Democratic Candidates Head to Nevada

The Democratic presidential candidates are all heading to Nevada to talk about health care this weekend. The forum is sponsored by the Service Workers Union, a critical voting bloc in this important early state.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Nevada is going to play a new role in the presidential election this cycle because it moved its Democratic caucus to January 19th. That's just five days after the Iowa caucuses. Tomorrow, Democrats will be holding their second candidate forum in Nevada in a month. The place is Las Vegas. The subject is health care. And one of the sponsors is the mammoth Service Employees International Union.

NPR's Ina Jaffee reports that the SEIU hopes to have a big impact on the selection of the next Democrat to try for the White House.

INA JAFFEE: Nurse Shana Hamel(ph) head down a corridor at St. Rose Dominican Hospital in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. She's armed with a tray of cookies and a stack of surveys for the workers there.

(Soundbite of workers)

JAFFEE: Ordinarily she works in intensive care. But now she's part of a project to totally overhaul the way patients are treated at St. Rose.

Ms. SHANA HAMEL (Nurse): Do you know how the Numovax(ph) vaccine affects patient's outcome?

Unidentified Woman: Not really.

JAFFEE: Hamel is a member of the Service Employees International Union, and it's a sign of the union's clout that nurses are spearheading the hospital's restructuring. It's an opportunity they won when they negotiated their latest contract. The union's strength here is one reason why the service employees picked Las Vegas as the site of for tomorrow's forum on health care, says Jane McAlevey, the executive director of SEIU Nevada.

Ms. JANE McALEVEY (SEIU Nevada): Eight out of 10 nurses in all of southern Nevada are part of our union. There's no place quite like that in America for us.

JAFFEE: There is no place quite like this in America, period. Thousands of people move to the Las Vegas area every month, and it now accounts for more than two-thirds of the state's population. Over the years, Las Vegas has morphed into a city that gives Democrats hope for success in what's been mostly a Republican state.

Which explains Nevada's sudden prominent place in the election calendar, says political analyst John Rolsten(ph).

Mr. JOHN ROLSTEN (Political Analyst): Almost a quarter of the population here now is Hispanic. I think that was attractive. Plus, there is anomaly in a right-to-work state that we have this huge union presence. That, I think, was very, very appealing for the Democrats. You get all of this in one place in Las Vegas.

JAFFEE: When it comes to issues, the war in Iraq looms as large in Nevada as anywhere else in the country, says Rolsten. But there are some topics the candidates will now have to take on that are just pure Vegas.

Mr. ROLSTEN: Growth issues, which are huge here, water issues people like to talk about, and of course there are issues having to do with the gaming industry, known as gambling everywhere else except here that I think the candidates will have to pay attention to, that they certainly wouldn't have to in Iowa and New Hampshire.

JAFFEE: They will also have to pay attention to the issues that affect service workers, in particular the 60,000 members of Culinary Workers Local 226, the fastest-growing union in Nevada.

Ms. PILAR WEISS (Political Director, Culinary Workers Union, Local 226): We represent cocktail waitresses, bartenders, porters, maids, cooks - the whole spectrum of workers.

JAFFEE: Said Pilar Weiss, the local's political director, as volunteers hit the phones to get their fellow union members out for a rally tonight.

Unidentified Man: It's right at the union hall, and you're welcome to take your family if you like.

JAFFEE: Tonight, the members of Local 226 will get an update on their contract negotiations with the hotels on the Las Vegas strip. They'll also get some moral support from Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson, who are getting to Las Vegas early enough to woo two unions on one campaign stop. Culinary workers won't make an endorsement until later this year. But whatever they decide, Pilar Weiss has no doubt the union's support will be pivotal.

Ms. WEISS: Caucuses are a unique system. It's not an election. And you know, our people know how to organize and they're going to be excited to take their organizing skills (unintelligible)

JAFFEE: And who knows, if they got lucky and back a winner, they could wind up with a friend in the White House.

Ina Jaffee, NPR News, Las Vegas.

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