Democrats’ hopes of carrying West depend on winning over skeptics
Terry Ward tugged on his broad-brimmed hat and grimaced a little like a man about to scoop a particularly gamy road kill.
“I like to stay away from all politicians, but we have to deal with them, so we better go out there and do it,” Ward said, his eyes glinting from behind glasses, a smile barely perceptive through his white beard.
At 68, the retired Nevada Department of Transportation employee and Washoe County resident considers himself a conservative Democrat who respects the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
He was one of hundreds of AFSCME members who donned green T-shirts and converged on the Carson City Community Center Feb. 21 for the first Democratic presidential candidates’ forum of the 2008 campaign. As a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which sponsored the event, Ward somewhat reluctantly turned out to hear the Democrats speak their piece. In a room seemingly full of true believers, he was a skeptic who called himself “a Nevada Democrat, very fiscally conservative.”
As I worked that room, I found plenty of Nevada Democrats like Ward. They didn’t all share his background or rural sensibility, but neither were they sold on a particular candidate. They all seemed excited at the prospect of Nevada’s new political importance, but a few wondered aloud whether their party could keep it together long enough to prevail in the 2008 election.
In recent presidential campaigns, Nevada has gone the way of much of the West. The Democrats have made a few races interesting, but the party has carried the state only twice since 1964. For that to change, the Democrats will have to nominate a ticket capable of relating politically and philosophically to the residents of the region.
“Everyone’s mad at the president, but George is out of the picture,” Ward said before the forum. “It’s an open race now. They can’t play around. They’re going to have to say what they mean. They’ve got to stand up for what they believe in. They can’t say they believe in everything. They’ve got to say what they mean even if it kills them.”
During the forum, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton once again declined to say she made a mistake when she voted to endorse the Iraq war, instead calling her decision “sincere.” Other candidates from the Senate owned up to their historically regrettable votes, but it wasn’t always clear whether their contrition came from their heart or their political adviser.
Ward noticed that only one candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, had much to say about illegal immigration, a big issue in the West. He suspects the Democrats “want those voters whether they’re legal or illegal.”
“The current administration has whittled away at our freedoms,” union member and Las Vegas resident Norma Price said.
Las Vegan Henrietta Thomas, 85, moved from California 11 years ago. She, too, wondered why there wasn’t more discussion about illegal immigration. “I’m concerned about the border being controlled,” she said. “It just seems like they’ve taken over. This is America … English is the language.”
Denise Kelley, 81, assembled the AFSCME retirees in Southern Nevada – a group that now totals 769 members – and has been rousing the rank-and-file since her days as a fraud investigator and activist in Cincinnati.
“How did we get so lucky to have people like that sacrifice everything and run for the president of the United States? Where were they two years ago?”
Some would argue those candidates were watching the Democrats lose most of the West and the election after failing to appeal to enough centrist voters.
At 79, Las Vegas resident Catherine Kanston is a retired New York City elevator operator and union member who traveled to the forum by bus. Like many people, she sees Iraq and adequate health care as problems that need to be addressed immediately. Although she liked what she heard, she admitted that all the talk began to blur a little.
“They all gave a good platform. It’s hard to even choose,” she said. “Hopefully, when I choose, the right one will do the right thing.”
The first thing they must do is mesh with voters who are dismayed at America’s current political status, but have a good sense of smell and remain skeptical of all the promise making.
Whether a Democrat wins the state in November 2008 depends on how well the candidate actually listens to the resident skeptics of Nevada.
• John L. Smith’s column, reprinted from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, appears on Thursdays on the Appeal’s Opinion page. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.