In Nevada, the Great Recession still casts a long shadow over political campaigns

Elvis Presley impersonator Robrigo Gonzalez dances for passing tourists on Las Vegas Boulevard in Las Vegas in 2011. Gonzalez said he became a street performer after losing his job as a welder during the recession.

Elvis Presley impersonator Robrigo Gonzalez dances for passing tourists on Las Vegas Boulevard in Las Vegas in 2011. Gonzalez said he became a street performer after losing his job as a welder during the recession.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The Great Recession couldn’t stop the Cosmopolitan, only slow it down. After years of financial delays, the casino resort’s ocean-blue windows shimmer in the desert sunlight high above the Las Vegas Strip, a symbol of this city’s faith that the money will always come rolling back.

Brian Sandoval wasn’t so lucky. He installed office trailers for workers when they were building the Cosmopolitan, but his job evaporated as construction work ground to a halt around the city. Out of work, he found himself in a Nebraska slaughterhouse where he knocked out cattle with a pneumatic gun.

“It was pretty traumatic before I got my first check,” Sandoval said. With four children to support, he needed the money.


Sandoval, 40, who jokes about sharing the name of Nevada’s governor, is back in Las Vegas now and working on the Strip, but it’s not the same. Instead of construction, he tries to talk passing tourists into buying time shares.

“I know there’s tons of money out there to be made,” he said. “But I haven’t found it yet.”

Sandoval’s experience illustrates the gap between the nation’s rebounding economy and the persistent insecurity still felt by many Americans as they consider who should replace President Obama in the White House. Few, if any, states have suffered more from the recession’s lingering effects than Nevada, which holds its Democratic caucuses on Saturday and its Republican counterpart on Tuesday.

“A lot of people you might talk to on the street will probably tell you we’re still in a recession,” said Stephen Miller, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “We’re still not quite back to where we were.”

Once thought to be insulated from economic turmoil by its lucrative tourism industry, Nevada’s unemployment rate and prevalence of underwater mortgages remain higher than national averages. Democratic candidates have hammered at pocketbook issues while campaigning here.

“No state in the country has suffered more from the greed and illegal behavior of Wall Street,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said at a recent stop at a Las Vegas high school.


Sanders’ focused message about income inequality and malfeasance by the country’s banks could prove potent in a place still dusting itself off after a housing-bubble collapse that left large swaths of homes vacant.

Former secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is counting on the state’s black and Latino populations to help her achieve victory here, has insisted that she’ll take an even tougher line on Wall Street to prevent another financial meltdown.

“Too many people lost their jobs, too many people lost their homes,” she said in a union hall in a Las Vegas suburb.

A poll released by CNN on Wednesday said 38% of Nevadans view the economy as the most important issue in the election, more than twice the amount for any other topic. That’s a more intense focus than is found in most other parts of the country, but the economy remains among the top concerns for voters nationwide even if it no longer dominates as it did in the years immediately following the crash.

Economic problems are particularly fraught for Democratic candidates as they walk the line between celebrating Obama’s successes and acknowledging the work that’s left to be done.

The national unemployment rate fell to 4.9% in January, half of what it was during the depths of the recession.


“The job market is really improving,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington who previously worked in the Obama administration. “We’re finally seeing some wage gains.”

But at the same time, salaries haven’t kept pace with rising costs, Bernstein said, and underlying issues like jobs moving overseas and barriers for workers without college educations remain unaddressed. To top it off, many Americans watched with disgust as Wall Street bounced back faster than the rest of the country.

“There’s a real sense that the system is rigged against them,” he said. “The people who played a tangible role in bringing us the Great Recession have fully recovered well before anybody else.”

Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, a union-backed think tank, described the economic situation as a breach of trust where average Americans have languished while wealth continues to be accumulated by the rich.

“People have lost faith in government,” he said. “People feel it’s not working for them.”

There are similar strains in Nevada, despite plenty of signs that the economy is recovering. Las Vegas welcomed a record 42.3 million visitors last year even though gambling revenues remain lower than before the recession, according to statistics from the city’s convention authority.

The housing market, which cratered during the recession, is also more stable, said Dave Tina, president of the Nevada Assn. of Realtors. Fewer homes are being purchased with cash — a sign that normal buyers are in the market, rather than investors trying to turn a profit — and new developments are once again underway, he said.


“Every dead project that stopped is being rebuilt now,” he said.

There’s also been progress at attracting new businesses, sometimes fueled by hefty tax incentives. Electric car maker Tesla Motors Inc. plans to produce batteries at a new facility near Reno. A nearly vacant industrial park in North Las Vegas, a city that has long struggled with poverty, will be anchored by Faraday Future, a Chinese-backed company also building electric cars.

Such announcements, however, haven’t quieted grumbling around the state that things haven’t returned to the way they were, and perhaps never will.

“I don’t think it will ever be the same,” said Elena Silva, 39, who works in the spa at the Bellagio casino. “People used to throw money left and right. Now they’re more conservative.”

There are also concerns that benefits from the new developments won’t be widespread.

Doug Smithson, 58, a retired firefighter who supports Sanders, said the only people excited about the Tesla factory are those who are already well off.

“Most people don’t think that they’re OK,” he said. “The middle class and the lower-middle class and the poor — they’re not optimistic.”

Other voters think Clinton can bring back a taste of the economic growth that was seen when her husband, Bill, was president.


“The economy was booming in the ‘90s with Clinton in the White House,” said Barb Sadd, 70, who worked at a Los Angeles advertising firm before retiring in Pahrump, about an hour west of Las Vegas. “It’s going to boom again with Hillary — they understand how to get things done.”

When Republicans descend on the state for their own caucuses on Tuesday, they’ll be trying to harness some of the same economic dissatisfaction.

Carol Michell, a retired legal secretary, said the economy is “awful” and she worries about her children’s financial future. Her son is a private investigator and her daughter is working as a waitress on the Strip.

“It’s the best place to make money,” said Michell, 65, but “they’re not making enough to save. Everything just gobbles it up.”

She and her husband, who were relaxing at an outdoor mall in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, are leaning toward supporting Donald Trump, the New York businessman.

“He’s going to shake it up,” said Thomas Michell, 83. “Good or bad, at least something is going to happen.”


Staff writers Melanie Mason, Kate Linthicum and Kurtis Lee contributed to this report.

For more on Campaign 2016, follow @chrismegerian


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