Vegas casino-hotel workers look to have an influence on the 2020 presidential election

December 16, 2019 12:00 PM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports
December 16, 2019 12:00 PM
  • Howard Stutz, CDC Gaming Reports

If the 2020 presidential election is going to have a ‘Jim Murren moment’, as the gaming industry saw nearly four years ago, it won’t be from Jim Murren.

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The chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts International created a stir within the casino community when he authored a surprising op-ed in USA Today before the 2016 presidential election, asking voters to reject Republican candidate Donald Trump in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

A lifelong Republican, Murren has nevertheless already made his 2020 preference known through his public support of former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat. He and his wife, Heather Murren, who is serving as the campaign’s national finance chairwoman, led the host committee at a May fundraiser for the two-term vice president.

Last week, the Murrens attended a Biden fundraiser at a downtown Las Vegas law firm.

The next day, Biden participated in a town hall at Culinary Workers 226. He took questions and discussed issues with some 350 guest room attendants, cocktail and food servers, porters, bellmen, cooks, laundry and kitchen workers and bartenders.

The Biden campaign will tell you that a town hall with Culinary members inside the tight quarters of the second-floor union hall, in the shadow of the Stratosphere, was worth the effort. Representatives from the other Democratic candidates would likely say the same.

A large section of the Culinary’s members employed at Las Vegas Strip and downtown resorts are immigrants.

“They are working families and they worry about their health care and other issues,” Geoconda Arguello-Kline, the union’s secretary-treasurer, said.

The 60,000-member Culinary, Nevada’s largest labor union and an affiliate of the 280,000-member UNITE HERE, has long been politically active in the Silver State, endorsing both local and federal candidates. The union also propels their membership to the ballot booths.

More often than not, the overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning union has a difference of opinion from the corporate executives and casino operators who oversee Nevada’s gaming sector.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders listens to a question at a town hall flanked by union leaders Geoconda Arguello-Kline and D. Taylor./Photo by Howard Stutz

“The Culinary’s endorsement is important because it’s a powerful union. It has sway similar to the old-fashioned blue-collar unions in the rust belt,” said UNLV Associate Professor of History Michael Green, a longtime commentator, author and observer of Nevada politics.

“If I were running for office, I would want their endorsement,” Green said.

Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders all held separate town halls with Culinary members last week. Arguello-Kline told CDC Gaming Reports the information gathered will help the union endorse a candidate by the time of Nevada’s presidential caucus in late February.

“That’s what we’re working toward right now,” she said.

D. Taylor, who was the local’s secretary-treasurer for parts of three decades before becoming president of UNITE HERE, told The Nevada Independent he was hopeful a presidential endorsement would come on a national level.

On the Democratic side, a union endorsement could carry some weight. Nevada’s presidential caucus takes place on Feb. 22, the third national nominating event behind the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11. The Nevada Republican Party cancelled its caucus, effectively handing the state’s GOP delegates to President Donald Trump.

In 2016, the Culinary didn’t endorse ahead of the Nevada Democratic Caucus, which was won by Hillary Clinton over Sanders, 53% to 47%.

Eight years earlier, the Culinary endorsed Illinois Senator Barack Obama over Clinton – the first union to endorse the future president. Clinton nevertheless won the caucus with 51% of the vote.

“The old saying among political operatives is you can anoint whomever you want, but the voters go into the booth alone,” Green said.

Doubling down

Nevada’s casino operators have a history of making financial contributions to multiple candidates in the same race as a way of showing they backed the eventual winner. In recent election cycles, however, gaming leaders tended to coalesce around one candidate.

Joe Biden discusses health care with Chad Neanover a cook at Margaritaville on the Strip./Photo by Howard Stutz

The emergence of Trump, a former Atlantic City casino owner who lost control of his resorts in bankruptcy, changed the dynamic.

According to the website Open Secrets, Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign has received donations of more than $1 million from two gaming companies – Las Vegas Sands Corp. ($5 million) and Station Casinos ($2 million.) The Adelson Clinic for Drug Abuse Treatment and Research in Las Vegas is listed for an additional $5 million donation. The clinic is owned by Dr. Miriam Adelson, wife of Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson.

According to the website, Biden’s campaign received more than $50,000 from MGM Resorts, its only large gaming industry donation.

Murren’s op-ed in 2016 mentioned immigration policy, pointing out that many of the company’s employees in Nevada and other markets found their first jobs in gaming, hospitality and tourism, “a record,” Murren wrote, “of which we are very proud.”

Heather Murren, a former Wall Street securities analyst, said in an interview her husband will have a low profile during the campaign because of her role with Biden.

“Nevada is an important state for all the candidates,” Heather Murren said. “I have the luxury of being a private citizen and working on behalf of the things I believe in.”

At the downtown fundraiser, Biden thanked Heather Murren.

“I want to tell you, your impact on my candidacy has been profound,” Biden said, according to a media pool report. “Everywhere she goes, she brings a sense of purpose and decency.”

Issues important to labor

Jim Murren wasn’t the only gaming executive to oppose Trump in 2016. Phil Satre, at the time chairman of International Game Technology, wrote a similar op-ed for the Reno Gazette-Journal that was also picked up by USA Today. Satre’s piece had a simple title: “I Know Trump. Don’t vote for him.”

UNITE HERE leader D. Taylor makes a point with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren./Photo by Howard Stutz

Trump went on to win the election, but he lost Nevada’s six electoral votes to Clinton by less than two percentage points.

Political insiders believe Nevada is a swing state in 2020, which is why candidates are embracing the opportunity to address Culinary members. What the union lacks in financial support, it makes up for with pure voter numbers.

Immigration reform and health care are two issues on which the Culinary seeks answers. More than 130,000 union members, and their families, are covered under the union’s health plan, which is funded in part by the casino industry under a collective bargaining contract.

Union members like their coverage and don’t want to lose it. This issue came up during the question-and-answer sessions with both Sen. Sanders and Sen. Warren, who both support versions of Medicare for all that could eliminate the union’s plan. Neither answered the question directly. Warren’s response was unclear, while Sanders said his plan would save employers $12,000 annually, money that would ostensibly flow back to workers.

Biden told Culinary members they would keep their plan if he became president, adding a direct pitch to the union.

“Folks, I promise you one thing. You will never have someone in American history who is more pro-labor in the White House than Joe Biden,” he told the Culinary.

All three candidates directed blows toward Station Casinos, the union’s major union organizing target since 2011.

Workers at seven Station Casinos properties have voted for Culinary representation. However, Station Casinos and its parent Red Rock Resorts have yet to conduct contract negotiations and are appealing the elections in federal court.

Biden told the Culinary members he wrote a letter to Red Rock Resorts CEO Frank Fertitta III in October, demanding the company negotiate a contract with its employees. He also returned a $5,000 campaign contribution from a Red Rock board member.

Maybe a ‘Wynn moment’

UNLV’s Green said the way Wynn Resorts handles the 2020 presidential election could draw attention to the Strip.

Former company CEO Steve Wynn has been a longtime friend and financial supporter of President Trump. In April, the New York Times photographed Wynn on the tarmac of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas with Trump following the president’s address to the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Venetian.

Wynn departed the company he founded in February 2018 after a Wall Street Journal article detailed years of sexual misconduct by, and sexual harassment allegations against, the former CEO.

Green finds some irony in the fact that Satre, who still doesn’t support Trump, is now chairman of Wynn Resorts.

“If Wynn Resorts backs Trump, it may not look good for them because of the history surrounding Steve,” Green said. “That could be a problem and it might factor into their decision.”

Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.