Hauling a blue wagon behind him, Minister Vance “Stretch” Sanders strolls up to the steps of Las Vegas City Hall, unloads a portable podium and sets it up in front of 10 onlookers. With just an hour before the candidate filing period closes, the people gathered are there to hear the 24-year-old officially launch his campaign for the mayor of Las Vegas.
Sanders is one of six people challenging incumbent mayor Carolyn Goodman, who is seeking her third term. For him, it’s not personal. “This isn’t Sanders versus Goodman,” he says. “This is more so the people versus a system that’s in place. My focus is about changing parts of that system.”
It’s a younger generation, he adds, that has the perspective needed to confront long-standing systemic barriers to social and economic justice. “I think we have all been given power,” he says. “I also believe there are forces trying to take our power.”
Relocating from the south side of Chicago to Las Vegas in 2011, Sanders has worked as a minister as well an activist with All Shades United, a social justice group that has organized marches against police brutality and Martin Luther King Jr. memorial events.
He has also organized Black Lives Matter protests and rallies around Tashii Brown, who was killed by a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officer in 2017 after being shocked with a Taser seven times and placed in an unauthorized neck hold.
Sanders says both his youth and experience organizing around social justice causes would give him a needed perspective in effecting change at the local level. “As a 24 year old, I can engage and relate to people who are 18 to 35,” he says. “I think that gives me an advantage.”
Over the last few years, more and more younger people from activist backgrounds have decided to seek office. While many candidates run for state and federal offices, Sanders says municipal races are just as important. “Everything starts locally,” he says. “The city can build the state up and the state can build the country up.”
“That’s why I’m running. A lot of the foundation in the city is eroded and we have to build that up.”
Voter turnout for Las Vegas municipal elections is miserable. In 2015, more than 240,000 people were registered to vote in Las Vegas. In the primary, Goodman won a little more than 20,000 votes. Overall turnout was so low — less than 16 percent — Goodman’s 20,000 votes were more than 50 percent of votes cast, so no general election was held.
Goodman spent $1 million on that campaign, roughly $50 a vote.
Laura Martin, the executive direction of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, says because municipal elections are held at odd times (the primary is in April and the general election is in June), not a lot of people know they are happening. “So (candidates) don’t have to make a bigger effort talking about the issues” such as inequality, Martin says
The city of Las Vegas and other local governments tend to focus more on attracting splashy development projects and currying favor with the business community than policies that acknowledge working-class incomes and employment and living conditions.
Sanders’ campaign motto is “Vegas strong for all.” It “means every person living on the street has shelter over their heads,” he says. “It means people of color get treated with equality. Vegas strong for all means all sides of town in Las Vegas are thriving educationally, economically, socially and politically. As of now, we are not Vegas strong. We are Vegas weak.”
In other cities, economic and social justice issues have featured more prominently in campaigns for city office. In Chicago for instance, the current race for mayor has opened discussions around reforming traffic tickets and payment plans.
Sanders wants to touch on some of the problems in the city that he says aren’t being discussed.
During his first speech at City Hall, homelessness was one of his main focuses. He questioned why city officials can’t allocate money to convert closed down motels and properties into some sort of shelter.
When asked about ticket reform, Sanders says the city should look at what role it could take to alleviate some of the fines and fees that burden many low income people and communities of color. “These fines and tickets go to warrant, then a person gets arrested,” he says. “That person, who is already struggling, loses their job, their place and then ends up on the street. It’s a cycle.”
Martin says it’s not only a good thing that Goodman has challengers, but has at least one opponent who could press her on some of these issues. “I hope the mayor doesn’t feel entitled to another term,” she says.
Sanders isn’t deterred by Goodman and her family’s entrenched position in city politics. He already views his candidacy as a win and would consider running again if his attempt isn’t successful.
But what he won’t do is wait — something that is suggested when people bring up his age.
“If things are going to change, you have to change it,” Sanders says. “You can’t wait for anyone. Change starts with you.”