Here's why these Las Vegas hotel-casino workers are caucusing

Wednesday 19th February 2020

LAS VEGAS - Rocky and Barbara Colavito stand outside Lucy's Ethiopian Restaurant.

It's a Saturday afternoon near Chinatown, two miles from the Strip, and they're in line, a dozen people deep. But this married couple isn't here for sambusas.

They're here to vote early in Nevada's Democratic caucus, a key step in a long, uncertain process of picking a candidate to run against President Donald Trump in November.

The Colavitos are Bellagio blackjack dealers.

Unlike their hotel worker counterparts, the Colavitos and other card dealers are not unionized at the famous resort. But like many Las Vegans, they came here from elsewhere with their version of the American Dream, and working on the casino floor helped them get there: Landing living wages and full-time hours, they could buy a house, put the kids through school and retire.

Today, retirement is the only box unchecked, and the dealers consider themselves lucky. The rest of their dream came true: A house in Spring Valley, three daughters with college scholarships and good paychecks for mom and dad.

The Colavitos represent two workers at Precinct Bellagio, the most valuable voting block of Saturday's caucus - worth 51 delegates at the county's Democratic convention.

The USA TODAY Network explored what's driving voters at this crucial precinct and found a common thread that binds them: Fear that another four years of Trump in the White House will erode the resort worker's path to a stable, middle-class lifestyle.

"He's going to jeopardize livelihoods," Rocky Colavito said. "And I'm not talking extravagant or lavish - the basics."

Mariano Minaro has worked in hotels for three decades. Half that time, he's worked on the Bellagio's housekeeping crew. His hands show it.

When the 64-year-old Honduran isn't sweeping, he's filling bottles with chemicals for housekeepers tidying the famous resort's 4,000 rooms.

In 2004, he and his wife, Maria, left their apartment building near downtown Los Angeles for Las Vegas, a budding hospitality city with many hotel jobs and perks they couldn't find anywhere else: Union representation, living wages, full work weeks and a health care plan that didn't siphon money out of savings.

The Mineros got jobs at the Bellagio a year apart. They've been with the Culinary Union - Nevada's largest immigrant organization, representing 60,000 workers, mostly women and mostly Latinos - ever since.

At the start, Minero said, the couple both earned about $14 an hour. Now they make about $20. The steady, growing wages positioned the family with three boys to buy a four-bedroom house with a yard and garage in a North Las Vegas neighborhood with playing children and barking dogs.

"That was my goal when coming to Las Vegas - get a job and get a house," said Minero. "I thank God."

In Minero's world, he has secured many of the details in the dream he and his wife brought to Las Vegas.

Still, he worries.

He is a citizen, but his wife is not. She holds a green card and plans to pursue citizenship with the union's help, but it's been difficult to ignore the Trump administration's deployment of U.S. border agents to "sanctuary" cities.

Minero often navigates dark thoughts of the government rounding up his non-citizen brothers, sisters and wife and shipping them to El Salvador.

Geoconda Arguello-Kline has been with the Culinary Union for 30 years. An immigrant from Nicaragua, she started here as a maid 30 years ago. Now the union's secretary-treasurer, she's a familiar voice during election cycles and protests against casinos reluctant to allow employees to organize.

"I've never seen a president attacking the immigrants in the way he does," Arguello-Kline said. "He wants to use special forces to go after immigrants - people who work every day, who go to work and take care of their families, people who make incredible contributions, he says are criminals. They only see that when the immigrants have a different color of their skin."

Waiting outside the Ethiopian restaurant near Chinatown, the Colavitos reminisce.

"I miss the old days," Barbara Colavito said.

She moved to Las Vegas in 1969 and worked as a cocktail waitress at the long-closed International Hotel: "When Elvis was there," she said.

There were less crowds then, traffic was thinner.

"How about who controlled the casinos?" her husband asked, a knowing grin stretched across his face.

Barbara smiled. "I liked it before corporations took over," she said. "It was more family-oriented. They took care of you."

Now, they're looking for a candidate willing to take care of the country.

Rocky likes Elizabeth Warren.

"She's not afraid to stand up as a woman," he said. "She's bucking something that's never occurred in this country - a woman president."

Barbara likes Bernie Sanders.

"He's anti-establishment, that's why," she said. "He's against everything Trump stands for, and I love that."

The Colavitos entered the restaurant and picked their candidates, a few hours from their graveyard shifts at the blackjack tables, where they'd deal cards into the night.

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