For six months, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra has spent weekends campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Colorado, Iowa, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“I don’t consider this hard work,” he said. “I love it and I think I get to make a difference. I really believe in Secretary Clinton and I want to feel like I’m part of making a difference, I really do.”
On Saturday, he was in Las Vegas and its suburbs to talk with voters about Clinton a week before the caucuses. Why is he mounting such an effort? It might have something to do with his political future.
Becerra agreed to spend the day piled into a compact car with his spokesman, a Clinton staffer and a reporter and photographer from the Los Angeles Times. This is what it was like.
The tourists are still asleep a few miles away on the Las Vegas strip when Becerra begins talking about Clinton at a Latino Voter Summit at the College of Southern Nevada.
Becerra had arrived early, did an interview with a community newspaper and ate breakfast with Clinton staffers as he waited for the speeches to begin. He makes the case, to the two dozen voters and local officials who had gathered, that Clinton has to win the overall election.
“If you don’t vote for Hillary this time, that’s OK. I need your vote in November, because at the end of the day, we have to win,“ he says.
His fellow Democrat Rep. Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona is also there, lingering at the back of the room. But they are on opposite sides — Grijalva as surrogate for Clinton's rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. When Becerra has to rush off to another event, the two hug and Grijalva jokingly thanks his colleague's staff for getting him to leave.
Lenita Austin holds her son Ethan, 1, in her lap as she and the crowd listen to Becerra. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
At a mock caucus training held by Nevada Democrats in the gym of a nearby community center in Las Vegas, Becerra says Sanders is making big campaign promises he won’t be able to keep.
“You don’t win the game if you try to hit home runs all the time,” he said.
The two dozen or so black audience members giving up a sunny, 70-degree Saturday morning to hold a mock caucus subtly entertain their small children or nod along as he speaks. A young girl rides her scooter at the back of the room, and a handful of volunteers work a table, offering juice and frosted cupcakes. Children's voices can be heard from the playground outside, and the basketball scoreboard above the podium flashes "08" over and over.
As he listens to the Sanders surrogate make her case, Becerra fiddles with his hands in his lap, interlacing his fingers and twirling his wedding ring.
The congressman's hands are props for his oft-used anecdote that he puts being a Latino first because he can choose to be a Democrat, but he can’t choose his skin color.
Becerra applauds as Hillary Clinton speaks during a rally in Henderson, Nev. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
The line to enter a Hillary Clinton rally at Painters Hall in the Vegas suburbs winds around the building, and the Secret Service examines each entrant next to a floor-to-ceiling black and gold painting of Clinton's head.
People from the crowd come up to chat with Becerra as he waits. He spends a while talking with a retired teacher, Marie Donnelly, 72, who says afterward that a Latino vice presidential candidate would inspire young people.
Clinton speaks to about a thousand members of AFSCME, the Ironworkers, the Bricklayers, the AFT, SEIU local 1107 who wave signs and chant in Spanish and English. Becerra leans on a railing near a raised platform for photographers and takes photos and videos of the former secretary of State as she speaks, occasionally joining the crowd in chants or cheers.
"A progressive is someone who makes progress," Clinton says. "I will not make promises I cannot keep."
Clinton lingers to shake hands and talk to the crowd and photographers swarm the stage, snapping shots as fast as they can.
Becerra heads to the back of the room to do interviews with the various news outlets that follow Clinton from site to site. Long after the crowd has begun to dissipate he talks with reporters and Clinton supporters.
Becerra is embraced by a SEIU member after the Clinton rally. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
A dozen SEIU members speaking Spanish mob him as he walks out the front door, squeezing him into hugs and taking group photos. A staffer has to repeatedly try to pull Becerra away.
The group left Los Angeles by bus at 2:30 a.m. to make it to the rally. They’ll spend Saturday and Sunday knocking on doors before a bus ride home before work Monday, Becerra says.
Becerra tells volunteers at the campaign's East Las Vegas office that the last time he spoke to Clinton he told her to be herself. The two dozen volunteers use cellphones to call potential supporters in a room papered with campaign signs. Several desks have half-empty food containers, and there is an overflowing wholesale sized box of SweetN' Low under a table with a coffee machine. About half the volunteers are college-age students who say they are getting school credit for volunteering with a campaign.
A woman with a small white dog at her feet says into a phone, "Just making sure you know where your caucus location is."
After a quick turkey sub sandwich, Becerra starts knocking on doors in the Sunrise Country neighborhood.
A Clinton staff member accompanying him gives Becerra the names of the voters inside each home so he can greet them by name. Voter tracking data has become so detailed that the campaign has identified specific homes where the knock will be worth it.
At the dozen or so the stucco homes with tile roofs where no one answers, the congressman leaves a handwritten note signed Xavier reminding them to caucus for Clinton Saturday. Several homes have palm trees out front. Instead of grass, the lawns are made of red gravel.
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At one home, a shirtless man opens the door and immediately jumps behind it when he sees the congressman and the female staffers on his stoop. With just his head poking out, he promises that he and the three other occupants plan to vote for Clinton.
A Clinton staffer beams. “Four voters, that could mean the difference between getting a delegation and losing a delegate right there,” she said.
Between homes, Becerra learns of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. “Wow,” he said after a reporter told him the news. “There's no way that the departure of someone who was so crystal clear on where he stood and how he viewed the Constitution will not lead to a major impact in the constitution of the Supreme Court.”
Back in the car, he texts with his daughter Olivia, who, he says, is studying in Florence, Italy, on a semester abroad from Stanford University and wants near constant updates from the trail.
Maria Gray shows Becerra a list of phone numbers in her home. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
Becerra races to the front door of Maria Gray's house. The 70-year-old Latina has hosted a phone bank in her living room each Saturday for months and spent six hours knocking on doors for Clinton the day before. He speaks briefly in English and Spanish to the dozen or so supporters sitting on couches and folding chairs and asks for a moment of silence in Scalia's memory. He makes a few calls to voters from Gray's cream-colored couch.
Gray won’t let him leave until he’s filled a plate with chicken wings and cookies. She pushes the Clinton staffers to take food as well.
Maria Gray shows Becerra a photo in her home in Las Vegas. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
Becerra says she reminds him of his grandmother, and his staff laments that Gray hadn’t included tamales in the spread she provided for supporters.
Becerra meets up with Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) to speak with young people making calls for Clinton from folding tables in a store front in Titus’ district. Becerra urges them not to stop or rest, and to think about how good it will feel to watch Clinton take the oath of office.
At the headquarters of SEIU Local 1107, Becerra and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti address a group of SEIU members before they go canvassing. Becerra teases Garcetti for having a “pretty face” but working hard anyway.
Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles talks with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, right, at a rally with SEIU members in Las Vegas. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
Sitting at long folding tables under fluorescent lights, crowd member recites a quote along with Becerra: "Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres,“ or “Tell me with whom you walk, and I will tell you who you are."
He tells them, “I know with whom I walk, I know who you are and we have to win come Saturday.”
SEIU volunteers react to a Becerra speech at a rally in Las Vegas. Becerra and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke at the event. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
Becerra and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) talk with seven Clinton supporters still making calls in Henderson. Small individual desks face the doorway, and a mural of Clinton reminiscent of a Lisa Frank binder stands out between bookshelves. Gallego jokingly introduces Becerra as the next U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Volunteers return to making phone calls before the congressmen leave. Near the door, a Purple Heart recipient, Peni Mene Sua, 55, of Henderson, calls other veterans, waiving off the congressman's gratitude for his service. He says the calls are part of his speech therapy for a traumatic brain injury suffered in an attack by a suicide bomber. He tells a reporter he supports Clinton because after watching young soldiers die, he wants a president who tries diplomacy before putting military members at risk.
Peni Mene Sua, 55, of Henderson, makes phone calls at the Hillary for Nevada office in Henderson. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)
Battling rush hour traffic, Becerra returns to the MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel and Casino on the strip for a final media interview before meeting Gallego for dinner at a casino restaurant. Becerra assures The Times photographer that they wouldn't be heading out on the strip afterward; he has to be on a plane to Houston in the morning for his next political event.
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Why an L.A. congressman is telling voters -- in 2 languages -- to caucus in Nevada
Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics