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After bitter primary, Culinary Union, legislative Democrats not singing kumbaya — yet

The union’s attempt to unseat an incumbent legislator over a room cleaning mandate failed. But lasting disunity could have repercussions for Democrats.
Tabitha Mueller
Tabitha Mueller
Howard Stutz
Howard Stutz
Election 2024ElectionsGaming

When the state’s politically powerful Culinary Union tried to unseat a sitting legislator, it was a declaration of the labor organization’s frustration with some of its closest allies.

The union targeted Sen. Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) by putting up nurse Geoconda Hughes (the daughter of former Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline) to run against her in the Senate District 3 Democratic primary because Nguyen helped present a bill in the 2023 legislative session that unwound pandemic-era hotel cleaning requirements. 

Nearly half a million dollars was spent on ads in the contest, most of it in support of Nguyen, in the most public split yet between legislative Democrats and the union. The union has been credited with helping national and state Democrats win contentious races in past election cycles through its widespread canvassing efforts and political operation. 

In the end, Nguyen defeated Hughes in Tuesday’s primary by more than 10 percentage points, but questions linger about whether the discord will persist through a pivotal November election. The union’s organizing and canvassing efforts could mean the difference between defeat and victory for Democrats who are trying to secure a veto-proof supermajority in the Legislature, maintain a Senate seat that could decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate and secure a second term for President Joe Biden.

So where does the relationship stand four days after the primary, and what might a similar effort by Nevada’s powerful gaming industry in 2022 that failed to take out three incumbents tell us about whether the sides will reconcile?

Shelby Wiltz, the campaign manager for the Democratic Coordinated campaign, which coordinates between the various Democratic campaigns up and down the ballot, credited the Culinary Union as integral to ensuring Democratic victories in federal and down-ballot elections in previous elections, and said this year is no different. 

“[The union’s] efforts in the past, and what they've spoken about doing publicly, will certainly be a critical piece of our path to victory,” Wiltz said, adding that Democratic elected officials in Nevada have supported and worked with Culinary. Those officials include Biden, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV), a former Culinary Union member, and Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), who spent several years as the CEO of Culinary Training Academy before being elected to Congress.

“We have total faith that Culinary is going to do everything in their power to make sure that they are electing the right representatives to stand up for workers and to stand up for working class families, just like we are,” Wiltz said.

Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Ted Pappageorge is not yet committing to supporting all legislative Democrats, as in years past. He said in an interview that the union would support candidates “that are going to do the right thing.”

“The idea that somehow we just line up behind Democrats because we have nowhere else to go, which I think is the attitude to some of these statewide Democrats, voters aren't going to follow that,” Pappageorge said. “And the Democrats are going to pay a price for that in November if they don't correct.”

Democratic candidate for Senate District 3 Rochelle Nguyen, left, talks with a potential voter in Las Vegas on May 4, 2024. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

All eyes are on the general election

Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which is credited with delivering a victory to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) in 2022, also unendorsed 18 Democratic state lawmakers running this cycle and backed a union member against a Democratic establishment-backed candidate.

By drawing a bright red line through 18 names on the union’s endorsement scorecard and attempting to oust a well-liked incumbent, the union was protesting Democratic legislators' passage of SB441, a 2023 resort industry-backed bill removing pandemic-imposed cleaning requirements from state law, including daily room cleaning.

Union leadership portrayed the bill’s passage as anti-worker, anti-Democrat and an infringement of hotel worker protections. Legislative Democrats, the gaming industry and public health officials said the bill sunsetted a COVID-era law that was no longer needed. The 60,000-member union, the state’s largest labor organization, later made daily room cleaning part of the five-year contract negotiations with major Las Vegas resorts.

Pappageorge said the organization is committed to supporting candidates who back workers, adding that the disagreement with legislative Democrats is not irreconcilable. He said the union will door-knock and canvass for President Joe Biden in the general election, but indicated that the union isn’t ready to kiss and make up with legislative Democrats.

“We haven't had a better, working-class, pro-worker, pro-middle class president in our lifetime than President Biden,” Pappageorge said. “Politics are local, and these state Democrats, when they decide they're going to belly up to the bar with corporate America at the expense of working class voters, there's a price to pay for that.”

However, he didn’t explain what legislative Democrats would need to do to reconcile with Culinary, only reiterating that they needed to support workers.

Nguyen, who the union targeted for helping present the bill though she didn’t sponsor it, told The Nevada Independent that everyone has the right to run for public office, and that’s part of a healthy democracy. She said she is ready to move forward from the primary and isn’t worried about working with the Culinary in the future.

“I think we all want what’s best for Nevada,” Nguyen said. “I will continue to have the same open-door policy I have always had. I'm always willing to listen.”

Asked about the union’s relationship with the state’s Democratic political organizing framework (often dubbed the “Reid Machine” for its connections to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)), Pappageorge said that it should be called the “Culinary Machine” and the criticism leveled against lawmakers was not just about the Democrats.

“Every single Republican voted to repeal the daily room cleaning also,” Pappageorge said. “We had obviously no support there.”

An example of the union’s commitment to Democrats came when former President Donald Trump promised at a Las Vegas campaign rally to ​​stop taxing tips that workers receive. The Culinary Union fired back with a statement calling it “wild campaign promises” that Nevada workers were too intelligent to fall for.

The Culinary Union's challenge of Nguyen had support from its affiliated Bartenders Local 165, Nevada's three Teamsters Locals, the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA), the National Nurses United and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 711.

The lawmaker was backed by other unions, including American Federation of State County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 4041 — which represents 17,000 state workers — the Clark County Education Association and the Las Vegas branches of the Service Employees International Union, Laborers Union (which represents construction workers) and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The Southern Nevada Building Trades Unions, an alliance of craft unions, also endorsed Nguyen. Executive Secretary Vince Saavedra said the organization “wasn’t anti-Culinary” in backing Nguyen.

“I would like to think that there was no love lost when we decided to go with Rochelle,” Saavedra said. “I had a lot of good, open conversations with nurse Geo. Now that we're in the general, I see the construction unions and labor standing together stronger than ever.”

Democratic candidate for Senate District 3 Geo Hughes talks with a potential voter at the Siegel Suites MLK Apartments in Las Vegas on May 4, 2024. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Challenging legislative Democrats and re-evaluating unendorsements

One bright spot for the Culinary Union on Tuesday was a victory for Linda Hunt, a Culinary-backed candidate who won the Democratic primary in North Las Vegas’ reliably blue, open Assembly District 17 against Assembly Democratic Caucus-backed candidate Mishon Montgomery. Hunt is expected to win the general election because the district’s party registration overwhelmingly favors Democrats. 

Pappageorge said that the union will continue to challenge incumbents and establishment-backed candidates who take anti-worker approaches, which implies stances against Culinary members.

He said the union doesn’t blanket endorse any candidate. The primary and general elections are completely separate, he said, adding that the main focus of Culinary’s unendorsements was informing its members of which lawmakers in the Legislature supported them.

“We're just going to make sure we do what it takes to represent working class voters and make sure the Democratic Party is a force for workers,” Pappageorge said. “If the Democrats get too far on the side of big money interests and the casino interests, like where we think Rochelle went, we're going to call them out.”

In the past, Nguyen has supported and opposed a variety of Culinary Union-backed measures. She voted against the Culinary-backed bill to publicly finance the construction of a baseball stadium to bring Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics to Las Vegas, supported a bill that allocated $25 million to the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas and voted for Culinary’s proposed constitutional amendment removing the prohibition on state lotteries.

She said she didn’t regret voting for the measure to sunset daily room cleaning along with other COVID-era policies because the original bill had planned to end the policy based on testing positivity rates, which are no longer accurate because of at-home tests and a lack of reporting.

As for criticism from Pappageorge about taking contributions from the casino and gaming industry, Nguyen said part of running for office includes fundraising and that doesn’t influence her vote. She added that the gaming industry did financially support her this election cycle, but she also accepted contributions from the Oakland A’s and voted against their bill during the legislative session.

“I really do just look at every single bill individually, to figure out what we can do and whether or not it's something that I can support, and whether or not it's something that a community that elected me, would also want to support,” Nguyen said.

Lobbyist Billy Vassiliadis speaking with Political Director at Culinary Workers Union Local 226 Paul Catha inside the Legislature in Carson City on June 2, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

A similar situation

The Culinary’s actions against Nguyen and the endorsement of other legislative Democrats isn’t the first time a powerful organization has tried to oust lawmakers over policy disagreements.

In the 2022 primary, the Nevada Resort Association — the leading trade organization for the state’s casino industry — formed a political action committee and raised more than $2.3 million from its members to recruit, assess, endorse and elect state legislative candidates. 

The group spent $1.5 million backing four candidates in the primary, including two that challenged incumbent lawmakers. Three of the candidates lost their races.

R&R Partners CEO Billy Vassiliadis, a longtime lobbyist for the resort association, said Culinary’s targeting of Nguyen and unendorsements of Democrats were similar to the organization’s actions in 2022.

He said the main difference was the resort association targeted lawmakers for their overall stance on gaming issues, not just their support for a single piece of legislation.

“It was a drum beat,” Vassiliadis recalled. “It was an anti-gaming, anti-industry, anti-resorts, anti-business. We weren't the only ones who got involved in those races,” adding the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce and other business groups joined in the effort.

Vassiliadis said the resort association’s PAC was active again in this year’s primary but was not as public-facing with its support. He said Nguyen earned the gaming organization’s backing because “she's a good legislator. She’s thoughtful and open.” 

Resort association representatives testified in support of SB441 during legislative hearings.

“We would have supported Rochelle, regardless [of SB441],” Vassiliadis said. “She’s not a 100 percenter. No one expects anybody to be. This wasn't a, ‘Let's go fight the Culinary.’ [Nguyen] is a legislator that we were going to support anyway. Our support may have been maybe stronger than it would have otherwise.”

One issue where the gaming industry and the Culinary remain in opposition is the lottery resolution, which requires a second affirmative vote by lawmakers before it could go in front of the voters in 2026. Culinary is backing AJR5, and the stated goal for lottery proceeds is to fund funding for youth mental health services. 

Even with gaming’s strong opposition to the bill, Vassiliadis said Nguyen’s support wasn’t an issue.

“There’s an objectivity [with Nguyen] that I think is very valuable. She’s a leader. There are too many issues that we need to stay together on,” Vassiliadis said. “We can't continue to carry these political battles forward.”

He was hopeful any torn relationships would be stitched back together when lawmakers return to Carson City next February. He said basic disagreements happen in campaigns and even though the resort association ran candidates against incumbents in 2022, it didn’t have a lasting negative effect.

“I don't know that the Legislature is more difficult than contract negotiations,” Vassiliadis said, referencing the union’s collective bargaining sessions that spanned months and resulted in new five-year agreements with the resort industry.“We'll face issues again where we're not on the same side, but I think we've been able to come together to help the tourism industry, and I expect that to continue.”

Updated at 2:55 p.m. on 6/16/2024 to include labor groups backing the Culinary.


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