Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Prominent Nevada Democrats have been shuttling from meeting to meeting recently, trying to patch up frayed friendships following last month’s at-times brutal presidential caucus.
Rory Reid, the Clark County Commission chairman who was Sen. Hillary Clinton’s state chairman, has met with prominent advertising executive Billy Vassiliadis, who was on Sen. Barack Obama’s steering committee, as well as D. Taylor, head of the Culinary Union, which backed Obama.
Sen. Harry Reid, state Chairwoman Jill Derby, state Sen. Steven Horsford, state Sen. Dina Titus, Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen and many others are engaged in the fence-mending, to the extent it’s even possible.
A partial account of the wreckage left in the wake of the caucus:
In the final days of the contest, former President Clinton accused the union of voter intimidation, even as the Culinary and Obama accused the Clinton campaign and its allies of vote suppression. The state teachers union sued the state party to shut down special caucus sites on the Strip that were viewed as Culinary sites. The chairman of the Clark County party called Culinary leader Taylor a bully.
Then there was a raft of back-and-forth accusations about support for gaming, opposition to Yucca Mountain, and whether the Clintons were injecting race into the campaign.
The whole imbroglio has many in the Democratic coalition still feeling raw, according to interviews with nearly a dozen prominent Democratic officeholders and strategists and labor leaders.
For the most part, they say the party will coalesce and try to win Nevada for the Democratic nominee in November, while trying to knock off Rep. Jon Porter, the Republican from the third congressional district.
Privately, however, these Democrats acknowledge long-term ramifications in the small and insular world of state Democratic politics, where everyone knows one another — but in some cases, can’t stand to be in the same room.
“The Democratic Party is like any family. Sometimes there are squabbles, but more often than not you love them,” said Rory Reid, former chairman of the Nevada Democratic Party. “I’ve beat my brothers at competitive contests, but we’re family and at the end of the day we’re together and we’ll be unified to beat the Republican nominee.”
Reid said he understood why the Culinary Union leadership would be upset. Badly mistaken conventional wisdom deemed the union kingmakers. But the Clinton campaign carved up the Culinary, which endorsed Obama 10 days before the caucus, and won a majority of delegates from the special caucus sites on the Strip.
“It developed its own dynamic that nobody controlled,” Reid said of the highly intense final days. “But like I said, I’ve been on the same side with D. Taylor many more times than on opposite sides. This was a unique circumstance that I don’t see happening again.”
Vassiliadis more or less agreed. “A lot of people were upset, and I’m not sure many have stopped being upset, over Bill Clinton’s attacks,” he said, referring to a Clinton charge that Culinary intimidated its workers into supporting Obama, in the kind of rhetoric often heard from union-busting corporate lawyers. (By the same token, Clinton supporters were angered that Taylor and other Obama supporters would use the racially charged term “vote suppression.”)
“The lawsuit left a bitter taste in a lot of folks’ mouths,” he said, referring to the teachers’ attempt to shut down the Strip caucus sites.
“But at the same time, there isn’t that disrespect for Sen. Clinton on our side or for Sen. Obama on their side, and there are folks on both sides who have worked together and been friends for many years.”
Dan Hart, a Democratic consultant and adviser to the teachers union, said what appeared to be party infighting during the caucus was nothing more than a sign of Democratic excitement: “Everybody was very active in the event, and I think it proves how involved and engaged these organizations are and how they can get their members engaged, and that’s for the better.”
There will be repercussions, however.
Most Nevada observers think the Culinary is eager to show it can still wield political muscle, lest elected officials get the wrong idea. “They need to make the conventional wisdom go away, however untrue it is,” said one Democratic strategist who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
The current conventional wisdom of Culinary weakness is no doubt as askew as the pre-caucus view of the union as hegemonic.
Still, whispers of Culinary vulnerability have been compounded by recent Sun reports that a number of Democrats — Clark County Commissioners Chris Giunchigliani, Tom Collins and Lawrence Weekly, as well as commission candidate Larry Brown — have taken political donations from companies controlled by Sheldon Adelson, the notoriously anti-union Republican owner of the Venetian.
Taking money from Adelson had long been considered taboo because of Culinary’s watchful eyes, and many observers expect Culinary to mete out punishment in a county commission Democratic primary.
Culinary Political Director Pilar Weiss declined to comment.
In a Sun interview after the caucus, Taylor mixed bitterness about accusations of voter intimidation leveled against the union with congratulations to the Clinton team for a hard-fought victory. He also cheered the state party for a big caucus turnout.
The caucus fight will bleed over into one of the most significant ballot initiatives this fall. The teachers union, which launched the lawsuit against the Strip sites that was seen as a direct attack on Culinary, hopes voters will support an increase in the gaming tax to pay for education. Culinary, whose members work in the casinos and which before might have sat on its hands, could actively work against the initiative, at least behind the scenes.
Hart, the teachers’ political consultant, said he isn’t worried. “I think they’re as concerned and their members are as concerned about education as everyone else. And I don’t think they would resort to petty politics.”
Then there’s Ruben Kihuen.
The first-term assemblyman and first immigrant elected to the Nevada Legislature endorsed Clinton and took her on a tour of his Culinary-heavy district. He told her members were ignoring the Obama endorsement and supporting her, in front of the assembled national press corps. It was seen as an attempt to drive a stake through the heart of the union.
Kihuen was elected with much help from the Culinary political organization, though he told the Sun the union’s help has been overstated.
In any case, union officials are still fuming, according to sources familiar with their thinking.
Kihuen, who didn’t return a phone call Friday, was offered a chance to apologize and make amends at a meeting, but either declined or failed to do so adequately, according to a source familiar with the meeting but not associated with either party.
In a previous interview, Kihuen said he supports the work of the Culinary.
Kihuen should ask for no favors in the Legislature, where Culinary wields considerable clout. Nor should he be surprised if he faces a primary challenge, if not in this election, then in a future one.
“The relationship’s been severed,” the source said. “Maybe not this year, but they’ll teach Ruben the ultimate lesson in the future.”
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, one of the few prominent Democrats lucky enough to have stayed out of the fight by not endorsing either candidate, called for calm.
“I think people need to keep their eyes on the prize. The most important thing is to elect a Democrat as president of the United States.”