US Presidential Election 2012

Casino union, moguls wage election fight in Nevada

Casino workers take on their owners in a crucial sideshow to the presidential election

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 4:19am

When Karl Marx predicted class struggle between capital and labour, he probably did not envisage Cheryl Lawrence, a casino pastry chef and single mother, cruising into battle down a Las Vegas freeway reciting a quote from the Disney film Finding Nemo: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming."

Nor, it is fair to assume, did Marx envisage a group of casino-owning billionaires using their clout to flood the airwaves with political advertisements to try to tilt an election their way.

Yet in Nevada, capital and labour are locked in a test of strength which could help determine the US presidential election. On one side, the Culinary Workers Union (CWU), representing Lawrence and 55,000 other casino cooks, bell hops and chambermaids, is investing its power in a get-out-the-vote drive for President Barack Obama. On the other, the gaming moguls Sheldon Adelson, Steve Wynn and Donald Trump, with a combined worth of more than US$25 billion (HK$194 billion), are investing in Mitt Romney.

At stake are the state's six electoral college votes, a small but potentially decisive prize in a tight presidential race. Opinion polls suggest a near tie in Nevada - Obama with 47 per cent, Romney with 46 per cent - meaning just a few votes could determine the November 6 election.

Obama needs to shake out of a political funk and block resurgent Romney when they meet in their second debate tomorrow morning Hong Kong time.

There is nothing new in unions backing a Democrat and big business backing a Republican, but the 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing super PACs - privately run political action committees bankrolled by hundreds of millions of dollars - has pitted Nevada's casino owners and their workers in an unprecedented duel. Both sides cast the election in existential, even apocalyptic terms. "This is not just about us," Geoconda Arguello Kline, the CWU's president, told red- T-shirted, cheering canvassers. "It's about protecting the workers of this country. Romney wants to completely destroy unions."

The moguls, for their part, warn of socialist plague. In a television interview last week, Wynn accused Obama of waging class warfare and wreaking economic destruction.

Adelson has given conservative groups an estimated US$70 million in this election and said he will do "whatever it takes" to oust Obama.

Some say a yearning for tax breaks and lighter regulation potentially worth billions in extra profits drives the intervention, but the tycoons say their goal is market-friendly policies to revive the economy and help ordinary Americans.

Sig Rogich, a Las Vegas-based Republican consultant who advised Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush, and who works with Adelson, defended the mogul's right to wade into the election. "This is a country built on the principle of freedom of speech. When George Soros funded the other side, no one complained."

Whatever the casino owners' motives, their strategy in Nevada is clear: fire up the Republican base in rural areas and Washoe county, which includes Reno, and reduce Obama's lead among Latinos in Clark county, which includes Las Vegas. Adelson-funded super PACs hammer Obama and the Democrats' Senate candidate, Shelley Berkley, with ads in English and Spanish.

Newly formed conservative groups such as Nevada Hispanics canvass voters at home, at supermarkets and at community events, mimicking a venerable Democratic and union strategy.

"We have very different ideologies but our campaigns have become more similar," said Yvanna Cancela, political director of the CWU. "Republicans used to stick to television and mail drops but they've learned that being out in the field works."

That is why Lawrence has taken unpaid leave from her job baking cakes at MGM casino to campaign full time until election day.

"We don't do this for the money, trust me," said Lawrence. "We do it because it's important."

An African-American originally from New York, she wished to set an example for her seven-year-old son. "Statistically, African-American males don't make it. But when my son puts on a tie for school, he says he's going to be President Obama some day."