Thursday, Oct. 9, 2008 | 2 a.m.
With a month before Election Day, the mood in the Culinary Union’s large second-story hall is urgent.
Pilar Weiss, the union’s steely, hard-charging political director, is rallying her 95 foot soldiers for another day of campaigning for Sen. Barack Obama.
The army of organizers, working six days a week, has knocked on nearly 90,000 doors of union members over the past few months. Many union households have been hit several times and some members are getting angry over the intrusions.
No matter, Weiss says Tuesday. She implores the organizers to go back.
Sure people told you they’ll vote for Obama, she says. But we’ve got to stay on them.
If there’s no wanting for passion or conviction, no wonder. For Weiss and the Culinary — the state’s largest and most politically active union — this campaign is a shot at redemption.
The Culinary, widely seen as a political kingmaker, endorsed Obama in the run-up to Nevada’s presidential caucus, only to be embarrassed when its members openly rebelled against leadership, favoring the candidate’s main rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, at seven of nine at-large caucus sites on the Las Vegas Strip. Although Obama won more delegates, Clinton won the popular vote by 6 percentage points.
In the aftermath, the union faced a divided membership and perceptions of lost clout. Culinary officials, who blamed the loss largely on a late endorsement, say the wounds have been healed and most of its members are now supporting Obama.
Before setting out Tuesday, the organizers met in small groups to offer testimonials. Jack Thill, a showroom attendant at Treasure Island, reported to others that Hispanics are now getting behind Obama. (In the caucus, Hispanics favored Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin.) Hispanics compose about 40 percent of the union’s membership, and, he noted, “They told me where to go when I came back to them” during the caucus.
The stakes are higher this time around. In Nevada, the Culinary is overseeing the effort to knock on union members’ doors for the Change to Win labor federation, which claims 100,000 members statewide. The federation includes Culinary parent Unite Here and the Service Employees International Union, in addition to five other unions.
Lead organizer Carmen Carrera imparted some tips to workers Tuesday.
Reconfirm that you know the member by using his name, she said. Sample script: “Gary, you’re still with Obama, right?” If members get angry, Carrera said, tell them you’re just offering a reminder about early voting, which begins Oct. 18. And always remember to ask about family members and how they’re planning to vote, she said.
Among the ground troops is Debbie Castrejon, a cashier at the Excalibur and a Culinary member for the past 24 years. She said she was devastated by the caucus loss, having gone door to door in the final days with the flu, and has redoubled her efforts for the general election, working 10-hour days, six days a week.
Knocking on union members’ doors has been sobering, Castrejon said, driving to her first neighborhood of the day, near Spring Mountain Road and Torrey Pines Drive. She says many union members in Las Vegas have lost their jobs, recounting a recent visit to a Culinary member who, having been fired, was in the process of moving out because her home had been foreclosed on.
Organizing is hard work. Castrejon hit 28 doors in two hours Tuesday, speaking with 13 people and leaving Obama fliers for members who aren’t home. In each case, she yells, “Culinary Union!” Some are more accommodating than others.
At her fourth house, a man behind a steel-bar door asks, “You’re not here about Obama are you?” Castrejon says she is. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he barks, slamming the door. Castrejon moves on. On a scale of one to five, one being Obama and five being Sen. John McCain, the man was marked “1” on her list, she says. She figures he just didn’t want to be bothered.
“We never get discouraged,” she says. “We keep on going.”
Four doors later, she encounters a Culinary member who just finished the graveyard shift. “I’m dead beat,” the man says, peering out from a crack in the door.
“Are you still on Obama’s team?” Castrejon says.
“Yes,” the man says, sounding irritated. “We’re still on Obama’s team.”
“Thank you,” Castrejon says. “God bless you, honey.”
When union members aren’t home, she asks family members when she can come back, making notes in a red plastic binder. She passes a handful of vacant homes along her way, most bearing telltale signs of foreclosure. Brown lawns, lock boxes and “No Trespassing” stickers. “You see this all the time,” she says.
Castrejon makes the most of her route, apparently converting two Sparkletts water salesmen during a visit to a member’s house. “They’re not on the list, but I’ll take ’em,” she says in a thick New Jersey accent.
She struggles through a conversation with Alejandro Manriquez, a Culinary member who works at the Bellagio. He’s not a U.S. citizen and Spanish is his primary language. The two share a moment though when Manriquez points to McCain’s visage on the union flier. “Same as Bush,” he says. Three family members are working at the moment, he says, but will be home later. She marks down the times and writes “Spanish” in her binder.
Her last door is a challenge.
Norma Bactol is a porter at Harrah’s who emigrated from the Philippines 12 years ago. She’s 64 and works a second job as a housekeeper at Trump to make ends meet. Bactol says she likes Obama’s plan for the economy but her support is lukewarm. After all, she supported Clinton in the caucus and had her picture taken with President Clinton at the Rio caucus site. But there’s another reason.
“He’s black,” she says, noting she’s been mistreated by black co-workers.
“We need to look past color,” Castrejon says. “There’s good and bad in everybody.”
She then tries another approach: “It’s like a union contract. When we stick together, we win.”
Bactol commits to Obama, and with that, Castrejon is off to lunch.
Of the doors organizers have knocked on thus far, 35,813 members or their relatives support Obama, 7,111 support McCain and 5,482 are undecided, based on the Culinary’s figures.
“We feel very good right now, but we’re not being naive,” Weiss said. “We realize we have to move people in a lot of directions.”