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League of Women Voters strives to create nonpartisan progress in Las Vegas

A funny thing happened to the local political scene on the way out of this year’s presidential caucuses.

“My phone was blowing up,” recalled Sondra Cosgrove, president of the League of Women Voters of Las Vegas Valley, and first vice president of the League of Women Voters of Nevada. Cosgrove is also a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada and co-chairwoman of CSN’s Women’s Alliance.

“People were running into this crazy caucus process,” she said. “If I’m hearing from Republicans saying, ‘This is disenfranchising me,’ we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Cosgrove said she reached out locally to the Democratic and Republican parties to discuss changing caucuses to presidential primaries.

“The Republicans said, ‘For the love of God, yes. We don’t want to do caucuses anymore,’ ” Cosgrove recalled. “The Democrats said, ‘You can’t tell us what to do. Go away.’ ”

The Nevada State Democratic Party couldn’t be reached for comment on caucuses. But the local league hasn’t given up on engaging Democrats and Republicans — men and women alike — in shaping public policy.

Nonpartisanship could have something to do with the local chapter’s reported growth spurt of 51.28 percent from 2014 to 2015.

“They’re not a Democratic (Party) organization,” observed political consultant Scot Rutledge at a League of Women Voters Nevada Council meeting at University United Methodist Church. “They really are here to talk about things without that partisan lens. “It’s definitely not just for women.”

With 100 dues-paying members, according to Cosgrove, the local chapter consists of about 30 percent men. Time spent educating people and advocating on issues breaks down more evenly, at about 50/50.

The chapter launched in 1964, nearly a half century after the suffragette victory in the U.S., and the founding of the national league that guided women through voter registration, talking to candidates, and running for office.

The local chapter’s “Achilles heel,” is, according to Cosgrove, an organizational model that skews toward older, white, middle-class women. The average member’s age is 67.

“What you’re running into is older women doing roles that older women have always done,” Cosgrove observed.

Enter the PTA and other civic organizations requiring a heavy investment of time and effort.

In the civil rights era, league members adhered to the model of “Republican motherhood,” ensuring that families, kids and communities got healthy. That meant fighting for desegregation in schools and against housing discrimination.

“We’ve tried to redefine what leadership means,” said Cosgrove of her chapter’s latest evolution — reaching out to busy, college-trotting millennials.

She attributes the group’s growth not only to an aggressive, letter-and-email strategy that’s reached old friends, but also a foray into social media . That’s where many millennials are, unaware of the league’s existence.

“I said to our college students, ‘Can you help me get word out when we do meetings? Follow me on Twitter. When I post, will you share and repost?’ ” Cosgrove said. “Millennials tend to be politically independent.”

That’s made them effective in spreading the word — and receiving the message — about an organization that doesn’t support candidates or parties, yet supports issues based on research and consensus-building — an organization based on information.

“Sondra tweets a lot,” observed 22-year-old Diana Monsivais, a UNLV senior majoring in political science and economics. “Twitter has been one of the biggest forms that we’ve seen millennials engage in.”

As a member of the UNLV College Republicans, Monsivais recalled encountering someone who asked why she’d joined the “Democrats” at the league.

“There’s other Republicans,” she said, suggesting that the stereotypes don’t always stick at the league. “I’m half Latina, and I’m also a lot younger than most of the members. We just find common ground for things that we both want to change.”

“I think we’re going to see a lot of millennials who are interested in the nonpartisanship,” said Camille Naaktgeboren, a 36-year-old microbiology teacher at CSN and Las Vegas Valley League member. “We just want these issues to be taken care of, for ourselves and our children.”

Republican Assemblyman David Gardner, representing District 9, recalled the recent presidential caucuses and watching friends leave because they couldn’t wait in line for 2½ hours with their kids.

On the subject of changing Nevada’s caucuses to presidential primaries in 2020, he said he and Cosgrove see “eye to eye.”

“The biggest thing for me, that I was surprised by, is that party doesn’t matter,” he added.

Gardner said he’s also working with the league on transparency in the local election process, noting that three candidates in 2012 and 2014 were caught making false statements about living in districts.

Democrats have the league’s ear, as well. At the recent council meeting, Sen. Pat Spearman addressed league members about her bills for the upcoming legislative session, addressing equal pay with stringent measures in the case of violations; ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment; and voter registration.

She also addressed her work on renewable energy. The legislation, she said, makes a “bold statement to the world” about Nevada taking hot topics, such as income equality and renewable energy, seriously.

“In many ways, the question of energy is also a question of economic security,” Spearman said. “They intersect around the edges.”

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