LAS VEGAS —
The Culinary Union, the most influential union in Nevada politics, has decided to stay out of the state’s Democratic presidential caucuses, denying candidates who aggressively courted the group from getting a major leg up in the upcoming contest.
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.
“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 Feb. 22 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.
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.
After the union’s 2008 decision to back Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton caused division among the union’s ranks, the union decided to stay neutral during the contentious 2016 Democratic primary between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
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.
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. The union’s New York affiliate, the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, issued an endorsement in June 2019 of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who later dropped out of the presidential race.
While the Culinary Union isn’t endorsing a candidate, it has not refrained from wading into the contest. Over the last two weeks, the union has distributed leaflets to members in the employee dining halls at casinos warning that “Medicare for All” plans espoused by Sanders and Warren would threaten union members’ health care.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has sought to capitalize on the controversy, name-checking the Culinary Union on the debate stage and on the campaign trail as he contrasts his health plan with Sanders’ and Warren’s.
Sanders said Wednesday that union officials “will tell you they spend half their lives just trying to protect the health care benefits that they have.”
“We are the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care to all people. And in those countries, unions don’t have to defend the health care benefits they have. They already have health care. They can talk about better wages and better working conditions,” he said on CNN.
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.
He has locked up the endorsement of the Culinary Union’s former political director, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who is now serving as a senior adviser to his campaign.
Associated Press writer Bill Barrow in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.
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