Culinary holds golden snitch in caucus

Comma Coffee in Carson City has become a public center of the Democratic presidential caucus in Nevada. It has the kind of natural hominess Starbucks strives to achieve without the big brand’s cookie-cutter ideal, which is eschewed by many capital city denizens and the legislative crowd across Carson Street.

It is Nevada’s political photo op, a place to grip and grin, see and be seen, sign autographs and, now that it’s warm, sip smoothies.

But the public charmfest often is really just a chance to get a little press. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama made his first trip to Northern Nevada last week to finally soak up the type of Reno-based free media already garnered by Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Sen. Joe Biden, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Chris Dodd, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and even Rep. Dennis Kucinich within Comma Coffee’s comfy interior.

And while I’ve been a fan of Comma Coffee since it earned an end-of-session liquor license in 2003, the real core of the Democratic caucus is 400 miles to the south, where the front-runners last week courted the organization that is critical to winning January’s caucus.

Few voters venture to South Commerce Street in the shadow of the Stratosphere, opting instead for large public rallies at local high schools. But it is there, at Commerce and Oakey Boulevard in Las Vegas, that the heart of the caucus is beating the loudest.

It’s not just the headquarters of the Culinary union, but the epicenter of the Democratic presidential caucus.

When the Culinary gets its red shirts behind something, the union is practically unstoppable. With 60,000 members, the Local 226 is capable of providing the key grass-roots support a candidate will need to win the Jan. 19 caucus, which could go a long way toward determining the party’s presidential nominee in 2008.

A strong labor presence and a growing Hispanic population are the main reasons Nevada was given this early caucus. And it will be labor that helps identify support for a candidate and gets those voters to their caucus sites.

Last week marked a second major courting of the union by presidential candidates. Clinton, Obama and Richardson each spoke at a huge Culinary rally in March to kick off the union’s contract negotiations with MGM Mirage and Harrah’s.

Richardson was back in early May when negotiations had grown stale; Clinton returned Wednesday on the eve of the contract’s expiration, reciting almost verbatim union leaders’ negotiating points as policies she supports.

She also went to the heart of the worker, thanking the members for providing the work that keeps Las Vegas humming.

“You can have a humble building standing all alone, but it’s what you do every single day that keeps people coming back,” Clinton said to a standing ovation.

Obama spoke Friday, a day after the contract expired, and hit many of the same themes. His timing was no less perfect, coming when the union is hyper-focused on its contract prize.

And he hit the perfect balance of detail and humor, elaborating about the card-check issue that’s becoming a major point in the union’s negotiations with MGM Mirage. He also drew a standing ovation by promising to walk with the Culinary, as he had with its sister union in Chicago.

John Edwards, who worked with the union on Nevada’s minimum wage initiative last year, was scheduled to make his first speech to Culinary members Saturday.

For now, Culinary members see the presidential candidate visits as a means to pressure casino companies to reach a compromise on the new contracts affecting 50,000 maids, cooks, cocktail servers, porters and kitchen staff on the Strip and downtown.

The union is holding out a political carrot that could prove the golden snitch in this caucus game. The candidate who wins the union’s endorsement will have a substantial edge getting voters to participate in an unknown and untested caucus process. It means fewer of the chosen candidate’s resources will be spent developing a grass-roots organization here, and could allow him or her to focus more resources on media, or in other early states.

The union, meanwhile, uses the candidate speeches to publicly negotiate with the two big casino companies in charge of 16 properties in Las Vegas.

If either company settles, it is inevitable the other will shortly follow suit, clearing the way for easier negotiations with properties such as the Sahara, Stratosphere, Las Vegas Hilton and the casinos downtown.

There’s no real downside for the union. As of Friday, negotiations were still ongoing and considered to be progressing toward a deal.

And there’s not a huge risk of backlash from the Strip properties. As a general proposition, both gaming giants will hedge bets with campaign contributions, trying to go with a winner. The eventual Democratic nominee could get as much from the gamers as the Republican nominee.

At the end of the day, the companies need to settle with the Culinary, and they recognize the union’s added caucus muscle will be flexed until a deal is reached.

And as the presidential caucus nears, the Culinary’s endorsement could provide an instant army. Last year, the union endorsed Democrat Dina Titus late in the governor’s race, but appeared more focused on unseating Clark County Commissioner Lynette Boggs McDonald than on turning out voters for Titus.

By January, the contract should be settled, and the Culinary will want to prove its potency to the national media. That’s precisely why South Commerce Street will surpass south Carson Street as the hub of the Democratic caucus.

Erin Neff’s column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached at (702) 387-2906, or by e-mail at eneff@reviewjournal.com.

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