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Nevada's Culinary Union will not endorse in Democratic race

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The Culinary Union, the most influential union in Nevada politics, has decided to stay out of the state's Democratic presidential caucuses, denying candidates who aggressively courted the group from getting a major leg up in the upcoming contest.

The casino workers’ Culinary Union, a 60,000-member group made up of housekeepers, porters, bartenders and more who keep Las Vegas’ glitzy casinos humming, said Thursday that it will instead use its organizing power to get out the vote for the caucuses.

The move is a blow to former Vice President Joe Biden, who is looking to shore up his support in Nevada's Feb. 22 caucuses after disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the union's decision wasn't unexpected: The union’s parent organization, Unite Here, announced last month that it would stay out of the primary, and the Nevada members were expected to follow suit. Biden's campaign had told donors on a call Wednesday that it wasn't counting on the Culinary Union's support.

“We've known Vice President Biden for many years. We know he's been our friend," Geoconda Argüello-Kline, the secretary-treasurer for the Culinary Union, said at a Thursday afternoon news conference. “We know all of these candidates and we respect each one of them."

The Culinary Union, which is majority female and Latino, is a political powerhouse that can turn on a get-out-the-vote machine that’s been credited with helping deliver Democratic victories in the swing state. White House hopefuls had worked over the past year to win over the union, holding meetings with the labor group’s leaders, issuing public statements in support of their organizing battles with casino resorts, touring the union's health clinic and training facility, and appearing at town halls.

After the union’s 2008 decision to back Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton caused division among the union’s ranks, the union decided to stay neutral during the contentious 2016 Democratic primary between Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

With the 2020 primary field still crowded as it barrels toward Nevada, the Culinary Union can likewise avoid stepping into a contest that could split its members. Many unions nationally have made a similar calculation this year, deciding to stay on the sidelines of a volatile field without an unambiguous front-runner

"They could have actually pushed an election," Eddie Vale, a Democratic strategist and former political director of the AFL-CIO, said of Culinary. “Even if some of the big unions endorsed, it wouldn't have much of an impact on the race.”

A number of Culinary's sister unions and Unite Here affiliates have entered the contest, siding with the field's most liberal candidates. Five of Unite Here's affiliate unions based in California are backing Sanders. Another affiliate, Unite Here Local 11 out of Southern California and Arizona, announced in January that it was backing both Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The union’s New York affiliate, the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, issued an endorsement in June 2019 of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who later dropped out of the presidential race.

While the Culinary Union isn't endorsing a candidate, it has not refrained from wading into the contest. Over the last two weeks, the union has distributed leaflets to members in the employee dining halls at casinos warning that “Medicare for All” plans espoused by Sanders and Warren would threaten union members' health care.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has sought to capitalize on the controversy, name-checking the Culinary Union on the debate stage and on the campaign trail as he contrasts his health plan with Sanders' and Warren's.

“Who are we to tell them that they have to give up those plans?" Buttigieg said Thursday night, speaking at a League of United Latin American Citizens town hall in Las Vegas. Sanders said in a statement Thursday that he appreciates the work the Culinary Union does and that, if elected president, he looks forward to working with the union.

"We must provide guaranteed health care for all,” he said. “As someone who has the strongest lifetime pro-labor record of anyone in Congress, I would never do anything to diminish the health care that unions and workers have fought for. Under Medicare for All, health care will be preserved and expanded for all, including unionized casino workers and service staff, uninsured food service workers, and striking workers fighting for their rights.”

Sanders also addressed the union’s complain of online backlash. “Harassment of all forms is unacceptable to me, and we urge supporters of all campaigns not to engage in bullying or ugly personal attacks,” Sanders said. “We can certainly disagree on issues, but we must do it in a respectful manner.”

Vale noted that, despite Culinary's high-profile beef with Sanders' Medicare for All plan, the Vermont senator supports most of the union's goals -- as does every other candidate in the field. "It's not like the ‘60s, ’70s and '80s when you had just one labor candidate," Vale said. "Everyone's supporting your stuff."

Biden has long-standing ties to labor and the Culinary Union, in particular. He was introduced at a December town hall with the Culinary Union as the keynote speaker at the 1974 convention of the union's parent organization. In 2018, he headlined a get-out-the-vote rally for Democratic candidates at the union's hall.

He has locked up the endorsement of the Culinary Union's former political director, state Sen. Yvanna Cancela, who is now serving as a senior adviser to his campaign.

Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Columbia, S.C., and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”

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