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November 21, 2014

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The people have spoken

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Richard Brian

Hillary Clinton supporters are counted during Saturday’s Democratic caucus at Sheila Tarr Elementary School in Summerlin. The woman in the foreground holds an improvised ballot form. Because of high turnout, caucus organizers ran out of ballots and had to improvise with blank sheets of paper and colored markers. The Summerlin precinct wasn’t the only place that happened; turnout statewide surprised organizers.

A Day to Caucus

A sign hangs on the outside door of Culinary Union Local 226 political director Pilar Weiss after a caucus day rally and informational meeting at the Culinary Union Local 226 headquarters in Las Vegas early in the morning Saturday, January 19, 2008. Launch slideshow »

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  • Joyce Lewis explains her caucus excitement.

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  • Robert Ragan on John Edwards' turnout.

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  • Berkley Clements says it's time for a woman president.

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  • Christina Robles talks about caucus confusion.

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  • Ninth grader Tammy Esters supports Hillary Clinton.

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  • Paul Speirs discusses high turn out at caucus locations.

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  • Benson Cohen talks about the caucus process.

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  • Maria Carmen de Anda le gusta Hillary Clinton.

They were, Joann McAllister and Pat Quenzel would say later, the most intense few minutes of their political lives which, prior to Saturday’s Nevada Democratic presidential caucus, really had not been all that political.

Both first-time caucusgoers, both supporters of former Sen. John Edwards, McAllister and Quenzel instantly became two of the most popular people at Henderson’s Precinct 1424 caucus when their candidate’s negligible support at their meeting eliminated him from the running.

With the women’s votes up for grabs as the backers of “nonviable” candidates were given a chance to switch to one of the front-runners, supporters of Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama swarmed over them, trying to persuade them to join their respective camps.

And just like that, Quenzel and McAllister found themselves starring in a microcosm of the caucus, an electoral method that eschews the privacy of the voting booth for a very public act in which voters must stand up, before their neighbors and the world, and say exactly who they believe should be the next president of the United States.

In a scene fusing the frenetic waving and shouting of the New York Stock Exchange trading floor with the simple passions of the childhood game Red Rover, Red Rover, a half-dozen Clinton and Obama supporters surrounded the women reasoning, imploring, cajoling, even begging them to jump their way as they alternately took their best shots at winning them over.

“Experience can make it happen!” one Clintonite said.

“We need a fresh face!” the Obama camp shot back.

“Hillary’s viable she can win in November.”

“Hillary’s been part of the Establishment. Obama is new. That’s what can win in November.”

“I know you supported another candidate. But now you have to do what your heart and mind tell you.”

“If Edwards were here, he’d tell his supporters to go to Obama.

“I don’t agree with that!”

The only thing that brought the lightning round of point-counterpoint to an end was the precinct chairwoman pounding on a table to signify that it was decision time for Quenzel and McAllister, a 49-year-old stay-at-home mother from Green Valley Ranch.

“Whew! I guess that’s my 15 minutes of fame,” McAllister said.

“I’ve never gotten this kind of attention before,” a smiling Quenzel added.

Although two uncommitted voters seated near Quenzel and McAllister drew loud cheers from the Obama camp when they trooped over to their side of the room, Clinton’s backers won this final skirmish in the lobbying war, persuading both women to join them.

The final tally in Precinct 1424: 57 votes and four delegates for Clinton, 30 votes and two delegates for Obama.

•••

The voters at Henderson’s Multigenerational Center were among about 117,000 Democrats who trekked to schools, churches, casino ballrooms, community centers, shopping centers, convention halls and a myriad other sites Saturday at 529 locations across Nevada not only to stand up for their favored candidate, but also to be part of what arguably was Nevada’s most potent moment ever in presidential politics.

Sun reporters covered 34 precinct caucuses, including all nine at-large sites on the Las Vegas Strip.

Saturday’s turnout, 13 times the 9,000 participants in 2004, reflected the caucus’s newfound clout.

In the past, the state’s caucus has fallen later on the political calendar often after the nomination was sewn up, rendering it little more than a formality.

This year, though, through the influence of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada advanced to third in the Democrats’ nominating process, behind only the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary.

And when Obama and Clinton split the first two contests, winning Iowa and New Hampshire respectively, Nevada’s caucus had a most compelling story line: It would be the early tie-breaker between the two Democratic front-runners, one that would send the victor on to the next round with the winds of political momentum at his or her back.

“It seems like this is the first year we’ve had a real caucus that meant something,” Quenzel said.

The extraordinary turnout when Reid 18 months ago forecast a figure of 100,000, party leaders feared he had set the bar much too high in a state with historically low voter participation produced its share of glitches and complaints.

As at some other caucus sites, officials at Doris French Elementary School in southeast Las Vegas ran out of presidential preference cards, producing a delay while more were photocopied. Elsewhere, long sign-in lines slowed proceedings, as did voters’ confusion over precisely where to go at locations with multiple caucus sites. And at New York-New York on the Strip, elevator-only access to the caucus room delayed the start.

“I’ve never seen anything this disorganized in my life,” grumbled Lew Gitlin, a former local news anchor in Pahrump. Problems at his caucus notably, fire officials forcing one precinct to move its operations outside because of an overcapacity crowd in a school cafeteria prompted dozens of people to leave, forfeiting their votes.

An atmosphere somewhere between that of a polite pep rally and an impassioned soccer crowd was found at many caucuses, none more so than at the nine at-large sites on Strip established to make it easier for casino, restaurant and hotel employees working Saturday to participate.

At the Luxor’s Egyptian Ballroom, where nearly 400 caucusgoers gathered, there were alternating waves of “O-ba-Ma!” cheers from his red T-shirt-clad supporters and “Hill-la-Ree!” from Clinton backers in their white T-shirts.

The respective camps’ emotions were particularly raw on the Strip, primarily because it brought together thousands of Culinary Union workers badly split over their union leadership’s endorsement of Obama.

“I’m appalled that they went ahead and endorsed someone without asking me first,” said Christine Hill-Ackerman, a 45-year-old cafe food server at the Bellagio.

Similarly, Belem Perez, a maid at Caesars Palace, backed Clinton despite her union’s endorsement and was incensed Saturday when a union member told her to remove her union pin if she was not going to vote for Obama.

“‘Because the union supports him’ is not a good enough reason,” she said.

Those passions occasionally boiled over, typified by a tense moment at Caesars when an Obama supporter angrily swatted a Clinton sign out of someone’s hand and grabbed a Clinton T-shirt that was being waved to throw it to the ground.

“Traitors!” Obama’s Culinary supporters screamed at the Clinton backers across the room.

Confrontations, though, were the exception Saturday, as most caucus sites saw the various candidates’ backers articulate the reasons behind their support one last time in an attempt to sway a few voters.

“In every relationship, someone always comes with baggage,” 45-year-old professional magician Scott Dorfman, an Obama supporter, said just before the start of a caucus in the auditorium at Sheila Tarr Elementary School in Summerlin. “Hillary needs three porters. Obama is basically a carry-on.”

Native Las Vegan Douglas Tanner said Obama’s promise of a dramatic change in Washington drew him to the Illinois senator.

“He really sounds like someone who would be different,” the 22-year-old said at his caucus in the gymnasium at Doolittle Community Center on Las Vegas’ west side. “Hillary sounds like she says the same thing over and over and over.”

Clinton’s backers clearly disagreed.

At North Las Vegas’ Rancho High School, Maria Arqueta, a 46-year-old recently laid-off restaurant worker and former Culinary worker, said she sided with Clinton primarily because she hopes a Hillary Clinton administration could restore the upbeat economy of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Echoing the same theme, Planet Hollywood porter Javier Martinez said: “When her husband was in office, things were good for us.”

At the Searchlight Community Center, 81-year-old Berkley Clements said he believes Clinton, not Obama, offers the greater opportunity for change in Washington.

“We’ve tried everything else,” he said. “Let’s try a woman president.”

Clinton’s edge in experience a liability that Obama has tried to offset with his theme of change also figured prominently in many caucusgoers’ decision to side with Clinton.

McAllister, the erstwhile Edwards backer who ended up backing Clinton at the Henderson caucus, said that was the pivotal factor in her decision.

“I’m afraid of his inexperience,” she said of Obama. “Frankly, I wanted to hear something from the Obama campaign that could have pulled me in their direction. But I didn’t get it. It was always just, ‘Change, change, change.’ That just leaves you wondering, what exactly does that mean?”

McAllister, distressed by what she sees as the broadcast media’s casting of Edwards as an also-ran so early in the primary season, had shown up at the caucus reconciled to the likely necessity of having to throw her support to either Obama or Clinton, given the slim chance that Edwards would gain enough votes to qualify for the second round of caucus activity.

For many backers of candidates other than Clinton or Obama, however, the caucus’ demand for a rapid switch of allegiance was a painful one.

“It was the longest 4 feet of my life,” Art Jackson, the lone supporter of Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, said of his walk to join the Obama camp in Summerlin.

Edwards supporter Kevin Bibby, a 43-year-old artist, took a politically pragmatic attitude toward his move to the Clinton camp at a caucus at Las Vegas’ Halle Hewetson Elementary School.

“Clinton was my backup plan,” he said.

Just as McAllister and Quenzel experienced in Henderson, undecided voters or those initially committed to another candidate who fell short of the 15 percent vote threshold necessary to compete for individual caucus sites’ delegates also found themselves attracting feverish lobbying from the major candidates’ camps.

At Caesars, for example, Melissa Thomas, a 30-year-old wedding services worker, at one point was surrounded by five Obama supporters and four Clinton partisans. As inducements, they offered her campaign paraphernalia a red Obama shirt, a green Clinton megaphone campaign brochures and even newspaper clippings. In the end, she sided with Clinton.

If the six-figure statewide turnout was not proof enough of the interest and commitment generated by Saturday’s caucus, the solid Democratic turnout in the remote Republican mining community of Elko in Northern Nevada on a day when the temperature was an exceptionally brisk 7 degrees further proved the point.

One elderly woman, a Clinton supporter, fell on ice in the Elko convention center parking lot but was still determined to caucus, initially refusing to budge even as EMTs urged her to go to a hospital.

Finally, a Clinton volunteer persuaded her to seek treatment, saying: “Your health is more important than the caucus.”

Saturday left no doubt, however, that Nevada’s Democratic presidential caucus was very healthy, indeed.

Sun reporters Liz Benston, Joe Brown, Brendan Buhler, J. Patrick Coolican, Tony Cook, Brian Eckhouse, Jeff German, Abigail Goldman, Charlotte Hsu, Steve Kanigher, Ron Kantowski, Nicole Lucht, Mary Manning, Michael J. Mishak, Kristen Peterson, Tim Pratt, Emily Richmond, Cy Ryan, Joe Schoenmann, David Schwartz, Phoebe Sweet, Stephanie Tavares, Mike Trask, Rick Velotta and Brian Wargo contributed to this report.

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