Saturday, Jan. 12, 2008 | 2 a.m.
When Barack Obama introduced a new refrain to his stump speech after losing the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, it was aimed specifically at a Nevada audience: Culinary Workers Local 226.
“Yes, we can!” Obama told supporters, over and over, after his narrow loss to Hillary Clinton.
Although it fit with the Illinois senator’s message of hope, Culinary workers in Las Vegas recognized it as the labor slogan popularized by United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez. Indeed, the phrase, in Spanish, is plastered all over the walls of the union’s headquarters here.
Apparently the the 60,000-strong Culinary, Nevada’s largest and most politically active union, heard Obama loud and clear, endorsing him on Wednesday. He came to town Friday to accept the endorsement and to solidify his support among the union’s rank and file in the week before the state’s Jan. 19 caucus.
“I am fired up,” Obama told hundreds of Culinary members gathered in the union’s large hall. “I love this union.”
It remains to be seen how much the Culinary loves Obama. After months of speculation and heated debate between the Culinary local and international parent Unite Here, the union made its pick this week, 10 days before the Nevada caucus.
Members have been fiercely courted by the major Democratic candidates all year, and Clinton used a visit here Thursday in part to test the strength of the union’s endorsement.
She walked a northeast Las Vegas neighborhood heavy with Culinary workers and won the support of several. Her message: The endorsement means nothing and Culinary members should follow their conscience.
Before Obama’s arrival Friday, the Clinton campaign continued its effort to undermine the Culinary’s support.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, current and former casino executives, in addition to prominent elected officials, blasted Obama as a foe of gaming and called him a hypocrite.
As state senator, Obama reportedly questioned the use of gaming as a tool for economic development in Illinois. In 1999, he voted against a bill that ultimately expanded gaming there. As a presidential candidate, Obama has praised Nevada’s gaming industry because, he says, it’s well-regulated.
Unclear in the discussion, however, was the relevance of Obama’s gaming record. Regulation is largely a state, not federal, issue.
The union fired back on Obama’s behalf, sending more than 200 organizers into the streets and into Strip casinos to reinforce its message: Stay together, caucus for Obama and trust the union that last year won the most generous contracts in its history.
Obama sought solidarity Friday, telling the story of his humble beginnings as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago and speaking about his experience walking the picket line with striking workers at the Congress Hotel.
“Over 20 years ago, I walked away from a job on Wall Street to work as a community organizer,” he said. “I spent 3 1/2 years doing what members of Culinary 226 are doing today: organizing to keep the American dream alive for all people.”
Obama then pointed to the Culinary, which has tripled its membership over the past 20 years and won increasingly generous wage and benefits packages for casino and hotel workers, as the model for the country. A win in the Nevada caucus, he said, would send a signal.
At one point, he lauded the union for its fight with the Tropicana, the only major Strip casino that has not signed a new contract with the Culinary.
“We’re going to show America that what happens in Vegas, it’s not going to stay in Vegas anymore,” Obama said. “We’re going to start something in Vegas and send it across Nevada and across America, and everybody is going to know the power of a united people.”
In a 30-minute speech, he promised middle-class tax cuts and relief for those affected by the subprime mortgage crisis. Obama also pledged to raise the minimum wage every year to keep pace with inflation.
Obama, who was interrupted several times by chants of his name, then drilled down on Clinton’s key line of attack that he’s all talk, no substance.
He ticked off his resume: organizer, civil rights attorney, state senator, U.S. senator.
“Change for me is not just rhetoric,” he said. “It’s been the cause of my life.”
And then, the labor slogan, in Spanish: “Si, se puede!”
Obama echoed the theme at a rally at Del Sol High School, where a line of more than 1,000 people snaked around the block, through the parking lot and into a packed gymnasium, where more than 2,600 people had already gathered. Asked for a show of hands, nearly all indicated they would caucus. Obama asked how many were undecided and only a sprinkling of hands went up.
There, Obama was introduced by Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, whose endorsement was strongly sought by Clinton.
Obama delivered his standard stump speech but spent most of the time answering questions from a feisty crowd that at times sniped at the candidate to be more specific.
“I don’t know if I can be any clearer, young lady,” Obama said, answering a question about overturning potentially unconstitutional programs such as warrantless wiretapping. “Goodness gracious.”
The crowd was Western-centric, asking questions about renewable energy, immigration reform, Yucca Mountain and the state’s public employee pension plan.
In a tense moment, Obama confronted the hazards of dealing with Western issues and the high emotions surrounding ones like immigration. A woman asked him what he would do to secure the borders and end the problem of “anchor babies,” a phrase sometimes used to describe a child born in the United States to illegal immigrants or other noncitizens.
A hush fell over the crowd. Obama didn’t flinch, saying he would not change the provision in the Constitution that makes children born here U.S. citizens. He vowed to put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship, but not before they pay a fine and learn English. The latter requirement earned him some of his biggest applause of the night.
“I apologize ahead of time if I don’t get to all your questions,” he told the crowd from the outset. “But I’m going to be here all next week. I’ll come back and answer them.”
Meanwhile, Clinton will have another shot of her own at Nevada voters today when she visits Las Vegas and Reno to court Hispanics.
Sun reporter Alexandra Berzon contributed to this report.