In Las Vegas this weekend, in a windowless ballroom deep in the Mandalay Bay casino’s massive convention center, a Somali cab driver took on a billionaire and won.
Despite being entirely new to participating in American politics, Jamal was giving the “realignment speech,” an important role in the Nevada caucus process. His task was to entice unaligned caucusers to join the Bernie Sanders group after their candidates had been declared unviable on the first round of voting. There were about twenty Steyer voters up for grabs, along with five in the Warren group (and zero for Pete Buttigeig). Only Sanders and Biden were viable during the first round.
“Bernie fights for us!” Jamal yelled to a room of casino workers and fellow taxi drivers.
His realignment speech followed one given by Evi Steyer, a young scion of the Steyer family fortune. Steyer, in a bright blue dress and combat boots, addressed the assembled housekeepers, janitors, and taxi drivers on behalf of her billionaire father Tom (“my dad”), praising him for his commitment to unions, his plan to raise the minimum wage to $22 an hour, and his promise to allow some workers to “keep their health care.”
The last point was a dig at Sanders and Medicare for All, both of which had been targets of Vegas’s powerful Culinary Union throughout February. Despite Steyer’s promises, her dad was still not viable after the realignment. Bernie gained even more support after Jamal gave his realignment speech, and he hugged the new workers as they joined their group.
“We’re all working here, and [Bernie] supports all of us,” he said.
Mandalay Bay, a luxury resort owned jointly by Blackstone and MGM Grand, boasts a four-star hotel, an eleven-acre pool, and real estate assets worth over $2 billion. It takes 1,500 workers, including housekeepers, maintenance staff, waitresses, and janitors, to keep it running every day.
On Nevada caucus day, it was host to one of seven caucuses open to workers with Saturday shifts on the Vegas strip, allowing them to participate in the primary without having to take the day off. And while Bernie was projected to win Nevada overall, his victory at Mandalay Bay was far from assured.
Throughout February, the Culinary Union campaigned hard against Sanders and Medicare for All. Instead of endorsing a candidate, the union encouraged their members to support anyone but Sanders. Because of this, he was widely expected to lose at all the Strip caucuses.
But workers in the belly of the beast of wealth and excess voted decisively for the workers’ candidate: Sanders went on to win five out of the seven Strip caucuses, tied at one, and came in second place at another, winning the most delegates on the Strip. Casino and hotel workers who are members of the Culinary Union shocked their union leadership by ignoring the leadership’s fearmongering around Sanders and Medicare for All. And at a similar hotel and casino further down the Strip, the Rio, a dozen taxi drivers came in to caucus together and kept Steyer from viability, all standing with Sanders. Sanders won the Nevada caucus by a landslide.
Canvassing the Pit
While there was something cinematic about Evi and Jamal’s competition at the caucus, their fight for the support of the working class represents a material difference of interests that are fundamentally irreconcilable with each other. This was apparent to Bernie volunteers who, like us, spent hours organizing taxi drivers at “the pit,” a sun-baked taxi depot at the Vegas airport where drivers would idle under an aluminum awning, use the bathroom, pray, socialize, and wait to queue up in the terminal above. The workforce is extremely multinational; we spoke with white workers, black workers, and workers from Cuba, Ethiopia, Mexico, Pakistan, Serbia, Somalia, and Turkey.
Although most of the white workers we spoke with were Trump supporters, many respected Sanders and regarded him as an honest politician. One white driver voted for Trump in 2016, but said he now supported Sanders because even though the economy is said to be doing well, the prosperity hasn’t trickled down to workers.
“What does the stock market have to do with us?” he asked.
And although some of the black and immigrant drivers also favored Trump, the majority were already Sanders supporters before we approached them. Many people lit up when we mentioned his name, citing his College for All plan and how it could help their children, who were, in many cases, likely the motivation for their migration.
Others said a local Ethiopian State Assembly member, Alexander Assefa, was the reason why they supported Bernie — the two politicians have done multiple events together in the Las Vegas Ethiopian community. Some workers already had Bernie literature and swag in their taxis, excitedly flashing tattered leaflets and bumper stickers.
A few Bernie supporters introduced us to other drivers they knew in the Pit, and translated information about Bernie and the caucus as needed. A few drivers even posted the caucus information in their massive Viber text messaging groups for Ethiopian drivers, encouraging drivers to come caucus for Bernie with endorsements like, “Vote for Bernie tomorrow he is good for taxi drivers and other workers.”
It’s important to note that many of these workers needed only a little encouragement and logistical support to turn out to the caucuses, despite the fact that it would cost them one to two hours of lost fares. Jamal, who gave the realignment speech for Bernie, didn’t know about the vote until he met an organizer two days before the caucus. He had never caucused for a candidate before.
Putting the “Bernie Bro” Myth to Bed
The resounding victory for Bernie Sanders at both the caucuses on the Strip and across the state of Nevada should put the “Bernie Bro” myth to bed once and for all. At the Strip caucuses, the vast majority of voters were people of color, many of whom were immigrants — and those were of course the workers who voted decisively for Sanders.
Across the state, over 50 percent of Latinos who voted on Saturday voted for him, as well. But it wasn’t just Latino voters who turned out for Bernie: he won men and women, voters aged seventeen to sixty-five, those with college degrees and those without, and both union and nonunion workers.
Saturday’s Strip caucuses also showed us that the excitement and vision of Bernie’s campaign is mobilizing nontraditional voters, like meat-packers in Iowa and the taxi drivers in Vegas, in order to unite the vast majority of workers to build a movement to take on the billionaire class. It brought to life a major theme of the campaign — to fight for someone you don’t know — serving as a referendum on Medicare for All, as union workers with hard-fought, great health benefits said with their vote: “not me, us.”
Watching taxi drivers and union housekeepers stand shoulder to shoulder only confirmed what we already know: Bernie is the candidate of people who work for a living.