The headlines say the latest schism among the top Democratic presidential candidates is over gender and race. But on the ground in the presidential season's opening states, there is a darker narrative: that Hillary Clinton will not just fight hard, but fight dirty, to win. And her tactic of choice is attempting to suppress the votes of her rival's supporters.
The latest example is from Nevada, where the Nevada State Education Association is widely seen as filing a suit on Clinton's behalf to stop Las Vegas' most powerful union, Culinary Workers Local 226, from caucusing inside downtown casinos after the union endorsed Barack Obama. The tactic foments a split along racial and class lines in arguably the strongest union city in America.
"It's horrible," said one longtime Nevada activist, who didn't want his name used. "It will cause fights and damage that will last for years."
But the Clinton campaign has made similar moves in New Hampshire and Iowa.
In the first primary state, her supporters -- backed by New Hampshire Democratic Party officials -- pressured poll workers to remove observers stationed by the Obama campaign. These volunteers had intended to track voters as part of their get-out-the-vote effort. That tactic came after the Clinton campaign sent a mailing targeting women that said Obama would not "stand up and protect" a women's right to choose because he had voted "present" -- but not yes -- on a few abortion-related bills in the Illinois legislature.
"I've kept most mailers I got from every presidential candidate this year, and that mailer was the absolute worst," wrote New Hampshire blogger Peter Glenshaw. "Never mind that Obama has a 100 percent approval rating from Planned Parenthood in Illinois. Never mind that Planned Parenthood asked him to vote 'present' on those bills."
And in Iowa, the Clinton campaign -- with the help of the state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, which endorsed her -- was discouraging students from returning from winter break to vote, even though their right to do so was legal, said Rick Hasen, who writes a respected election law blog. "Indeed such voting could help to compensate for the otherwise anti-democratic nature of Iowa's role in the presidential election process," he said.
As the nomination process has unfolded and Clinton has encountered resistance in every state so far -- including Obama's Friday endorsement by the 60,000-member Las Vegas Culinary Workers Union -- her campaign's increasingly critical rhetoric has been accompanied by voter suppression tactics aimed at her rival's core voters.
While Clinton campaign surrogates have verbally accused Obama of many things, from "fairy tale" answers on Iraq to being a drug user while they served the country more nobly, intentionally suppressing voters -- especially under-represented, low-income minority union members -- stands out in 2008's Democratic presidential campaign.
After all, the Democratic National Committee moved Nevada's caucuses to the top of the primary lineup so minority voices could be heard -- and no organization is more aligned with those voters in Nevada than the Culinary Union, whose training materials for its members are printed in four languages. In contrast, the state teachers, whose suit seeks to stop those workers from caucusing in nine "at-large" precincts in big downtown casinos, have a statewide base because its members work throughout Nevada.
The NSEA suit claims the at-large casino caucuses are not fair to the state's other voters because they will likely be overrun with voters, thereby skewing the proportional representation of Clark County delegates to the state party convention.
Neither NSEA officials nor their Las Vegas lawyers returned calls on Monday. However their suit states that "by packing as much as 10 percent or more delegates into the county convention, the at-large precinct caucus system (created for the casinos) substantially diminishes the voting power of delegates from other county precinct caucuses."
In other words, a strong turnout from the tens of thousands of Culinary Workers Union members in Las Vegas, where 70 percent of Nevada voters live, could swing the state's early foray into presidential politics. In 2000, fewer than 1,000 people participated in Nevada's caucuses. In 2004, that number was about 9,000. This year, estimates are in the tens of thousands.
Nevada political insiders say the NSEA lawsuit is designed to suppress Obama's voters.
"That's the common narrative at this point," said Pilar Weiss, the Culinary Workers Union's political director, when asked if there was any other way to interpret the suit. "A caucus system is all proportional representation. It's not unfair in any way. They (the state Democratic Party) made an accommodation for Clark County."
Another Nevada activist who has worked for years in the state was even blunter."This (caucus) plan was created by some of the same people who are plaintiffs in the suit against it," he said. "It's not that they didn't like the plan when Clinton was ahead."
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