Scantily clad cocktail waitresses, men in hard hats, uniformed housekeepers and kitchen workers by the thousands took breaks from their shifts on Saturday to caucus on or near the Strip in an only-in-Vegas slice of democracy.
“I don’t think we’re in Iowa anymore,” said one out-of-state caucus observer at Wynn Las Vegas.
Throngs of people participated in Democratic caucuses at the nine at-large precincts meant to accommodate shift workers who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to participate.
As in Nevada as a whole, Hillary Clinton was the overall winner at the at-large sites, proving that Culinary union members don’t always stick together.
The union, which endorsed Barack Obama, has 60,000 members, 80 percent of whom work on the Strip. Those union workers represent about half of all employees at Strip resorts.
“I got the right to choose, right?” said Culinary member Rodrigo Garcia Rojas, who was waving a sign that read, “I support my union, I support Hillary,” while caucusing at Wynn.
The 52-year-old Hilton kitchen worker said he didn’t feel pressured to go along with the union’s endorsement: “I went with my gut feeling.”
Clinton won about 54 percent of the delegates at the at-large sites to Obama’s 46 percent.
She ended up with 268 precinct delegates to Obama’s 224.
Not enough Edwards supporters showed up to win him any delegates at the sites.
Obama led at Luxor and Caesars Palace, but Clinton won the other sites: Bellagio, The Mirage, Rio, Paris-Las Vegas, Flamingo Las Vegas, Wynn and New York-New York.
Culinary Secretary-Treasurer D. Taylor said he wasn’t worried about possible disunity in the union’s ranks based on the many at-large caucus participants who went for Clinton.
“For one thing, those (precincts) weren’t exclusive to our membership,” Taylor said, noting that the nonunion Venetian and Palms bused their workers to the sites.
“I really want to commend Senator Clinton and President Clinton for their work making person-to-person contact with our members. Hopefully, if we’re in a big contract fight, they will be here with the same readiness.”
Taylor said Clinton’s clout with members was not a sign of weak Culinary leadership.
“What we have shown over the years is that we work in a long-term fashion. There are many challenges that we have to share, and I think we will meet them as a union.”
Clinton scored her biggest at-large win at Paris with nearly 69 percent of the delegates.
Her supporters not only stole the lion’s share of delegates from Obama, they took over the Culinary union’s rally song.
“We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!” shouted more than 200 shift workers for Clinton when it became clear they were in the majority.
Their departure from the Culinary endorsement wasn’t a betrayal, several workers said, but an attempt to stay true to their individual values.
“They can tell you to do something, but you don’t have to do it,” Paris cocktail waitress Tara Kaveney said before slipping a white Hillary T-shirt over her uniform.
The 28-year-old said Clinton won her over with her stand on health care. Kaveney believes everyone should have the insurance they need to receive medical treatment.
As the last of the workers signed up to vote, the rallying chants exploded inside the Concorde Ballroom, where Clinton backers shouted down a smaller group of Obama fans.
“They don’t even have all the facts,” Raymond Wadsworth said of the Clinton side.
“Obama actually walked the picket line in Chicago. Where was Bill or Hillary during the Frontier strike? Did they have anything to say?”
Wadsworth, a pantry worker at Bally’s, unsuccessfully sought to sway the few Edwards’ supporters to the Obama camp, telling them: “It’s a two-horse race.”
But it became clear that even if Obama’s red-shirted supporters were able to recruit the thin showing of Edwards backers and undecided voters, it wouldn’t bring them close to Clinton’s numbers.
At the Paris caucus, Hispanics largely sided with Clinton and blacks grouped together for Obama. Wadsworth, a black shop steward for the Culinary, noticed it and blamed Clinton.
“She went to the Latino communities, put in some face time and divided the union,” Wadsworth said.
He wasn’t prepared to forgive Clinton for doing that, especially since he feels she ignored the local black population.
“Did she go to any of the African-American communities here?” Wadsworth asked. “It’s plantation politics.”
The loss for Obama stunned Lian Garbutt and brought her to tears as she watched jubilation unfold on the Clinton side.
“Obama is for us, the working class,” the Bally’s hostess said.
Garbutt said she’s frustrated but not surprised that Culinary workers didn’t stick together. She said the union’s power lies in the workers’ ability to stand united.
“It hurt me very badly.”
At Wynn, results were almost evenly split in the elegant Lafite Ballroom, where nearly 400 people caucused.
Clinton walked away with 189 votes, while Obama got 187.
The caucus started about 20 minutes late, allowing Obama and Clinton supporters ample time to stage mini-rallies for their candidates. Supporters chanted loudly, either “O-BAM-A!” or “HIL-LAR-Y!”
For first-time voter Spencer Forrest, 39, it was a little overwhelming and “kind of juvenile.”
“But I liked it,” added the shipping and receiving worker at Fashion Show Mall.
Medhin Tesema, a 47-year-old custodial worker and Culinary member at Wynn, toed the union’s line and came to the caucus to support Obama after finishing her graveyard shift.
“He’s the best, and he works hard for unions,” the Ethiopian immigrant said, adding that her choice had nothing to do with the union’s endorsement. “I made my own decision.”
But Clinton also had a large contingent of supporters at the resort who were Culinary union members.
“Women support women,” said Isabel Robles, a 34-year-old Wynn kitchen worker and Culinary member. “I didn’t feel any pressure to vote for Obama.”
The scene repeated itself at the Bellagio, where Culinary union members largely bucked their leadership to back Clinton.
“Her husband was an awesome president, and he will be an awesome adviser,” said Carey Archer, a Bellagio cocktail waitress who took two hours away from the busy casino floor to caucus for Clinton.
Archer wore a Clinton bumper sticker across her chest on top of her cocktail waitress uniform, along with her Culinary Local 226 membership pin.
The Bellagio caucus drew 495 participants. Clinton won 58 percent of the delegates there, while Obama got nearly 42 percent.
There were 33 Edwards supporters or uncommitted voters who didn’t join either camp.
The Bellagio caucus also began late, but ended within 30 minutes.
Some caucusers had met Obama when he visited the Bellagio employee cafeteria at 7 a.m. on Saturday.
Obama supporter Ivonne Bates, a Bellagio casino porter and Culinary member, carried a large Obama campaign sign and helped organize fellow workers to hand out Obama stickers to caucus attendees as they entered. Quickly, a team of Clinton supporters took up a similar effort.
“I got to meet with him (Obama) this morning,” Bates said. “He’s going to bring about change. He’s a remarkable person.”
The caucus activity also sparked the interest of Bellagio guests visiting Las Vegas for the three-day weekend.
Although she couldn’t participate, Sharon Akridge, a high school government teacher from Tucson, Ariz., walked over to the Bellagio to see how a caucus works.
Taking photos, she was excited about being able to bring a first-hand knowledge of the process back to her students. Arizona’s presidential primary is on Feb. 5.
“This is a great lesson in politics,” Akridge said. “I’m really excited to see this.”
Review-Journal writer Molly Ball contributed to this report.Caucus Day in Nevada slideshow