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Bellagio becomes media ground zero

18 January 2008

Las Vegas Sun

by Timothy Pratt

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- As reported by the Las Vegas Sun: "Camera crews from England's BBC had just finished filming and the Arab world's Al-Jazeera would soon follow.

No Paris Hilton here. Just the Las Vegas casino worker, Bellagio variety, two days before Nevada's first early Democratic presidential caucus.

Between a lawsuit threatening to take away the Bellagio's at-large site and that of eight other casinos for Saturday's caucus -- a suit tossed out hours later -- and the political weight of the Culinary Union's 60,000 members -- suddenly the Bellagio's basement cafeteria is ground zero.

It's 11:15 a.m. and five guys are sitting down to tortillas, beans and beef. One has a vanilla ice cream cone.

Daniel Cana, a dishwasher from Mexico who's been a U.S. citizen for 12 years, says he'll take time from his 8-4 shift Saturday to caucus at the Bellagio, where he intends to support the union's endorsed candidate, Sen. Barack Obama.

"The union tells you who is the best candidate, but the decision is yours," he says. "For me, the best is Obama."

Jose Hernandez, a dishwasher sitting to Cana's left, describes Obama as "the one who offers the most to us" -- meaning Hispanics, nearly half the union's membership.

David Gonzalez, part of the hotel's public relations staff, hovers over the conversation -- and others between a reporter and workers.

When the reporter suggests that workers might not feel comfortable speaking their mind with a Bellagio suit standing nearby, Gonzalez says: "We need to listen in when the media talks to our workers."

Over toward the soda machine, Mirna Preciado, a union representative, urges workers to caucus and hands out a green sheet of paper headlined "Where do the top candidates stand on our issues?" It features the positions of Obama and Clinton on the Culinary workers' right to caucus, union issues, lobbyists in Washington, immigration and the Iraq war. Three other union representatives work the room, doing the same.

At several tables, workers say they won't be going Saturday because they're not citizens.

Florencio Herrera, stirring a cup of coffee, first says he does not know whether he will go or even when the caucus will be, but then lets on that he likes Clinton, "because of her husband's track record." "He had the economy in good shape," he says. "I'm going with someone different."

He and colleague Nick Alas laugh at the suggestion that it's like being the only one in your neighborhood who likes a different soccer team.

Then there's Tammy Kobinski, who works 8 to 4 in the Bellagio's warehouse and 5 to 10 at Sears. She won't be going to the caucus, she says, because she can't afford to miss an hour's pay -- $12.89.

Then it's time to go: Japan's Fuji TV has arrived, and there's a one-media-crew-at-a-time rule in place for the day.

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