LAS VEGAS (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris is set to speak Friday night before one of the most powerful political forces in Nevada, the Culinary Union.
Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the 60,000-member group of housekeepers, bartenders, porters and others that keep the glittering resorts humming, says the organization has not decided if it is going to make an endorsement in the crowded Democratic primary. The union's nod is perhaps the most coveted in the state, which will be the third to weigh in on the Democratic field next year after the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses.
"Right now, we're still meeting with the candidates and we're still listening. We're still getting our message to them," Argüello-Kline said.
Nevada, considered the first test of a candidate's appeal in a diverse state, has a 29% Latino population. The heavily immigrant, majority Latino union is seen as a key mobilizer of Latino voters, and does outreach in English and Spanish, along with Tagalog, Amharic and Chinese.
Though most of the candidates have held private meetings with the union's leaders, Harris is the first to get a coveted town hall with rank-and-file members. The union is planning more town halls with other top Democratic candidates, though it has declined to say which have received invitations.
The union's organizing is credited with helping former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid win a tough re-election campaign in 2010 and delivering Democratic victories in 2016 and 2018. In the state's early presidential nominating caucuses, the Democratic Party traditionally sets up at-large caucusing locations near the Las Vegas Strip, which allows casino shift workers to participate in the meetings.
The union's backing hasn't always translated to a slam-dunk for candidates: in 2014 union-backed Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford lost in a Republican wave. In 2008, the union decided to back Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. The move was a boon to Obama, who won more delegates in Nevada, but Clinton won the popular vote and had a strong showing at the at-large caucus sites near the Strip.
The union sat out the 2016 Democratic primary.
Some of the 2020 candidates have waded into the union's dispute with Station Casinos over unionizing votes at several of the company's Las Vegas properties, issuing statements urging the company to join the bargaining table.
Argüello-Kline said the biggest issues members want to hear from candidates on are their plans for good middle-class jobs, immigration reform and health care.
Members who have bargained hard for their health care plans aren't excited about giving up their coverage under "Medicare for All" plans backed by Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Argüello-Kline said members know many Americans don't have the same robust health plans and want a candidate who can cover everyone.
"At the same time, we know the members, they're not going to give up their own health care," she said. "We see the needs of the community, but we don't believe the solution will be taking away what we already have."