Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
State lawmakers may need to brace for the politically unexpected when they descend on Carson City in February.
For the first time in memory, legislators, often cowed by the political and economic power of the Las Vegas Strip, will face another interest group with newfound swagger: the Nevada citizenry.
Energized by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, the state is now home to thousands of liberal activists well trained in proven techniques of political and community organizing. And the Obama camp intends to maintain that network, both to advance the president-elect’s agenda in Washington and to empower voters in their own communities.
Campaign volunteers are set to host more than 1,500 house parties across the country this weekend to gauge supporters’ priorities, to ask them where the Obama movement should go next.
“President-elect Obama was clear throughout the campaign that elected officials in Washington alone aren’t going to bring change,” said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, “and whether it’s by working to expand the Democratic majority or building grass-roots support for the administration’s agenda, the power to bring the change we need lies in the hands of Americans who are engaging their communities.”
Nearly two dozen gatherings are scheduled throughout the Las Vegas Valley, and the postelection enthusiasm is still hot.
Yvette Williams, who hosted candidate Obama at a house party in August 2007 and became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, had to cut off her Sunday party at 75 activists.
Likewise, Fred and Suzie McKay, who held more than 40 events for Obama throughout the course of the campaign, will host 22 people, a full house. After the strategizing, there will be live music and a buffet.
Ostensibly, the purpose of the meetings is to help craft and advance Obama’s agenda.
“He can’t do it by himself. He’s always said that. He’s gonna need our help. That means working with members of Congress, including Republicans,” Williams said.
The campaign sent a survey to supporters last week, asking them what the organization’s top priority should be. Sixty-five percent said supporting Obama’s agenda was at the top of the list.
But Nevadans should pay particular attention to this fact: The Obama organization is also creating a state and local agenda. As Williams put it: “It’s not enough to change politics in Washington if we’re not changing them here locally. It’s good and great if it’s changing in D.C, but if it’s not affecting us in our local community, it’s not doing us any good at all.”
At the weekend events, volunteer leaders will poll participants on chief priorities and find out who among them has particular expertise or relationships with legislators and other key players. And, they’ll strategize about a plan for the coming months.
Williams has already begun studying the legislative process and some recent sessions. She said she’s amazed and how much happens with very little public scrutiny.
“I’m finding out things I can’t believe,” she said.
Williams, who leads the organization’s black caucus, said she has about 150 committed activists — they’re like family — ready to swing into action.
They’ll head up to Carson City in March.
“We have folks watching. People are going to be aware what’s going on in our government,” she said. “Our job is to make sure the transparency is there.”
Their issues: education and health care, child welfare, the economy and job creation, sinking home values.
Williams said the new Obama crowd is already facing resistance from the establishment, which traditionally runs roughly from Mandalay Bay to the Stratosphere: “We’re getting people organized and helping them understand they have a voice and have power in numbers.”
Dave Damore, the UNLV political scientist, said the Obama team was smart in keeping activists engaged: “If you want to push major policy initiatives, the best way is to have public opinion engaged in the process.”
If they stay engaged, he said, expect legislators to behave differently: “If the Legislature thinks someone is watching, they’re less likely to side with interest groups and power players.”
He warned the Obama activists that they are “not gonna make a lot of friends.”
Damore also said any Democrat considering a run for governor in 2010 would have a leg up with the support of the Obama crowd because the activists are now the most powerful force in Nevada Democratic politics.
That goes for Sen. Harry Reid as well; he’ll need the precinct captains for what’s expected to be a difficult reelection campaign.
David Lublin, a political scientist at American University, questioned whether the house parties might be more show than anything else.
“I think he’s trying to maintain some sense of communication,” Lublin said. “The question is how realistic is it – and ultimately it gets a bit tougher now. Obama called for change. Lots of people want change but have different ideas of what change stands for.”
Although Lublin questioned how long the Obama organization could maintain enthusiasm, he said the strategy would likely preserve Obama’s core support, both for his agenda and his reelection. “People like to feel listened to, even if he doesn’t do exactly what they want,” Lublin said. “Obama doesn’t want his supporters to feel as if they’ve been dumped and all of sudden he wants to date them again in January of 2012.”