Why Democrats want Nevada to be a player

J. PATRICK COOLICAN covers politics for the Las Vegas Sun.

JUST WHEN NEVADA politics couldn’t get any weirder — what with police saying a Republican candidate for treasurer was murdered by her husband — a woman accused the favorite in the governor’s race of assaulting her in a parking garage after cocktails one recent evening.

Nevada has long been the Wild West of U.S. politics. With one industry dominating its economy, a small, collegial political class and an inexpensive media environment, the Silver State has often attracted the unscrupulous, the incompetent or the eccentric politician. No one much cared, though, because Nevada was long considered a place for cheap prime rib, a hand of cards and — depending on one’s taste — a stopover at a brothel on the way to the Pacific.

Now, however, Nevada will host the Democrats’ second presidential caucus in 2008, right behind Iowa and ahead of the New Hampshire primary. Potential candidates have already begun arriving in the state. They’re talking about their favorite casino games and showing a newfound interest in the state’s parochial issues — water rights and the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository.

Democrats in New Hampshire and Iowa are furious. They and their media proxies have ridiculed Nevada as a political backwater not deserving of such a prime place on the presidential calendar. The Democratic National Committee, though, believes that it had a strong rationale to make the move.

Iowa and New Hampshire, with their largely white, rural populations, don’t represent the Democratic Party or the country any more, party leaders believe. Those states have played an outsized role in selecting the party’s presidential nominees, some of whom went on to disastrous defeat in the general election.

Party leaders sought an early caucus state that was Western and diverse, and the finalists were Arizona and Nevada.

The Mountain West is all the rage in Democratic politics, and not without reason. As political scientist Thomas F. Schaller argued in his recent book, “Whistling Past Dixie,” once the Democrats surrendered on gun control, they put the West back in play. There are fewer white evangelicals in the West than in the South, and traditional Western libertarians have rejected the Republican culture wars. With Republicans divided, Democrats such as Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer have captured the center.

The West is also growing and changing rapidly with the influx of Mexican and other immigrants.

Nevada’s population, now at 2.4 million, has more than doubled since 1990 and is 20% larger than just five years ago. Latinos, Asians and African Americans make up 36% of the state’s population, according to 2004 census figures. Democrats figure that if those voters aren’t already voting Democratic, they hope to bring them into the fold quickly, assisted by Republican demagoguery on immigration issues.

Although unions are on the wane nationally, they still have clout in the Democratic Party, and labor leaders were eager to see the caucus go to Nevada, where the labor movement is growing both in absolute numbers and in percentage of the working population. Membership in the Culinary Union, which represents workers in Las Vegas Strip casino hotels, has increased 20%, to 60,000, in the last year alone. Overall union membership in Nevada has grown from 12.5% of the working population in 2004 to 13.8% today.

The labor movement sees its future in organizing service industries, which are growing in Nevada, particularly in casinos and healthcare. Democrats hope to show the rest of the country the miracle of labor’s rise in Nevada, where diligent recruitment, organization and cooperation with casino management have swelled union membership and produced higher wages.

Then there’s Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who has an outside shot at becoming the majority leader come Nov. 8. He’s widely seen as the man most responsible for Nevada’s sudden entry onto the national political stage.

Since becoming minority leader, activist Democrats — the type who populate the Democratic National Committee — have come to lionize Reid for his forceful opposition to the Republican congressional agenda. He became a hero to them last year when he forced the Senate into closed session to demand progress on the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the administration’s use of prewar intelligence. Conservative Robert Novak wrote a column earlier this year in which he said Reid was humiliating his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Reid was also savvy enough not to alienate Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean. Unlike some Democratic elected officials, Reid publicly praised Dean’s “50-state strategy,” which sought to field candidates and campaign operations everywhere, including in deeply Republican regions, rather than just a few battleground states.

“The DNC loves [Reid] because of his relationship with Howard Dean,” said Marc Ambinder, editor of the Hotline, a Washington political newsletter.

With Nevada earning a spot in the Democrats’ early 2008 nomination calendar, presidential candidates will now have to learn the state’s quirky political culture, which has not matured as fast as the state has grown economically.

“I’ve been waiting for the political system to grow up for 20 years,” said local TV pundit and newspaper columnist Jon Ralston. “Maybe it’s gone from infancy to that of 4-year-old, but that’s not maturation.” One indication of Nevada’s immature politics: Many of the people who matter went to high school together.

Or to put it another way, Nevada politics is “perfectly understandable if you understand Kevin Bacon,” said Michael Green, a Nevada historian, referring to the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which players try to connect Hollywood figures through the prolific character actor.

In other words, just a few players wield immense influence, and they’re all connected somehow or other.

Nevada Democrats’ Kevin Bacon is Billy Vassiliadis, chief executive of R&R Partners, the advertising, public relations and lobbying firm behind the “What happens here, stays here” campaign that’s now ingrained in pop culture. He began as a political consultant and still advises on campaigns — and he’s close to Reid.

Any presidential candidate who can win over the Kevin Bacon crowd, plus labor leaders Danny Thompson of the AFL-CIO and D. Taylor of the Culinary Union, would have a huge advantage in the caucus because they can mobilize a generally apathetic electorate. Nevada ranked 42nd in the country in turnout in the 2004 election, according to the Census Bureau.

Democrats nationally should be ready for anything when their favorite presidential candidate gets to Nevada, much as if they were coming to Vegas for a friend’s bachelor party.

Consider this year’s governor’s race. Rep. Jim Gibbons, the Republican candidate, recently had dinner with a campaign consultant and some supporters. From there, they went to the restaurant’s bar for a drink, where they were joined by four women. The consultant says he walked Gibbons to the door. What’s not in dispute is that Gibbons offered to help one of the women, who was admittedly intoxicated, to her car.

According to police reports, she says he pushed her against a wall in a parking garage. He says she tripped and he grabbed her to keep her from falling. The woman decided not to press charges, though she didn’t recant her story.

A few rabid Republicans believe it was all a setup.

Welcome to Nevada.

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