The casino caucus: In an ornate Las Vegas ballroom, hotel workers flex political power on a lunch break
Sunday 23rd February 2020
Inside the Bellagio resort, more than 100 casino workers wearing soft-soled shoes and uniforms of muted greens and reds walked down the cream-colored Italianate hallways on their lunch breaks as suddenly powerful citizens, not just as the employees who make Sin City run.
It was caucus day, and these service workers had stopped cooking meals, cleaning rooms and giving massages to make their voices heard in the boisterous Democratic presidential contest that took place in a ballroom at the hotel on Saturday.
"It is fun," said Jose Canela, 53, who was about to caucus for the first time ever. He was on break, wearing a red work shirt, with gloves stuffed into his back pocket. He works about 60 hours a week at two jobs as a lead convention porter for the Bellagio Hotel and Casino and as a regular porter at the Wynn resort. He wants to make more money.
"'Unidos' is 'together,'" Canela said, pointing to a Sen. Bernie Sanders sticker on his chest that said "Unidos con Bernie." "Together with Bernie. Together we can make more powerful."
The Bellagio caucus site was in a ballroom next to the casino's wedding chapel, where pictures of brides in white dresses flickered on a digital display board. One woman standing in the hallway, when asked if she was a journalist, responded that she worked for "The Circus"; being Vegas, it was not immediately clear if she was referring to the Showtime TV show about politics or something else a little more colorful.
As dozens of journalists filled the back of the ballroom, Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the powerful Culinary Workers Union, which represents many of the workers who attended Saturday's Bellagio caucus, drifted around the ballroom in a red union T-shirt and gold-sparkle tennis shoes. Were they for a special occasion? "This is a normal outfit, because it's Vegas," Khan said.
The workers filing in were about to answer one of the most persistent questions of the Nevada presidential contest: Would they buck the leadership of the Culinary union, which had been warning members that Sanders' "Medicare for all" plan would replace the union's high-quality private insurance? In the last two weeks, the issue had reached a fever pitch, with the union accusing Sanders supporters of harassing its leadership for criticizing Sanders' healthcare plan.
"I don't think it's cooled off," Khan said of the controversy. "Maybe [more] people are calling to say they respectfully disagree, rather than yelling at me."
Technically, although the leadership had made plain its affinity for former Vice President Joe Biden and its distrust of Sanders, the union had not endorsed anyone, meaning the members filing into the ballroom "are deciding for themselves who they want to caucus for today," Khan said.
Walter Guardado, 51, a cook at the Bellagio for nine years, said after he checked in that he was still deciding between Biden, 77, and Pete Buttigieg, 38, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.
Why Biden? "Experience." Why Buttigieg? "Youngest." When it was pointed out that those were opposite qualities, Guardado responded wryly, "That's why it's very hard for me."
He then grinned as he pulled out his phone to show a photo of him proudly shaking hands with Biden. "Yesterday," Guardado said. "Fresh."
In reality, that handshake had cemented Guardado's decision for him.
"He's very humble," said Rosilia Herrera, 59, a customer service worker who had also met Biden. She also had a soft spot for billionaire activist Tom Steyer. "I love him," Herrera said softly. "I love him."
But she also felt drawn to Sanders, who she considered her second choice. "I like the way he moves the people," Herrera said.
Sanders' unusual gravity soon made its presence felt at the Bellagio. After the caucus began at the stroke of noon, almost two-thirds of the 123 voters immediately aligned with Sanders, drowning out a smaller group of Biden supporters as they chanted "Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" No other candidates had the 15% support needed to win delegates.
When it came time for a Sanders supporter to make a speech in his favor, it was a Culinary member who did the job; Sanders supporters cheered as she defended his Medicare-for-all proposal.
"It will look after all of our family members who don't have the union right that we have to fight for our healthcare," she said.
When the final delegates were tallied, it was a rout: Sanders won 32 county delegates, Biden won 19, and no one else was viable. Sanders' victory was replicated at Culinary-represented casinos up and down the Strip. The union has been unable to buck the democratic socialist's momentum among its own membership, which is heavily immigrant and Latino.
Afterward, Nora Gomez, a cook at the Bellagio and Culinary union member who caucused for Biden, said that she liked Sanders, but she worried about the Medicare-for-all plan replacing Culinary healthcare and "who's going to pay for it."
"He's trying to protect the Culinary healthcare, and that's very important for me and my family," Gomez said of Biden.
But Norma Arce, a Bellagio massage therapist who supported Sanders -- and who is not a Culinary member -- was thrilled. She loves Sanders' aggressive proposal for healthcare.
"It was very exciting," Arce said of her very first caucus. "Very democratic, as it should be." She was even elected to become one of the delegates who will support Sanders at Nevada's county conventions.
But just as quickly as their moment had come, with the task of picking a presidential candidate finished many of the workers did not have time to chat afterward, marching speedily through the wall of journalists hoping to interview them about Sanders' momentum and its implications for Nevada's most powerful union.
"We already spent two hours here; they said it was only going to be one hour," said one uniformed housekeeper. "We have to run and complete our rooms."
She barely slowed her stride as she walked away back into the belly of the Bellagio, a citadel of joy where time was somebody else's luxury.