LAS VEGAS — The pack of Democratic presidential candidates made it through five hours of debating this week without diving deep into two major issues: the economy and labour unions. That won’t be the case this weekend.
The candidates’ next stop is Nevada, an early primary state and battleground state, where pocketbook issues prevail and labour still holds sway. About 500 union members on Saturday are primed to grill the candidates on their economic vision and their commitment to workers at a forum hosted by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a public employees union that counts 1.6 million people among its members. At least 19 White House hopefuls, including former Vice-President Joe Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, are slated to attend.
The event is a moment for the candidates to prove their pro-union credentials as they jockey for support from a powerful source of cash and manpower. For some Nevada Democrats, it’s a chance to use their influence to redirect a conversation that has centred on ideological divisions, campaign strategy and race politics to kitchen-table issues.
“I want us to focus on those issues that help families succeed first, and then we can move out to broader issues, like immigration, the environment,” Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen, a Democrat, told reporters Thursday, pointing to the economy, health care, education and retirement as top priorities.
To be sure, Nevada Democrats will be paying close attention to the candidates’ positions on liberal priorities like immigration reform and climate change that affect the desert cities and forested north. There’s also a fresh energy for tougher gun control after Las Vegas was the scene of the country’s deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
But for much of the state, including its working-class population, scars from the Great Recession remain. Nevada was among the hardest hit states, with 1 in 10 homes in foreclosure and the nation’s highest unemployment rate. More than a decade on, the state has climbed out of those depths, but economic anxieties remain among Nevada voters, who often cite it as one of the top concerns they want the next president to address.
Travis Vaughan, a 46-year-old Democrat and architect in Las Vegas, said Warren’s role as a consumer advocate taking on big banks in the last economic recession is one of the big reasons she’s his top candidate right now.
“I felt I dealt with the aftermath and maybe some other people that helped create the problem didn’t,” Vaughan said. “I’ve been unemployed several times over the last decade. Economic stability is a big issue.”
Nevada will be the third state to hold a Democratic primary next year, behind Iowa and New Hampshire. The Western state is home to robust labour unions, a growing, diverse immigrant community and a population that’s 29% Latino.
Despite Democrats largely sweeping the state in 2018, it remains a battleground where President Donald Trump sees a chance of winning next year. He lost the state in 2016 to Democrat Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points.
Candidates campaigning in the state have been tailoring their message to Nevada’s distinct mix of concerns.
Warren, whose consumer advocacy work during the crisis made her a national name, has highlighted the state’s foreclosure crunch while appearing early and often in Nevada. Harris, familiar to many ex-Californians who moved into the state, has also spotlighted her work negotiating with banks over the foreclosure crisis while serving as California attorney general.
Both senators, along with Biden and Sanders, all hired at least 30 paid staff each in Nevada, building up the kind of robust organizing teams need to reach a transient population that’s still relatively new to playing an early political role with its February caucuses.
Julian Castro, the former housing and urban development secretary in the Obama administration, and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke made early inroads by focusing on the city’s Latino communities and speaking often about the need for immigration reform. Other candidates including Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney — all moderates who align closely with the pragmatic Democrats who’ve won recent statewide offices in Nevada — are only now making their first campaign visits this year to the state.
All the candidates are vying for the attention and support of the powerful casino workers culinary union, whose 60,000 members are mostly women and mostly immigrants.
Biden snapped up an early endorsement from the union’s former political director, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, but so far the union has not said if it will endorse in the primary contest.
Among the issues the union is eyeing closely is the fight over “Medicare for All.” The union spent years negotiating a strong health plan for its members, sacrificing wage increases and other benefits along the way. Unions aren’t eager to give all that up for a government-run health system.
Ted Pappageorge, the culinary union’s president, has called those proposals, backed by Sanders and Warren, “potentially problematic” for the union members who want to keep their current health plans.
Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan raised that issue during Tuesday’s presidential debate, arguing that the plans endorsed by Sanders and Warren “will tell those union members who gave away wages in order to get good health care that they’re going to lose their health care because Washington’s going to come in and tell them they got a better plan.”
Ryan then challenged Sanders’ assertion that union members would be better off, saying, “You don’t know that, Bernie.”
“I do know it,” Sanders shot back. “I wrote the damn bill.”