Party hearty

Democrats and Republicans head into their Nevada caucuses with plenty of input, not all of it useful

While waiting in line for Barack Obama’s Monday speech, Tyler Dillard of Reno filled out the stub on his ticket for the event. Dillard has tried to attend all of Obama’s local appearances.

While waiting in line for Barack Obama’s Monday speech, Tyler Dillard of Reno filled out the stub on his ticket for the event. Dillard has tried to attend all of Obama’s local appearances.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Hundreds of people stood in biting cold Monday morning waiting for the doors to open at the downtown events center where Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was speaking. The bumper of an SUV dropping off more attendees bore a Kerry/Edwards bumper strip.

Tyler Dillard of Reno, near the back of the line, was an early supporter of Obama. Dillard says he’s concerned that the Bush administration “doesn’t seem to have a respect for the Constitution … running all over the Bill of Rights since it got in office.”

Charlene Curtis of Sparks is still undecided on a candidate, and is not focusing on any single issue. “Everything that pertains to national—health, the economy—all of it’s important. One issue is not going to make a candidate good. He’s got to be well rounded, so I want to hear what he has to say on all of them.” Obama still needs to close the deal with her.

Pat Jarvi is most concerned about the health care issue, which is natural. “I’m an R.N. [registered nurse] … I see some of the flaws in the system and people without insurance and the tough times they go through.” She says she’s “pretty much” decided to support Obama.

All three plan to participate in the Nevada caucuses.

Obama’s Monday arrival in Reno coincided with good news for his campaign—the Gazette-Journal this day carried news of a Research 2000 opinion survey taken Jan. 11 to Jan. 13 showing that Hillary Clinton had lost her long-time lead in the state. Obama now leads, 32 to 30 percent.

The surprise in the survey was candidate John Edwards, who has had little to cheer about since Iowa. It shows him still competitive in Nevada, trailing Obama by only 5 points and Clinton by 3.

There are indications that the Obama campaign is scrambling to stay ahead of its post-Iowa success. There were not enough tickets printed for the Reno speech, so Obama volunteers started substituting tickets for a Carson City speech and accepting them for admission to the Reno event.

In the Boston Globe last week, Obama was hit for his “culinary” metaphors.

“Memo to Barack Obama: if you can’t handle the metaphors, stay out of the kitchen,” wrote Globe staffer Sasha Issenberg. “In nearly all of his speeches, Obama turns away from the usual sports and war metaphors and opts instead for culinary language when he jokes about anonymous establishment figures who criticize him for being inexperienced and naïve.”

Issenberg quoted a sample of one of Obama’s speeches, in which he describes himself in the third person: “They say Obama has not been in Washington long enough. He needs to be seasoned and stewed to boil all that hope out of him.”

Culinary metaphors did not seem to handicap Obama in Nevada, where, two days after the Globe story ran, Obama won the most sought-after endorsement in the state, from the 60,000-member strong Culinary Union 226 in Las Vegas which represents casino/hotel workers, 60 percent of them women. Candidate Hillary Clinton, who has sent out dozens of news releases announcing various mostly minor Nevada endorsements over the last year, also lost the Bartenders Local 165 and Nevada Service Employees International Union endorsements the same day as the Culinary announcement.

However, some observers suggested that by waiting so long to endorse, the Culinary reduced the value of the endorsement.

Other endorsements
Clinton picked up the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley of Nevada. Her campaign spent so much time over the last year gathering endorsements that few were left to jump to Obama after his win in Iowa, but this week a few did surface—former U.S. Senate candidate Jack Carter, Reno community activist Evelyn Mount, Assemblymember Mo Denis, state Sen. Mike Schneider, and Reno City Councilmember Jessica Sferrazza came out for Obama.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which sponsored last year’s Carson City presidential candidates forum, sent a hundred or so paid workers into Nevada to aid Clinton, prompting Obama supporters to claim a violation of federal law (the law says such paid workers can only be used to contact other AFSCME members). AFSCME is also spending more than $200,000 to broadcast commercials in Nevada supporting Clinton.

Edwards is getting 42 paid United Steelworkers organizers in Nevada to support his candidacy but has had little face time in the state.

The Culinary union’s action set off a furious reader debate on a New York Times site that tells a lot about the tone of today’s politics:

· “I am surprised by that since Obama has done nothing to help or support unions in Illinois or as his role as Senator of Illinois…”

· “Finally some union support for Senator Obama, who had a nearly perfect Illinois AFL-CIO legislative ranking as an Illinois state senator.”

· “It’s a shame that with all the promoting of the black people that the Clintons did in their political careers they now face being stuck in the neck by an inexperienced young man of mixed racial lineage who is being manipulated, knowingly or unknowingly…”

At the 2004 caucus in Virginia City, vote tellers used a cardboard box (foreground) as a ballot box. This year, most caucuses in the state will be this small. The large convention hall caucusing done in previous years was decentralized for 2008.

Photo By Dennis Myers

· “So we black people are so indebted to the Clintons for their having ‘promoted’ us (whatever that means!) that any person of color having the effrontery to run against one amounts to a betrayal.”

· “The Illinois unions worked their behinds off to beat down the Clinton … knowing they had an uphill fight against that power. Obama always cared about workers and worked incredibly hard for them and made a ton of progress in Illinois. We all fought that power because we knew him and trusted him.”

Handy anonymity
The Times was not the only place where disagreeable material about Obama showed up. There is a dark underside to the Nevada caucus campaign, as with this (anonymous, naturally) message posted on a Nevada Appeal site: “Let’s not forget the ‘good ol’ boy’ from Illinois. The muslim in disguise. Do YOU want someone leading this country with a muslim education? Regardless of how you feel about the war, what message are we sending to our enemies if we elect someone like Barack ‘Hussein’ Obama? Maybe he has changed his religious preference, you cannot undo his Islamic teachings.”

Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ.

There were accusations of GOP tampering with the Democratic process, also made from the safety of anonymity. This unsigned message came to the News & Review in an untraceable email: “I am a registered Republican who received a telephone call today from a fellow Republican. She was calling to invite me to join her in registering for the Democratic Party to affect the Nevada Democratic caucus. This organized activity (the caller knew my name, political affiliation and unlisted telephone number) is an unethical tactic to manipulate the vote and weaken the opposition.”

Even this late in the campaign, there was substantial misunderstanding of the Nevada caucuses. Journalists on Washington Week in Review, for instance, called the Nevada event a Democrats-only event:

Gwen Ifill: “Let’s lay out the road map here. We do have a road map, we have to remind people. We’ve got a Michigan primary coming up next week. Then we have Nevada.”

Jackie Calmes: For the Democrats.

Ifill: “For the Democrats…”

Peter Baker: “Republicans in South Carolina and Democrats in Nevada, same day.”

To the courts
Hard fought presidential nominating races always seem to generate litigation, and this year it happened in Nevada. In an inspiring case of union solidarity, the Nevada State Education Association (whose officials support Clinton) sued to overturn an arrangement made by the Culinary (whose officials support Obama) of holding caucuses inside some of the Las Vegas casino properties in order to allow workers unable to leave their jobs an opportunity to caucus. In some news reports, this was described as a case of the Democratic Party actually creating election precincts, which is normally a function of county government officials (New York Times: “the Nevada Democratic Party’s decision to create at-large precincts inside nine Las Vegas resorts on the day of the caucus").

Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax said he didn’t know the political parties had the authority to create election precincts. “We had nothing to do with it. We didn’t even know it was happening until this [the lawsuit] came out.” If it was happening as described in news reports, experts familiar with state election law believed the teachers group had a good case.

Clinton, aiming at Nevada’s substantial Latino vote, held appearances at Mexican restaurants in Las Vegas and Reno and a “Juntos con Hillary” (Together with Hillary) rally. The caucuses were originally moved up to January in part to give a more racially diverse population than Iowa or New Hampshire an opportunity to be heard, though efforts to tap into that part of the community by most campaigns have been spotty. Candidate Bill Richardson, himself a Latino who was counting on Nevada as his springboard, was unable to last long enough in the race to reach the state. Two fourth place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire ended his campaign. Richardson has not endorsed another candidate.

Local journalists worked hard at parochial cheerleading and issues-free coverage of the caucuses. Some of them promoted a so-what point about Nevada being a “tie breaking” state after Obama won Iowa and Clinton won New Hampshire, a notion that seemed to puzzle national reporters. Syndicated columnist Jules Witcover joked, “Sure, it’s like breaking a tie in the first quarter of a football game, with three and a half quarters to go. It’s a ludicrous reach for an angle, if you ask me.” (The imitative behavior of reporters was shown by a search for the term tie breaker combined with Nevada caucuses on Google. It produced 959 hits.)

There were occasional sightings of issues at play, as when KRNV’s Joe Hart asked Hillary Clinton about Lake Tahoe or an Anjeanette Damon description in the Reno Gazette-Journal of the candidates’ positions on the Mining Law of 1872, but much of the news coverage was chamber of commerce stuff. “How important is Nevada …?” began a Reno television report the day after New Hampshire, with an on-screen headline of “NEVADA POLITICAL IMPORTANCE.” The next day a competing station reported on an influx of volunteers to Nevada—but gave no hint of what issues motivated those volunteers—or in-state ones, either.

One size fits all
Surprisingly, the campaigns just barely tailored their advertising to Nevada. After winning the union endorsements, Obama began running a new commercial that gave greater emphasis to workers and employed an economic populism message he has rarely used: “You’ve got CEOs who are making more in 10 minutes than ordinary workers are making in a year.” Clinton added a TV spot that seemed designed to exploit the post-New Hampshire feeling that she was being more open and human: “Over the last weeks I’ve been listening.” But except for the SEIU and Culinary union logos stuck on Obama’s spot, both spots could easily run in any state.

Obama, still relatively undefined, has provided Democrats in the state with an impressive direct mail piece—a thick and slick magazine format mailing that was praised by campaign consultants for supplying substantial material on the still little known candidate.

As in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats are making it easy for independents—as well as third party members and even Republicans—to participate in the Democratic process. Nevada Republicans went the other way, making it difficult for independents to caucus.

At the Democratic caucuses, independents and nonpartisans can participate just by showing up. There will be voter registrars on hand to re-register them Democratic in time to participate in the caucus.

At the Republican caucuses, independents may not be able to participate at all, unless they knew to reregister GOP a month ago. The Republicans adopted a cut-off point of Dec. 19—if independents or others did not know to re-register by then, they can’t participate in the GOP caucuses. “We wanted to know that Republicans were voting in the Republican caucus,” Washoe Republican chair Heidi Smith said on Ed Pearce’s Sunday interview program this week. Election officials around the state say they did not notice any particular pre-Dec. 19 surge of registration changes.

While the candidates campaigned, so did lobby groups besides the unions—the American Association of Retired Persons, the coal industry. A radio spot running in the state urged Nevadans to demand of candidates that coal be a part of the nation’s energy program. It included mention of the expensive and possibly mythical option of “clean” coal: “Ask the candidates if they have an energy plan, and if coal is part of it. It has to be.” It represents an unabashed assault in his home state on the influence of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who last year declared war on coal fired power plants. A coal industry van was also tooling around the state spreading the pro-coal word, even stopping at this newspaper’s office.

If the coal industry thought to fly below the radar by using radio advertising, it didn’t work. Soon the Sierra Club had radio spots running: “Nevada, we can do better than coal.”