Friday, March 25, 2016 | 2 a.m.
In a brewery on the west side of Las Vegas, several dozen people — many disgruntled by so-called “establishment politics” — gathered last weekend to forge a new path.
Shirley Schludecker, a retired nursing administrator, and her partner, Tazo Schafer, organized the meetup, hoping to parlay passion for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders into a political movement that could shape public discourse around progressive issues like increasing the minimum wage, enacting paid sick days, improving public education and reforming the criminal justice system.
“We must tap into this enthusiasm while it’s strong,” Schludecker, 78, said. “If we don’t, it’s going to go away.”
It was more than just a friendly gathering of like-minded people. The grassroots event, publicized through word of mouth and email, marked the launch of Nevada’s Working Families Party — a progressive political organization that advocates for participatory democracy and an economy that benefits the working class.
The national membership of the WFP, a third party hoping to push the political climate further to the left, voted to endorse Sanders last year. Although Hillary Clinton won Nevada’s Democratic caucus, Sanders captured 47 percent of the vote here. Schludecker and Schafer took that as a sign that the WFP’s anti-establishment bent would appeal to a large number of Nevada residents.
Forty-three people attended the launch event Saturday at Old School Brewing Company; by Monday, a group met again to discuss strategy.
“As it stands now, both parties are too much for the big money and have too much influence from the big money,” Schludecker said.
The WFP, which formed in New York in 1998, has an organized presence in 10 states and eventually hopes to operate chapters in all states, said Dan Cantor, the party’s national director. The growing organization has been credited with propelling issues, such as paid sick days, into the national spotlight by focusing on political change at the local and state level.
“The way you make (change) is not in Washington. It’s in Clark County,” Cantor said, before rattling off a long list of other locations across the country.
His point was this: If the WFP can make strides at the local level by supporting issues and candidates that advance its agenda, that can create a ripple-effect elsewhere. In other words, it’s a “bottom-up approach,” a phrase reiterated by local WFP organizers.
Schafer said Nevada’s WFP will identify three or four issues to focus on and vet local candidates to determine if they align with the group’s agenda. In a sense, it’s more a question of whether a candidate endorses the WFP’s agenda than the other way around, he said.
“Our goal is to be the ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval for candidates,” Cantor said. (The party tends to support the most progressive Democrats but will occasionally endorse pro-working class Republicans, he said.)
Schafer said the Nevada WFP would evolve amoeba-like, with the initial group breaking into smaller, autonomous groups for each political district. Meetings should be participatory in nature and focused on local issues, he said.
In the future, the group may recruit, train and nominate its own candidates for office, Schafer said.
Erin Bilbray, a Nevada Democratic National Committee member and Sanders supporter, attended the launch event and said she was eager to see how the group expanded in Nevada.
“A lot of middle-class families are still having a hard time,” she said. “People would like to see some progressive changes. I think this group has the ability to do that. They’re certainly attracting smart (individuals) who are very energetic.”
Kristin “Coop” Cooper, 33, is one of those people who has jumped aboard the Nevada WFP. The mother of a 7-month-old daughter and owner of a handcrafted jewelry business said she joined because it was a system that “speaks for the people.”
The general approach, she said, was: “We’re the people. We know what we need. This is how we get us there.”
The voter-centric approach — focused on the needs of the people as opposed to donor interests — is what has set the WFP apart during the “anti-establishment moment” in the U.S., Cantor said.
And given how the recession pummelled Las Vegas, in particular, Cantor said he expected the WFP to gain momentum in the Silver State.
“We’re pretty optimistic that, in Nevada, which has great disparities in its economy, our message will ring very true with people,” he said.