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J. Patrick Coolican

Culinary leader: Closing sites on Strip would strike at caucus' heart

14 January 2008

NEVADA -- Nevada's largest and most politically active union fired back Saturday at an attempt to shut down caucus sites on the Strip intended to allow its workers to caucus Jan. 19, when state Democrats make their choice for a presidential nominee. Culinary Union Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor demanded that Nevada's Democratic elected officials and the presidential campaigns denounce a lawsuit that would eliminate the nine "at-large" caucus locations designed for shift workers, both union and nonunion. Shutting down the sites, which allow anyone who works within 2 1/2 miles of one to caucus there, would undermine the legitimacy of the caucus, he said.

By Taylor's logic, the lawsuit could threaten the future of Nevada's early presidential voting status.

"This is an attempt to wholesale disenfranchise people who are largely women, largely people of color, and people who do the kind of work that makes this town go," Taylor said. The campaigns and senior Democratic officials "have to condemn this. Anything short of that will clearly be a sign that they obviously think it's OK to disenfranchise voters."

The Clinton campaign, which unsuccessfully sought the 60,000-member union's endorsement, declined to take up Taylor's offer.

"Not for us to decide," said Rory Reid, Clinton's state chairman, in an e-mail to the Sun. "We just want the process to be fair."

The campaign of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who received the endorsement last week, quickly condemned the lawsuit.

"We believe as a party, and a country, we should be looking for ways to include working men and women in the electoral process, not disenfranchise them," said David Cohen, the campaign's state director.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Nevada State Education Association and five party activists, claims that those voting in at-large precincts would have too much weight compared with those voting at their neighborhood polling places, violating the equal protection law of the U.S. Constitution. It also claims the at-large precincts violate state law in the way they were drawn.

But a major premise of the lawsuit appears to be false, according to a Sun analysis.

Even if there is considerably high turnout for instance, 10,000 people those at-large precincts will provide just 6 percent of the state's overall delegates. Because Nevada is holding a caucus, not a primary, the winner will be based on the number of delegates a candidate receives, not the total number of votes.

The lawsuit was filed Friday, seemingly timed to coincide with Obama's visit to the Culinary's union hall, where he accepted the endorsement. On its face, the lawsuit helps the Clinton campaign by suggesting the caucus process is inherently unfair and distracting voters from Obama's endorsement and his intense focus on Nevada.

The plaintiffs have ties, albeit indirect, to the Clinton campaign. Dan Hart, chief political consultant to the state teachers union, has run Reid's campaigns in the past and is currently an unpaid adviser to him. Some of the activists were active backers of state Sen. Dina Titus' failed 2006 bid for governor. Titus, a Democratic national committeewoman, has endorsed Clinton. She did not return a call seeking comment.

As The New York Times reported Saturday, the teachers union's deputy executive director, Debbie Cahill, was a founding member of Clinton's Nevada Women's Leadership Council.

Those ties and the timing of the suit, coming months after the caucus plan was approved by the Democratic National Committee but days after the endorsement threatened to boomerang on the New York senator.

Earlier in the week Clinton had sought to divide Culinary membership by campaigning in a neighborhood rich with the union's members, and on Saturday, at an event in Las Vegas, appealed to Hispanics, who make up 40 percent of the Culinary's membership.

But any perception that the Clinton campaign was trying to prevent Culinary workers from caucusing could unite the state's largest and most politically active union, which has shown some subtle signs of fracture. Some members have publicly expressed support for Clinton.

The origin of the lawsuit is unclear. Hart, the political consultant, said he took the idea to the teachers union, but would not say who brought it to his attention. "I asked (the teachers union) if they wanted to be involved, because it seemed unfair how Culinary members are given preference in this caucus, and their members are disadvantaged," he said.

Taylor, the Culinary leader, accused Hart of attempting to enlist two other unions in the lawsuit.

Hart said he "talked to a lot of people about this. I didn't know the Culinary had declared it a sin to talk about this."

Hart said attempting to uncover the suit's origin missed the point of the complaint: The at-large precincts are unfair to Democrats who are not Culinary members.

That assessment drew the ire of the state Democratic Party. In a statement, the party made it clear that any shift worker union or nonunion within 2 1/2 miles of an at-large precinct location may participate in the caucuses, including dealers, gas station attendants, construction workers, retail workers and hospitality workers.

A spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, the father of Rory Reid and the public face of the caucus, declined to defend the state party. In an e-mail, he told the Sun: "We haven't seen the lawsuit yet but, given the politics at play, Sen. Reid is going to stay out of the middle of it and leave it to the courts."

Reid's neutrality, which is seen by Obama supporters as a tilt toward Clinton, illustrated the now deep divisions within the Democratic coalition.

Many of those named in the lawsuit hold various positions in the state and Clark County parties.

John Cahill is the chairman of a party activist group and the elected Clark County public administrator. "It is absolutely, in my opinion, critical that whoever wins Nevada leaves here with no cloud hanging over them," he said. "No cheating or manipulating in any way. And that it's a level playing field."

Clinton herself criticized the caucus process after losing Iowa, saying many people who had to work at the time were disenfranchised. After telling a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter Saturday that she wanted as many people as possible to participate in Nevada, she said she has no opinion on the lawsuit. Dialing down expectations and questioning the fairness of the caucus process allows Clinton to make a loss here more palatable.

Taylor said eliminating the at-large sites would be unfair to workers on the Strip, and called the lawsuit "Republican, Floridian tactics for voter suppression."

He continued: "The reason why the caucus came here was for union and minority representation. In this swipe, they are negating the exact reason they would bring the caucus here. It is very telling if they don't absolutely condemn it. If the lawsuit goes through it will completely discredit the legitimacy of the caucus."