Herrera's Winning Hand

"Dario [Herrera] is the best one-on-one campaigner I've ever seen," says Paul Brown, Las Vegas coordinator of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), and after a day going door-to-door with Herrera in the city's new 3rd Congressional District, I don't doubt it.

A 29-year-old Democrat and a member of the powerful Clark County Commission that governs greater Las Vegas, Herrera is battling down to the wire against Jon Porter, an insurance executive and a Republican state senator, in a closely watched race in a swing-state district almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Both national parties are throwing resources into the campaign, believing it will help determine the face of the next Congress.

Early on, Herrera faltered badly when allegations of ethical slipups caused him to fall far behind in the polls.

"I thought Porter had it locked up," says Hal Rothman, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas historian and close observer of all things Vegas. In August, Porter was leading by 16 points in pre-primary polls conducted for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and local pundits were chuckling over the national interest in Herrera. But Herrera kept hammering away on issues such as Social Security, health care and taxes. A month later, he had all but eliminated the spread. Porter's stumbling, low-visibility campaign helped. "Now," says Rothman, "I think Herrera's going to pull it out."

What kind of Democrat could win this race? In Las Vegas, liberals, labor Democrats and more conservative New Democrats all claim Herrera as their own, and maybe that's what kind it takes.

Nobody calls Nevada a liberal state, and quite a few political insiders describe it as conservative. But if Nevada is conservative, it's a quirky sort of conservative. Nevada is a right-to-work state with a higher rate of union density than 38 other states, including neighboring California, and its unions are political powerhouses. Smart Republicans court labor support almost as aggressively as do Democrats. Nevada's current congressional delegation is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the Democrats are arguably more liberal than the Republicans are conservative. In state politics the Republican Party has the upper hand, but it's not dominant. Moreover, with its moderate business faction, cow-county libertarians and right-wing religious activists, the GOP doesn't march in lockstep.

The freewheeling, cowboy conservatism that the state was once famous for has been undermined by constant population change. Clark County grows by 5,000 residents in a typical month. The influx has made Nevada's demographics more like the rest of the United States and its political leanings more mixed. Indeed, the state's fastest growing population groups are retirees and service-industry workers, especially Latinos, whose population numbers are exploding. Each of these groups traditionally favors the Democrats.

Then there's the peculiar political role of the state's dominant industry -- the casino-resort-entertainment conglomerate that defines Nevada to the world. Gaming interests are so powerful that some observers characterize Nevada politics as competition between two arms of the "casino party." Nonetheless, when it comes to taxes, Nevada politicians and voters are glad to milk the gambling trade, arguing that tourists end up paying the levy. This tax policy infuriates the industry, which ordinarily leans Republican but in its dissent lines up against Nevada's conservatives and on the side of union progressives, who want to tax a wider range of businesses in order to provide more funding for the state's seriously laggard education system.

In any case, the gaming industry will often sit out races between two of its friends. For the most part, it's doing that in the Herrera-Porter race.

Like the state he seeks to represent, Herrera is hard to pigeonhole. That's fine with him. "My job is to put the needs of my constituents first," he says. "And I'm going to do what's right."

What's right, according to Herrera, is a mixed bag.

Like a classic New Democrat, he believes in expanding trade opportunities with appropriate worker protections. He's harsh on America's foreign foes and supports the right to bear arms. Most tellingly, he describes himself as a fiscal conservative. Herrera says the estate tax and the "marriage penalty" should be permanently eliminated.

"People should be able to keep more of their money than they pay the government," he says. He talks proudly of streamlining county government. But something odd happens as he continues. His enthusiasm mounts as he attacks corporate power in U.S. politics. Dollar figures fly from his mouth as he blasts Enron, WorldCom and other nefarious corporations. The most important thing fiscal conservatives can do, Herrera contends, is stop programs that simply enrich corporate America. Do this and money will be freed to finance expanded public services. This is where Herrera's fiscal conservatism conflates with a populist, labor-Democratic stance.

Herrera and his strategists like to give a progressive spin to conservative rhetoric. Populist issues grouped under the rubric of "putting Nevada families first" include a commitment to affordable energy, access to health care and inexpensive prescription drugs, retirement security and quality education. Herrera's agenda also calls for tax relief and strengthening the military.

"There are a lot of conservative Democrats here," says Danny Thompson, head of the Nevada AFL-CIO. Thompson believes Herrera's priorities will appeal to them, as well as to crossover and nonpartisan voters.

At the same time, Herrera has said and frequently done the right thing on touchstone liberal issues. He opposes nuclear waste disposal at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Even though he recently became a Mormon, he refused to sign the pledge demanded of politicians by backers of Nevada's antigay Question 2, an initiative promoted by the Mormon Church to prohibit gay marriage. As a result, he's received campaign support from groups such as the Sierra Club, WILD PAC and the Human Rights Campaign.

Should Herrera win, however, his victory will owe more to another trio: organized labor, Latinos and senior citizens.

With 45,000 members, the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, an affiliate of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), is the most powerful local in Nevada. Construction unions also have a strong presence in a city where building is a way of life. Union stagehands work most of the many live shows in town, public employees and grocery and utilities workers are mostly union, and the Service Employees International Union is a growing presence in area hospitals.

Local unionists claim Herrera as more than a friend. Abandoned by his father at two years of age, Herrera and his two sisters were raised by a mother who worked as housekeeper and hostess -- often on double shifts -- in Florida hotels. Herrera's mother was a HERE member for 18 years.

"Dario will definitely understand our issues," says Tony Martin, a food runner and shop steward at the Fremont Hotel and Casino. "If he grew up with his mother on a maid's salary, he'll definitely understand."

Union people don't seem to question what kind of Democrat Herrera is. Says Thompson of the AFL-CIO, "On social issues, this guy is going to put the family before corporations."

The unions, Democratic Party and PLAN are running aggressive voter-registration drives in the district. The Culinary Workers and the AFL-CIO also have union members walking precincts nearly every day for Herrera. In a district where 24 percent of registered voters live in union households, the resulting increase in turnout could be critical.

Just 13 percent of the voting-age population in the district is Hispanic, so Herrera's strategy can't be Latino-centered. Still, in a very close race, mobilizing the Latino vote -- as Hispanic activists are doing -- will significantly boost Herrera's chances. According to Andres Ramirez, former chair of the state Hispanic Democratic Caucus, 60 percent of Nevada's Hispanic registered voters are Democrats and 10 percent are independent. In 1998, he adds, an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort doubled Latino participation over 1996 numbers, helping Sen. Harry Reid, a Democrat, win a tight contest.

"In 2000, we registered over 10,000 new voters [in Nevada, mostly in Las Vegas]," says Merlinda Gallegos, a board member of Hispanics in Politics. "They didn't all get to the polls, so that's what we have to focus on now: turning out the vote."

Democrats are also banking on the senior vote. In Clark County, 20 percent of the population is 55 or older and, as elsewhere, seniors tend to turn out in high numbers. Porter's gaffes have helped Herrera here. The Republican has waffled on Social Security -- supporting privatization, opposing it and then supporting it again before deciding he's against it "for now." It's because of this dodge and Herrera's willingness to attack on the issue that Rothman now believes that Herrera will win.

"The senior vote will make the difference," Rothman says.

But with the conservative local media constantly charging Herrera with ethical lapses, it won't be easy to rally his voters. Some of the charges appear to be baseless, but not all. Early this year, critics blasted Herrera for securing a $42,000 contract for public-relations work from the Las Vegas Housing Authority while he was a county commissioner.

"No wrongdoing has ever been demonstrated," says Elizabeth Alexander, Herrera's campaign spokesperson. Adds Herrera, "I've been targeted by special interests ever since I entered politics."

Yet some supporters believe Herrera's judgment lapsed in the housing authority case. If nothing else, there was the appearance of cronyism. "Do things like this happen all the time?" asks one supporter. "Yes. Does this mean Dario should have done it? No."

Herrera says he intends to overcome scandal by staying focused on the issues and by meeting as many potential voters as possible. Despite the money dumped into the race -- at last count, Herrera had raised $1.4 million, Porter $1.34 million -- and all the saturation advertising, that grass-roots campaigning might well prove decisive.

Herrera seems to have the edge here. Rothman suggests that Porter's quiet grass-roots effort might be underrated -- he's working the conservative churches, and his wife, Emily, is a presence in many civic groups -- but none denies the ability of Herrera's union backers to turn out votes.

Then there are Herrera's own efforts. Going door-to-door, he gives his telephone number to older voters, promising to personally return their calls. He jokes, he explains, he produces registration forms to the unregistered -- and at house after house, residents commit to him.

Whether he's a populist New Democrat or a labor Democrat with a twist, he's made this a very personal campaign. As Achim Bergmann, Herrera's campaign manager, says, "He's pretty much everywhere."

James B. Goodno writes about politics and policy in the American West and Southeast Asia.