Democratic presidential hopefuls nixed by powerful Nevada union

The 60,000-member group made up of housekeepers, porters, bartenders just said no

LAS VEGAS — The Culinary Union, the most influential union in Nevada politics, has decided to stay on the sidelines for state's Democratic presidential caucuses to be held on Feb. 22 which leaves several candidates who aggressively courted the union to help capture the third even of the primary season.

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The casino workers’ Culinary Union, a 60,000-member group made up of housekeepers, porters, bartenders and more who keep Las Vegas’ glitzy casinos humming, said Thursday that it will instead use its organizing power to get out the vote for the caucuses.

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“We have weighed each candidate and believe the best thing we can do for Nevada, for our members and for greater voter participation, is to focus not on delivering for a candidate, rather to deliver voters to the caucus and then to the general election,” Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, will say at a Thursday afternoon news conference, according to prepared remarks.

The move is a blow to former Vice President Joe Biden, who is looking to shore up his support in Nevada's caucuses after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the union's decision wasn't unexpected: The union’s parent organization, Unite Here, announced last month that it would stay out of the primary, and the Nevada members were expected to follow suit. Biden's campaign had told donors on a call Wednesday that it wasn't counting on the Culinary Union's support.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.) is likely not surprised given the kerfuffle he and his Nevada team found themselves in this week.  On Wednesday the union claimed its members had been “viciously attacked” by Sanders' supporters after the union publicly warned its members against backing a candidate in the state’s Democratic caucus who supports “Medicare-for-All.”

That political skirmish between Sanders and the union was the second in as many presidential cycles. In 2016 while campaigning against Hillary Clinton, Sanders' campaign staffers obtained and wore union pins to gain access to worker dining rooms throughout Las Vegas. The union decided to stay neutral in the race and Sanders lost to Clinton in the caucus vote.

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The Culinary Union, which is majority female and Latino, is a political powerhouse that can turn on a get-out-the-vote machine that’s been credited with helping deliver Democratic victories in the swing state. White House hopefuls had worked over the past year to win over the union, holding meetings with the labor group’s leaders, issuing public statements in support of their organizing battles with casino resorts, touring the union's health clinic and training facility, and appearing at town halls.

With the 2020 primary field still crowded as it barrels toward Nevada, the Culinary Union can likewise avoid stepping into a contest that could split its members. Many unions nationally have made a similar calculation this year, deciding to stay on the sidelines of a volatile field without an unambiguous front-runner.

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A number of Culinary's sister unions and Unite Here affiliates have entered the contest, siding with the field's most liberal candidates. Five of Unite Here's affiliate unions based in California are backing Sanders. Another affiliate, Unite Here Local 11 out of Southern California and Arizona, announced in January that it was backing both Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Biden has long-standing ties to labor and the Culinary Union, in particular. He was introduced at a December town hall with the Culinary Union as the keynote speaker at the 1974 convention of the union's parent organization. In 2018, he headlined a get-out-the-vote rally for Democratic candidates at the union's hall.

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