Las Vegas Sun

December 10, 2017

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A new wave of activism

How a flood of volunteers for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama could shift Nevada’s balance of power from gaming interests to a group of highly trained liberal activists.


Sam Morris

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama makes his final campaign visit to Nevada on Saturday at a rally at Coronado High School in Henderson. He urged thousands of the faithful to keep knocking on doors, keep making phone calls and to vote.

Obama's Final Campaign Swing

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigned in Henderson, his final scheduled visit to Nevada before Tuesday's presidential election.

Michelle Obama Rally

Michelle Obama, wife of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, visits Las Vegas.

Barack Obama Early Vote for Change Rally

Barack Obama visited Las Vegas today for some last minute campaigning.

Palin Rallies in Henderson

Sarah Palin visited Henderson Tuesday for some last minute campaigning.

The old saying in Nevada is that we don’t have two political parties, we have one party — the Gaming Party.

Here are the corollaries:

• People move to Nevada for jobs, and to be left alone.

• All the political and economic power rests on the Strip and with its paid political operatives and lobbyists.

For the most part, with the exception of some labor unions and a smattering of small do-gooder groups, the rest of the state mostly gawks like spectators at the governing process — and if your kid’s school isn’t good or you’re afraid to go to the local hospital because it’s substandard, well, what are you gonna do?

Nevada has long ranked in the bottom 10 of states in voter participation, let alone civic activism.

But that appears to be changing, quickly. The Silver State’s central role in this presidential election could fundamentally reshape the ways in which Nevadans view their community and what they can do to change it, say local activists, Nevada historians and political scientists.

Here’s why: The long campaign leading to the January presidential caucus culminated with a surprising turnout of more than 100,000 Democrats, which was followed by a general election campaign that has moved thousands of Democrats to volunteer for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.

The result: The state is for the first time home to thousands of energetic liberal activists well trained in sophisticated techniques of political and community organizing.

Here’s one metric: More than 257,000 Nevadans registered to vote this year.

Nearly half of them registered as Democrats, with the rest essentially splitting between Republicans and independents. Nearly 40 percent of new registrants were 18 to 29 years old.

This change appears to be one-sided, with state Republicans finding themselves in a funk, out-organized and laboring under the suspect leadership of Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons. A recent visit by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin showed that Nevada Republicans have caught some of the politics excitement, but it’s the state’s left-leaning elements who are most dreamy about a new future.

The awakened activists could create a sphere of influence off the Strip, one with its own agenda and the ability to force politicians — through the ballot box — to act.

“It does create a new power center, and it’s been an emerging one,” said Launce Rake, a spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, which would seem to be a beneficiary of the new crop of political talent. Rake said this development is most evident among Nevada’s youngest residents and in the Hispanic community.

Nevada historian Mike Green, a Democrat, said this would be a new development.

“Activists in Nevada have tended to be discouraged by the power of whatever group dominates the state, whether it was mining then or gaming now,” Green said.

Civic participation in Las Vegas has always been an uphill battle.

The 24-hour culture, for one, works against it, Green said. And the state’s primary industries — gaming and mining — have “never been associated with civic awareness,” he said.

Also, older cities, such as Obama’s own Chicago, have political cultures that have grown around cultural and political institutions over time. But because “Las Vegas has grown so incredibly fast, not just in terms of space, but in terms of time, it’s even harder for the institutions at the center to keep up,” Green said.

Eric Herzik, a University of Nevada, Reno, political scientist and expert in interest group politics, said he can forsee the new activism leading to “some maturation of interest group politics, where it’s not just elite interests, but grass roots interest groups.”

By elite interests, Herzik means the Strip. And the Culinary Union, which, though on the other side of the bargaining table from big gaming companies during contract negotiations, carries the industry’s political water in Carson City and elsewhere in the interim.

Dave Damore, a UNLV political scientist, said the new activists are rising just at a moment when powerful players, including developers, are in a steep decline following the real estate crash.

Herzik emphasized that it’s not yet known whether the Obama corps will continue its activism or have lasting influence.

And, he noted that an Obama loss could devastate his followers and send them back into the caves of apathy. Following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the disastrous 1968 Democratic National Convention and victory of Richard M. Nixon, millions of Americans walked away from politics, some never to return.

Still, if Obama wins Tuesday, and especially if Nevada continues to play a key role in presidential politics, the state’s political culture could be transformed, said Christopher C. Hull, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University who’s written a book about how the Iowa caucus has changed that state’s politics.

In Iowa, the caucus process, with its requirements of strong commitment and retail politics, inspires both voters and activists to raise their expectations of both politicians and the political process, Hull said.

Imagine that the new Nevada activists start showing up at public meetings and demanding better bus service in their neighborhoods. They arrive at Clark County Commission meetings to question rate hikes by the trash monopoly Republic Services. They organize a caravan to Carson City to protest budget cuts.

“You could get a wider spectrum of people showing up at a council meeting asking about roads. Before, it was an (elite) interest group, a gadfly ...,” Herzik said.

Another effect: Among the neophyte activists — now trained in political organizing and coalition building — could arise a new crop of political candidates, arriving on the scene just as term-limits take effect for the first time and begin booting out officeholders.

Even before they attain elective office, the Obama corps could force the Democratic Party and its elected officeholders to push their policy agenda and create real distinctions with the current policies of Gov. Jim Gibbons, who is slashing spending for services while refusing to raise taxes. After all, these activists are responsible for Democrats now outnumbering Republicans by 100,000 statewide.

Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington historian of the West and its emerging urbanism, offered a caveat: Change is gradual. Cities with thriving activist communities today, such as San Francisco and Seattle, were considered “out of control and aesthetically ugly” a century ago, not unlike Las Vegas is today, O’Mara said.

“It’s like a fine wine,” she said. “You have to let it mature.”

And, the development will depend on strong leadership and the ability of local organizations to “internalize these tactics to sustain interest in the electorate,” O’Mara said.

This movement to politicize a community needn’t have a leftward tilt, O’Mara noted.

She pointed to Orange County in Southern California in the early 1960s as an instructive model. “It was another place, like Las Vegas, where people said, ‘There’s no there there,’ ” she said.

The constellation of suburbs became the cradle of conservatism, though, as residents rallied around Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, and organized through churches and groups such as the John Birch Society.

Herzik noted that the success of the grass-roots political movement relied largely on its persistence and ability to trudge on after losses, including Goldwater’s.

“The pressure is on Democrats and Obama to continue this engagement,” Herzik said.

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