 16 delegates.

Just minutes after the caucus ended, Ruben Kihuen got a text message. As campaign workers were taking down their signs and school workers were putting away the benches, Kihuen proudly announced, “CNN just projected that Hillary has won Nevada!”