Sunday, Feb. 24, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The Clark County Democratic Convention turned into a fiasco Saturday, with a host of problems that were entirely predictable but blithely ignored by county party leadership.
The convention was supposed to elect delegates to this spring’s state convention in Reno, where delegates will be selected for the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Instead, county party leaders, with the annoyed assent of the campaigns of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, suspended voting and moved to reconvene at some future date to vote on state delegates, who will ultimately determine whether Obama or Clinton wins a majority of Nevada’s 25 pledged delegates at the national convention.
Although more than 7,000 delegates to the county convention had been elected at the Jan. 19 caucuses, the county party booked a room at Bally’s with a capacity of 5,000.
Few people expected the 7,000 elected delegates to show, but it was entirely unsurprising that the Clinton and Obama campaigns, locked in a tight delegate battle that could go all the way to the national convention, would call their supporters and tell them to show up at Bally’s so they could be alternates to replace the no-shows.
Sure enough, that’s what happened. There were 6,000 people in the hall when the fire marshal intervened, and Bally’s management estimated 4,000 people in the hallway outside.
The problem was that there wasn’t a clean and credible process for seating alternates. Rules said they should be from the same precinct and support the same presidential candidate as the no-show, and barring that, should at least support the same presidential candidate as a given no-show, but the county party was overwhelmed trying to track this information and ultimately shut down registration.
Also, though there were supposed to be more than 7,000 delegates elected at the Jan. 19 caucuses, the county party list had only 6,000 names, according to the campaigns.
The county party didn’t have enough stations or volunteers to help delegates get checked in, or to get alternates seated as delegates. Indeed, throughout the morning the registration line snaked from Bally’s lobby through the casino floor and into the ballroom where the convention was being held. At one point a party volunteer worked the crowd with a case of bottled water — cold comfort for many elected delegates who were demoted to alternate status and denied access to the convention hall.
Ballot boxes were not secured, which was one of many reasons both campaigns said unless voting was suspended and a new and credible process created later, they would challenge the vote.
This is the second recent flawed event organized by the county party. November’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner was also beset with organizational snafus.
Erin Bilbray-Kohn, a spokeswoman for the county party, tried to put a good face on the event, marveling at the massive turnout. She said the was organized by volunteers who’d worked their hearts out and didn’t deserve to be castigated with mean-spirited attacks.
Still, state party officials fumed, having tried to persuade Clark County Democratic Chairman John Hunt to postpone the county convention to ensure it was well organized. He refused.
The Democratic National Committee, monitoring Saturday’s convention, called state party officials and told them to get county leadership to clean up the process or risk losing delegates to the national convention.
The campaigns and influential Democrats not affiliated with the county party were furious.
“This is a disgrace,” said D. Taylor, head of the Culinary Union, which endorsed Obama and had a few hundred delegates at the convention. Taylor said many Culinary shift workers had to leave and so didn’t get their votes counted.
“There should not be a disconnect between the Democratic Party and competency,” Taylor said.
State Sen. Dina Titus, a co-chairwoman of Clinton’s Nevada campaign, fielded complaints outside the convention ballroom, which she said reinforced the need for legislation she has introduced to switch the state to a primary nominating contest. That would preclude the need for using conventions to select delegates because delegates would be chosen simply and automatically based on a proportion of votes won in the election.
Delegates were irate.
Marguerita Flowers, an Obama precinct captain at Precinct 2480, was elected as an Obama delegate on caucus day but was inexplicably demoted to alternate status Saturday.
Marisa Calderon, a Clinton precinct captain at Precinct 1163, told a similar story.
She and her husband, Christopher, both elected delegates on caucus day, pre-registered with the party. But only Christopher’s name was on the party’s list. So Marisa was demoted to an alternate.
When convention Chairman Bill Stanley moved to suspend voting, the assembled delegates revolted and voted the motion down. The campaigns then met with supporters in separate rooms to explain why suspending the vote was necessary.
Each campaign believed it had good motivation to suspend voting. The Clintons feared that the convention had been swamped with Obama supporters, which could cut into Clinton’s 11-percentage-point victory in Clark County on caucus day.
The Obama forces, meanwhile, feared many supporters had been turned away when registration closed and knew any continuation of the voting would be challenged.
At about 4 p.m. the convention passed the motion to suspend voting, the lights came up, and everyone filed out, an air of bitterness hanging heavily.
The only thing that went off without a hitch was keynote speaker Al Franken, who tried to make light of Saturday’s problems:
“I know it’s been a tough day for you,” Franken said. “I flew in from a county convention in Minnesota. I just want you to know that none of this is my fault. It’s your fault for caring.”