LAS VEGAS — Over two decades, Maria Magaña has toiled long hours making beds, cleaning rooms, and mopping casino floors on the glitzy Las Vegas Strip. But her work hasn’t stopped there.
As a member of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, she has sat in bargaining sessions that have run up to 30 hours, and has even gone on strike. Magaña, 44, has done all of that for better health care benefits, which also cover her 12-year-old autistic son, Ramses.
"Our health care is something we don’t want any of the candidates to touch or change,” she said. That is why she opposes Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign pledge to replace private health insurance with Medicare for all.
Not far from the union’s main hall in South Las Vegas, a long line of people waited at a Mexican grocery store one day this week to cast early ballots ahead of the state’s Saturday caucuses. A group of young Latinas said they all were ecstatic about supporting one particular candidate: Sanders.
“I like how he wants to take down pharmaceutical monopoly companies,” Jazmin Stephens, 18, said of the self-avowed democratic socialist, as they munched on tostadas and pizza. “He wants to have health care for everyone, no matter your age, or income, or anything like that.”
Democrats wondering how presidential candidates might do on Super Tuesday as they court Latino voters across the Southwest need look no further than to Latinas like Magaña and Stephens in Nevada.
Latinos comprise almost a third of the state’s population, and the makeup of the Latino electorate is similar in a key way to that in nearby states: It is largely young and female, according to data compiled by the progressive firm Equis Research.
For years, the culinary union has had outsized power in Nevada as the largest immigrant organization, with nearly 60,000 members in Las Vegas and Reno, many of them Latinas. And its push for better health care coverage, members say, has been instrumental in its growth as a political force that has helped elect more Democrats to all levels of government and turn the state blue.
But this year, the union has decided not to endorse a presidential candidate amid a generational divide and concerns about losing health care benefits.
Young Latinas have been drawn to Sanders at a higher rate than young men, though their parents are more likely gravitating to former vice president Joe Biden or other candidates, according to Equis Research.
Nevada is the first real barometer of Latino support in the Democratic presidential race before the contest turns to the even more diverse and delegate-rich states of Texas and California. Sanders has surged in polls here and nationwide this week since Biden’s poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And all of the top contenders have rushed to court Latino voters in Nevada.
Sanders held a soccer tournament in a largely Latino neighborhood. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren joined with Latina elected officials to launch “Latinas en la lucha" — Latinas in the fight — highlighting the roles they play as the principal drivers of Latino voter participation, registration, and turnout.
Warren, Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., on Wednesday each joined the culinary union picket line outside the Palms Casino, where Magaña helped direct the flow of union members as they chanted “No contract, no peace.”
"Whoever can figure out how to engage Latino voters in Nevada can take that formula into California and into Texas,” said Mayra Macías, executive director of the Latino Victory Project, which works to cultivate young Latino leaders across the country.
Latino voter-mobilization efforts in Nevada have been a decade in the making, with Harry Reid, the former US Senate majority leader, and the culinary union often credited as the two most powerful forces.
Reid’s 2010 Senate reelection race was “a textbook example” of how to do it, said Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the Latino advocacy organization UnidosUS. He invested in efforts to register voters, engaged with Latino community leaders, and pushed for legislation to aid young people brought into the country illegally as children, she said.
“People had written him off,” Murguía said. “But what did he do? He said, ‘I want to talk to you; I want to listen to you. You tell me what you need, and I will promise you that we could do this working together.’ ”
In 2016, the Latino Victory Fund helped the state make history when it backed Catherine Cortez Masto, who became the first Latina in the country elected to the US Senate.
Grass-roots organizations and nonprofits, such as Latino Victory and Mi Familia Vota, have since ramped up their efforts, focusing on drawing in new voters through forums and events on issues such as health care and affordable housing. Since President Trump’s election, immigration has risen to the top of the list in a state where many families have members with various forms of legal US residency or none at all, Latino leaders said.
Ahead of Saturday’s caucuses, the state Democratic Party opened early polling sites for the first time to reach new voters. On Wednesday night, mariachis played and a local Spanish-language television station offered raffle tickets outside of Cardenas Market, an early voting site and staple in the city’s Mexican and Mexican-American community.
Strolling through the candidate and nonprofit booths, Cortez Masto and Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said they had not seen Latinos so energized. “I ran in 2016. The energy that exists now did not exist in 2016,” Cortez Masto said.
But with Cortez Masto, Reid, and the culinary union not making presidential endorsements, the race remains fluid.
Two polls released this week — one by Equis Research and another by Univision and the Latino Community Foundation — showed Sanders surging to the top of the field among Latino caucus-goers in Nevada. Another from Telemundo/Mason Dixon showed him virtually tied with Biden.
But Sanders has faced fire from culinary union leaders here. A union presidential candidate scorecard sent to members last month warned that his Medicare-for-all plan would end the union’s health care plan. That sparked a slew of racist and sexist attacks from alleged Sanders supporters against union secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline and union spokeswoman Bethany Khan.
At Wednesday’s presidential debate, Sanders condemned the behavior, arguing he had wide support from unions nationwide and would not sign any bill that would reduce the workers’ health care benefits.
On the picket line outside of the the Palms Casino, Magaña, who works as a casino porter at another resort, said she hoped Sanders would come to realize everything culinary workers would stand to lose with Medicare for all. She came to Las Vegas from Guadalajara, Mexico, in the late 1990s to join her aunts, resort employees who first got her involved with the union.
The battles she and others waged have helped foster a unique private health insurance system for union workers here that is funded by hotels and casinos, with low copayments. It covers a wide range of services and medications at little or no cost.
“I’m glad they came,” she said of the candidates who visited the picket line. “That is what we need, candidates who will walk with us, who will stand with us under the sun, in the heat or in the cold, who really want to work with the people.”