Sunday, January 20, 2008

A Former Nevada Resident Reflects on the Democratic Caucuses

I'll bet you guys didn't know that I once lived in Nevada. Yes, it's true and I have the cheesy Las Vegas souvenirs to prove it. And as a former resident, I have a few things to say about Hillary Clinton's victory there.

Nearly a decade before I became acquainted with the joys of crossing the Intersection of Death, I was assigned to work a building trades organizing campaign in Las Vegas. Once I had unpacked my Van Halen CDs in my apartment, I went to see the Kings of Sinville - Culinary Workers Local Union 226. What I found was quite simply one of the most remarkable labor organizations that North America had ever seen. They had a savvy, battle-hardened leadership. They had the best research operation of any local union anywhere. They had an excellent organizing program. They had a hard-hitting political program. And best of all, they had a strong relationship with their members. Culinary was known for launching strikes against law-breaking casinos that went on for decades. That's right - their members walked on picket lines old enough to be mentioned in the Bible. As a young labor union researcher, I was in awe of them.

Culinary's political power in Las Vegas compares to MCEA's power in Montgomery County. But unlike MCEA, Culinary faces a state right-to-work law, a vigorous state Republican Party and giant, politically-connected gambling megacorporations that employ its members and occasionally run afoul of its contracts. Few unions can succeed in such a climate. Culinary does so through a ruthless blend of brains and brawn, mating its sophisticated staff with its militant, picket-sign-carrying membership.

That's why I'm as surprised as anyone that Culinary did not deliver the Democratic caucuses to its endorsed candidate, Senator Barack Obama. The Washington Post would have us believe that Culinary's power in Nevada is overrated. But I don't think that's a fair assessment for two reasons:

1. Culinary only announced its endorsement of Obama eight days before the primary. This did not give the union much time to educate its membership about its choice. All good unions know that members need to be persuaded, not instructed, to support their endorsed candidates at election time, and Culinary is no exception. Culinary's late endorsement was a miscalculation by its normally astute leadership, but it is not a sign of weakness.

2. Senator Hillary Clinton clearly has more name recognition and popular support than the Clark County Commissioners that Culinary usually beats up on.

So I'm not completely sure what this result says about Culinary, Nevada politics or Senator Clinton's campaign. But I'm pretty sure what it says about Senator Obama. The fact that one of North America's greatest local unions could not bring home a win for him in its stronghold is not a good sign for the junior Senator from Illinois.

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