The NV Democratic Party has some work to do, whoever’s running it

March 10, 2021 5:25 am

The Nevada State Democratic Party elected a new executive board of the state party on March 6, 2020 in what the Las Vegas Review-Journal referred to as a “major power shift.” The executive board determines fundraising efforts and is charged with hiring the executive director of the party, who oversees daily operations across all departments. The executive board has immense influence over the local state party’s direction, as a result, including the party’s initiatives to compete electorally in 2022. The party is now tasked with determining how to address long-standing issues of the Democratic Party in Nevada – and there aren’t just a few.

As a long-term Nevadan and a field organizer for the Nevada Democrats throughout 2020, I witnessed first-hand some of the issues that the party currently faces through hundreds of one-on-one meetings and thousands of conversations with the most politically-active Democrats throughout Nevada. The simple fact is that party operations need to be transformed to prioritize the diverse constituencies of the Democratic Party base. That is both a strategic necessity to win in 2022 and a moral requirement for a party that claims principles that uphold equity and egalitarianism.

The first change in party operations that the state party should prioritize is a more robust infrastructure for coalitional alliances. Coalitions, in party speak, refers to the department of the party that is tasked with specifically amplifying the needs of diverse constituencies like Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-American and Pacific Islanders within the political campaign to increase turnout among those groups. In 2020, the Biden campaign began to prioritize Coalitions starting in late May. Coalitions positions started filling in the local party during the summer. That is far too late. Coalitions with constituencies that have been historically marginalized and subject to immense oppression in Nevada, oftentimes under the auspices of the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party, cannot be an afterthought. A few months of meetings with community leaders is not enough to make up for party absence or harm, nor is that sufficient to increase turnout more than fractionally among those constituencies. Relegating Coalitions to an afterthought and not a central plank in party direction makes genuine outreach to disenfranchised people in Nevada on behalf of the party more difficult. That has a negative impact on both turnout and, more long term, inclusion of people from all backgrounds of the Democratic base in the volunteer infrastructure that consistently wins elections in Nevada. Most critically, it places further burden on community leaders of color to organize their communities with no substantial investment from the party apparatus that exists as an institution of power and mobilization in that necessary work. Building bridges takes time and effort. Coalitions must become permanent staff positions in the party, with community leaders drawn from those communities as staff, to correct both historical wrong and aid to ensure the future of the Democratic Party is more equitable. 

However, the Coalitions department’s expansion is not the only priority that should be adopted by the state party to include and empower diverse communities. Constituency organizing must become part of the Nevada State Democratic Party’s bread and butter. In 2020, the state party’s operational leadership included many crucial women of color as leaders, from coordinated campaign director Shelby Wiltz to field director Susana Cervantes. As Cervantes noted in a NVDems press release dated to September 15, 2020, the party “employs more than 20 bilingual organizers in order to ensure [the party] has sufficient Spanish-speaking organizers.” Those bilingual field organizers, the grassroots connections between the state party and rank-and-file Democrats, were not employed specifically as constituency organizers whose only task was organizing in Latino communities. Instead, their bilingualism led to additional labor by virtue of their Spanish proficiency on top of the same expectations of them as non-Spanish-speaking field organizers received. This additional expectation to use Spanish fluency to reach out to Hispanic communities means that those bilingual field organizers had limited capacity to actually prioritize Latino outreach in the way that the nearly thirty percent of the state population that is Hispanic or Latino deserve. Hiring constituency organizers would allow the state party to pursue field outreach to Latinos in meaningful, targeted ways.

The Sanders presidential campaign, which delivered record-breaking Latino turnout in Nevada during the caucus, hired constituency organizers specifically for Latino field outreach. That is one necessary step. Democrats in Arizona show another: Native organizing. The Northeast Arizona Native Democrats, led by Diné/Navajo organizer Jaynie Parrish, contributed to the soaring turnout rate of Indigenous people in Arizona during the 2020 election. That alone helped secure Arizona’s blue wave, Biden’s victory nationally, and Democrats’ control of the Senate. But that effort of Indigenous community organizers was carried out without institutional support from the Biden campaign: as Mother Jones reported, “like the Latinx organizers that pounded the pavement to register and mobilize their own communities, the Navajo and other tribes helped flip Arizona for a party that’s largely taken them for granted.” That fact is not only abhorrent; it also shows the glaring reality that the current path to victory envisioned by state parties in the Southwest largely excludes and erases Indian Country.

There was even less infrastructure in Nevada for organizing Native American communities. While the Northeast Arizona Native Democrats raised money to hire full-time staff from national supporters with some independent local help, efforts to organize Indigenous people in Nevada’s urban and rural communities relied on groundwork conducted by community leaders and advocates in a state that is “thirty or forty years behind on tribal rights.” These leaders volunteered their time and energy with tireless passion, because they had no choice. They carried on their shoulders the weight of organizing communities that were routinely and continuously ignored by the institutions with political power that did little to nothing to aid their efforts – especially the party itself. Brian Melendez, founder of the Nevada Native American Democratic Caucus and the Nevada Native Vote Project, penned a letter wherein he stated that “the lack of attention and resources provided to the Native community [by the Democratic Party] in Nevada [was] staggering.” When paid canvassers were hired by the Native Vote Project, in the eleventh hour of the campaign, their outreach was nonpartisan in lieu of Democratic absence. The Democratic Party’s campaign strategy had nothing to show for outreach to tribal communities except a couple of food trucks and stickers. 

Indigenous organizers contributed to record turnout of Native American voters in Nevada through largely unpaid efforts, but the turnout paled in comparison to the potential for the Native Vote in the Battle-born State. Vine Deloria, in 1969, wrote that “some 26 tribes, mainly Paiutes and Shoshones, live in Nevada. If these tribes were ever to form a strong political or economic alliance, they would exert tremendous influence within the state. The Nevadan Indian population is fairly young and the possibility of its developing a strong Indian swing vote as it comes of age is excellent.” That remains the case. The population of voting-age Indigenous people in Nevada is more than enough to swing elections in every single election cycle. The Nevada State Democratic Party should develop a Native Vote Fund, mirroring the Native Organizing Fund of the Northeast Arizona Native Democrats, and fundraise specifically to hire Indigenous field organizers working in tribal communities. 

Prioritizing field outreach to Indigenous people would expand the Native Vote and move toward addressing the decades of state party neglect of the state’s original peoples, while also substantially expanding the Nevada Democrats’ operations in rural Nevada at a time when the rurals are growing increasingly dark shades of Republican red. The majority of sovereign tribal land is located in rural Nevada. County Democratic parties have vested interests in the Native Vote, but because rural Democrats are underrepresented in state party decision-making, the need to prioritize power building in Indian Country is also sidelined. If Democrats wish to stave off the further development of a Republican red firewall that insulates and radicalizes rural Nevadans, the state party should and must invest in Indigenous organizers working in rural counties.

The Nevada State Democratic Party party must invest in Coalitions and constituency organizing as central planks in the party direction if the party hopes to win in 2022. This will not only permit victory in the short-run; it will also empower marginalized communities that make up the Democratic Party’s base. That change in party direction is thus a moral and strategic necessity. Only through such transformation can the party build further on the narrow victories of 2018 and 2020. If party operations are indeed reformed in these crucial ways, Nevada Democrats may have the capacity to turn a long-term swing state into a solidly blue state while simultaneously expanding political power in the diverse communities of the state’s electorate.

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Travis Sanderson
Travis Sanderson

Travis Sanderson served as a field organizer in Reno and Northern Washoe County for the Nevada State Democratic Party in 2020.