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Culinary’s quest: Knock on 1M doors this election season

Updated November 4, 2022 - 5:32 pm

As the labor leader’s impassioned speech intensified, the packed hall of red sweatshirt-clad Culinary Workers Union Local 226 members lifted from their seats, shot their hands in the air and roared.

“Are you fired up?” asked Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Thursday morning at the Culinary Union’s coffee-scented central Las Vegas headquarters. “Are you ready to go?”

Days before Tuesday’s midterm elections, the political powerhouse appeared “fired up” in its quest to knock on 1 million Clark County and Reno doors in canvassing sessions aimed at re-electing Democrats, such as Gov. Steve Sisolak and U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, as well as advocating for rent-control legislation.

Late in the week, the union canvassers — most of whom are paid to take leaves of absence from work to volunteer — had visited 800,000 homes and engaged in 140,000 conversations across the state, the organization said.

About 110,000 of the registered voters pledged their support for Culinary-endorsed candidates, Saunders noted. The latest figures had already shattered the record of 650,000 doors knocked on during the 2020 presidential election, which President Joe Biden narrowly won in Nevada.

Polls suggest some races in this election will again come down to the wire, opening up the possibility of a red wave that sweeps Republicans into power.

“Like some of the races we’ve had in the past, we think it’s going to be very close,” said Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Union, after Thursday’s rally. “But at the end of the day, we’ve got enough yes votes out there, and if we knock on the doors we need to knock on, we think we’re gonna win.”

If Pappageorge was worried, he didn’t show it.

“The truth is there’s a world of the polls, there’s a world of Twitter,” he said. “And then there’s a real world when you’re out there knocking on doors, talking to voters face to face. That’s what we do.”

Big machine

The Culinary Union — along with the Bartenders Union Local 165, both affiliates of UNITE HERE national network — represents 60,000 hospitality workers in the state. It’s the largest labor union in Nevada and 54 percent Latino, a voting block Republicans have made inroads with in recent years.

While the union has endorsed Republicans in the past, it’s supporting mostly Democrats in tight races this cycle, including Congressman Steven Horsford and Congresswoman Susie Lee. In local races, it endorsed Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom and state Sen. Pat Spearman, who’s vying to be North Las Vegas’ next mayor.

Efforts by Sisolak and Cortez Masto, Pappageorge said, kept union workers insured and employed after the COVID-19 pandemic hammered the hospitality industry, requiring many of the workers to rely on food banks. Their rents have increased hundreds of dollars during the current financial crisis, he added.

A Culinary-Union-sponsored ballot initiative to cap rent increases in North Las Vegas fizzled earlier this year at City Hall after the city clerk rejected the petition.

Republicans this round nominated “a bunch of extreme ‘M.A.G.A’ election deniers, from top to bottom,” Pappageorge said. “The candidates that fought for us in the pandemic, they’re leading the fight to go after these Wall Street landlords, to go after the price of living and to protect us and fight for our rights.”

Covering the valley

After the rally at Culinary Union headquarters, the volunteers dispersed across the Las Vegas Valley.

On average, union workers knock on more than 16,000 doors each day in Las Vegas and Reno, with each canvasser visiting more than 60 homes individually, according to Culinary Union-provided figures.

As a midday drizzle subsided, a mother-daughter duo pulled up to an east Las Vegas neighborhood. Armed with enthusiasm, political flyers and a tablet that helped them identify addresses of registered voters, Mirian Cervantes, 49, and Arlett Tovar, 29, began their shift.

They first encountered Glenn Ortiz outside his minivan.

The women asked if he’d heard of the candidates. Did he know any renters with ballooning rates? Did he need a ride right then to a polling station?

Ortiz politely declined the ride, and the duo moved on to the next addresses. Some residents didn’t come to the door, while others pledged to vote.

Registered voters they’ve spoken to — which are “too many to even count” — inquire about the voting process and locations, Cervantes said.

“It is different every single day,” said Cervantes, who’s been a housekeeper at Bally’s for 15 years and first began canvassing in the run-up to the 2018 election.

“Now, I’m here again, with Gov. Sisolak,” she said.

Cervantes was temporarily thrown out of work when the pandemic shuttered resorts and casinos, but an aid bill that Cortez Masto voted for kept her and her family insured, she said.

And while she owns her home, Cervantes said she worries about those who’ve been increasingly priced out.

“That’s why I’m here,” said Cervantes, who’s been canvassing for nearly a month.

Her daughter isn’t a union member but was hired to knock on doors in August.

“I’ve reaped the benefits” of having a union-member mother, said Tovar, a mother to a young child. She cited women’s rights as one of her main concerns.

“It’s actually nice to see everything going on. I didn’t know all of this stuff the union does; all the hard work that they do for their workers,” she said.

The economy was also on her mind.

Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 12, “my life got way more expensive,” Tovar said pointing to an insulin box on her hip. “Not by choice.”

“And you work and you work, and you work just to survive,” she added.

Back at the Culinary Union headquarters, Pappageorge was asked to imagine a scenario where the union-endorsed candidates lose.

“We think we’re gonna win,” he told the Review-Journal, citing the organization’s 87-year history.

“We fight for our members … for all workers,” he said. “That will never stop.”

Contact Ricardo Torres-Cortez at rtorres@reviewjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @rickytwrites.

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