Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

This report was written by Sam Mellins.

The Nevada caucuses in February 2020 were the high-water mark of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Sanders captured over 40 percent of the vote in a crowded field, with particular strength among Latino voters and the staff of the many hotels and casinos on the Vegas Strip.

One of the reasons for his commanding victory was the organizing efforts of the Las Vegas Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which according to leadership has grown its membership by over 150 percent in the past two years, largely through its organizing on behalf of the Sanders campaign. Now DSA members and other progressive organizers are using the organizing tactics and power they built during the Bernie 2020 campaign to try to reshape the Nevada Democratic party into a progressive force.

This process began last summer, when progressives captured majorities on the Democratic Party’s state governing committee as well as that of Clark County, which includes Las Vegas and is by far the most populous county in the state. Now, progressive and socialist groups including Las Vegas DSA are supporting a diverse slate of longtime organizers in the March 6 election for the state party’s leadership roles.

The electorate is composed of the roughly 560 members of the state party’s central committee. Victory would give progressives control of the state party’s staffing and campaign strategy, including a budget that can reach into the tens of millions of dollars each election cycle.

Organizers involved in the campaign told The Daily Poster that if victorious, they plan to reallocate budget funding away from consultants and mass media and towards on-the-ground organizing, especially in Nevada’s Latino, Black, and immigrant communities. They also hope to change party rules that currently tilt the playing field against progressives in primary elections. If successful, the effort could provide a roadmap for others looking to turn sleepy state party machines into progressive electoral powerhouses.

Laying the Groundwork

More than four years of work has gone into reaching this point. Since 2016, progressives have dedicated themselves to “making structural change in the party and returning power back to the people” said Judith Whitmer, who is the Clark County Democratic Party Chair and also the DSA-endorsed candidate for chair of the state party.

Whitmer, a transportation project manager by trade, has been active in politics since campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, and has become a leading organizer in Nevada’s progressive community since moving to the state in 2015.

During the first few years of their efforts, progressive activists never quite had the numbers to challenge Nevada’s old guard in the state and county-level Democratic parties. They spent their time building political infrastructure instead: In 2017, socialist organizers founded Las Vegas DSA, and in 2018, Whitmer and DSA organizer Keenan Korth founded Left Caucus, a progressive club within Clark County’s Democratic party.

The 2020 Sanders campaign changed the progressives’ numerical weakness by providing a huge boost to DSA membership and overall progressive involvement. DSA worked with Sanders campaign staff to host debate watch parties and outreach events. Korth, a progressive political consultant and former architect, turned his garage into a canvass launch site and caucus training location.

But as they were working towards Sanders’ February 22 caucus victory, progressive organizers were also thinking about translating the campaign’s energy into enduring power on the state level. Las Vegas DSA built its own pro-Sanders organization separate from the official campaign, so that its organizing network could stay active even after the Sanders campaign moved on.

“Folks that we brought into our organization because they wanted to canvass for Bernie are now helping us to organize mutual aid drives and doing all sorts of eviction and housing justice work,” said Korth. “That’s been a big part of our ability to organize beyond the caucus.”

In addition to allocating delegates for the Democratic National Convention, the Nevada caucus also allocates delegates for county-level conventions. Sanders’ commanding win meant that progressives were able to get a supermajority of delegates at the Clark County Democratic convention last summer and pass the county party’s most progressive platform ever, endorsing Medicare for All and a nationwide transition to 100-percent renewable energy.

Campaign volunteers also expanded their presence in communities that have historically played marginal roles in state politics. Dr. Zaffar Iqbal, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in the 1990s and now runs a rural Medicare and Medicaid clinic in Kingman, Ariz., founded Nevada Muslims for Bernie in 2019, and helped the group run a phone bank every Sunday for the three months before the caucus.

According to Iqbal, who is currently running for reelection as the Nevada state party’s second vice chair, these efforts translated to greater progressive Muslim involvement in state politics. “Now we have more than 25 Muslims on the state central committee. Before there were only three,” he said.

Since becoming second vice chair of the state party in August 2020, Iqbal has been holding roundtable meetings with representatives of other marginalized groups, including Nevada’s Black and Asian-American communities. At these meetings, he’s heard from community leaders about how the Democratic party could better represent them, and what it would take for community members to become more involved in the party, such as a greater focus on criminal justice and decarceration.

“These communities have wonderful younger people who are willing to organize, but the party needs to invest in them” said Iqbal, adding that having similarly-minded organizers join him in the party’s elected positions would enable this to happen.

A Level Playing Field

In addition to skimping on voter outreach, the state party’s current leaders have created structural obstacles to progressives running for state legislature and other down-ballot races, Whitmer said.

Under the current status quo, certain candidates for state legislature are endorsed by the Democratic caucus in the legislature before the party primary. “Once they have that endorsement, the legislative caucus puts its thumb on the scale,” Whitmer said. “They actually provide resources and money and staff.”

“They’re always able to provide more resources to the candidates that they favor, that they know will be in lockstep and not rock the boat, and do what the majority leader tells them to do,” she added. Progressives who might push the caucus left are rarely awarded endorsements.

Whitmer said that giving progressives a fair shot in primaries by ending party involvement in the process would be a top priority if she is elected chair.

But Whitmer also stressed that as party chair, she would work towards protecting all Democratic incumbents against Republicans in general elections. She believes current leadership has not been fully committed to this goal. Whitmer said that she made her final decision to run for chair after attending an event where a Democratic state senator said that the party would probably lose seats in the 2022 elections.

“I went home and I thought, why are we already willing to concede 2022? Are we not willing to put in the kind of work it takes to get there?” said Whitmer. “I’m not willing to concede one single seat.”

“I see a very bright future”

As progressives and DSA members have made inroads in Nevada over the past year, they have faced rancor from entrenched Democratic forces. Some Democratic power brokers “are incredibly hostile to us,” said Kara Hall, co-chair of Las Vegas DSA. “They don’t listen, they don’t pay attention, they won’t work with us on things.”

Part of this she attributed to the suddenness of the progressive surge. “I think it’s very scary to the establishment. I don’t think they were expecting it,” said Hall. “They were just being very lazy about it; they don’t organize. And then all of a sudden, it just happened.”

Progressives have continued to receive blowback in the lead-up to the March 6 election. An open letter signed by two dozen Democratic Party representatives, reported on by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, accused Whitmer of stacking the state central committee with her loyalists and suppressing diversity within the party, even though she and her progressive colleagues have prioritized reaching out to marginalized communities. Whitmer denied these accusations when asked about them by The Daily Poster and said that she had simply added members to the committee in the order of their application as places became available.

While Iqbal criticized the claims made in the letter, he said such attacks don’t worry him. All the candidates have been working hard whipping votes, he said, and “There are a lot more progressives [on the voting central committee] now than when I was running [initially].”

The Democratic Party has a powerful brand, and huge cash resources with which to promote it. By taking power within the party, socialists and progressives can change what that brand stands for, and use its tools to promote policies like universal health care and a $15 minimum wage in Nevada and beyond.

“The movement that Bernie started is now organizing into a real structure. We can see it from the Clark County party,” said Iqbal.

“Vegas is an amazing place for progressives,” he added. “I see a very bright future as progressives become more and more organized.”

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