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Best of Howard Stutz

Gaming Guru

Howard Stutz

Civic duty meets convenience on Strip

22 January 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Christine Sears, a front desk clerk at the Bellagio, wasn't registered to vote and had never shown much interest in the political process until Saturday.

Sears joined almost 500 Bellagio and MGM Grand employees by coming into work on her off day to participate in Nevada's Democratic caucus. She registered to vote for the first time and cast her support for Sen. Hillary Clinton. Without the Bellagio caucus site, one of nine at-large sites along the Strip, Sears would not have known where to caucus.

"It was inspirational to be here," Sears said, walking into the resort's Spa Tower convention room.

The idea of voting inside some of Las Vegas' largest and most prominent Strip resorts attracted scores of curious national and international media outlets to the caucus locations. In the end, gambling company executives said the caucuses were a success for the workers and did not disrupt business during the casino's busy three-day holiday weekend.

Culinary Local 226, which represents hotel and restaurant workers along the Strip, the state Democratic Party and casino companies, helped organize the at-large sites. After the Culinary union endorsed Sen. Barack Obama over Clinton on Jan. 9, the state teachers union and several political activists challenged the legality of the at-large sites. U.S. District Judge James Mahan rejected the lawsuit two days before the vote.

"Some of the outside media notions about voting on the Strip were pretty silly," Harrah's Entertainment Vice President Marybel Batjar said Monday. After she recorded an interview with one national media outlet, the reporters asked her off-camera if drunks would show up and vote.

"In the end, this was a success for our workers," Batjar said.

Despite any procedural glitches, MGM Mirage Senior Vice President Alan Feldman said he could see the Strip hosting caucuses for hotel-casino employees four years from now. He said any issues or problems with the process were not isolated to the Strip.

"We would say yes again in a heartbeat," Feldman said. "It was deeply inspirational and moving for our state. Obviously, not everything was perfect, but everything also wasn't perfect at (the caucus site at) Palo Verde High School either."

Batjar said an estimated 800 to 1,000 Harrah's workers may have participated in the caucus at one of the company's four sites at Caesars Palace, Rio, Paris Las Vegas and Flamingo. Yes, she said, there was some shouting and campaigning in trying to get uncommitted voters to pick between Clinton and Obama. But, Batjar did not see any outright violations.

"We had a couple of guest room attendants, where English was obviously a second language, who might have been intimidated by the process. But that was about it," she said.

Similar experiences were reported at caucus sites at MGM Mirage resorts.

At Bellagio, the line to enter the caucus snaked down the hallway into the convention area lobby when workers broke for lunch and bus loads of employees arrived from the MGM Grand.

The Clinton and Obama supporters were raucous while waiting to enter the ballroom. Competing chants of "O-Bam-a" and "Hill-ar-y" broke out on both sides of the room and carried into the caucus meeting room, too.

"To me, it was like the old 'taste's great, less filing' argument," Feldman said, in reference to a 1980s advertisement campaign for Miller Lite beer. "The chanting and the yelling was actually part of the political process."

Feldman said roughly 1,340 MGM Mirage casino workers made their choices at one of the four company casino sites at Bellagio, New York-New York, Mirage and Luxor. He said the at-large Strip caucuses were a success because workers were able cast their votes while the state was placed in the national spotlight for a day.

Feldman said the caucus process wasn't perfect, though.

"What we have to remember is that by its very nature, the caucus is an incredibly unsophisticated and disorganized process," Feldman said. "But it was nothing short of amazing to see as many workers, union and nonunion, dressed in their uniforms, taking part in the process."

All work classifications were represented at the Bellagio. Workers from other Strip locations also joined the caucus, including two construction workers from the adjacent CityCenter development.

Pipefitter Eric Forsythe wore his hardhat. He was still hooked to his two-way radio and was dressed in heavy outdoor work clothing while standing in line to sign in. An Obama sticker was affixed to his shirt. His union, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 525, had endorsed former Sen. John Edwards.

"It's my choice," Forsythe said. "This was a convenient place to come to and I have to get back to work. I told my supervisor that I wanted to caucus."

Wynn Las Vegas also served as a caucus location.