Pall of Nevada fracas hangs over Democratic nominating contest

Published 10:09 am Tuesday, May 17, 2016

LAS VEGAS — As Oregon and Kentucky queue up to vote in the Democratic presidential nominating contest, the pall of a divisive state party convention in Nevada hangs over the race.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

Supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were accused of throwing chairs and making death threats against Nevada Democratic Party chairwoman Roberta Lange. They contended that the party leadership rigged the results of the convention, which locked in seven more delegates who pledged to support Hillary Clinton, compared with the five Sanders gained. The raucous affair ended Saturday night when security at the Paris Las Vegas casino said they could no longer ensure an orderly event.

“It was beyond the pale,” said Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman, a Clinton supporter who said she saw an elderly woman hit with a bottle amid the ruckus. “There’s no reason to do that. That’s the kind of shenanigans that they do on the other side.”

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The Nevada dissension does not change the likely outcome of the Democratic nominating contest, in which Clinton holds a commanding lead in pledged delegates and is expected to lock up enough to clinch the party’s presidential nomination following primaries on June 7. But it points to the challenges Clinton will face in converting Sanders supporters to her side as Republican Donald Trump also targets disaffected Democrats who supported the Vermont senator.

On Monday, the ugliness continued as the Nevada Democratic Party kept its offices closed for security reasons and wrote a letter to the Democratic National Committee warning of what it called the Sanders campaign’s “penchant for extra-parliamentary behavior — indeed, actual violence — in place of democratic conduct in a convention setting.” The party’s lawyer, Bradley S. Schrager, said that Sanders supporters may use similar tactics at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this summer.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said Monday that it “is investigating threats being made to the Democratic office/members.”

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Trump has repeatedly talked about how Sanders is being treated poorly by the party establishment, and his aides suggest he could make inroads among some of the voters who have backed Sanders’ insurgent bid. Sanders himself often criticizes Trump as a racist in his stump speech, but he has said the responsibility for Democratic unity lies largely with Clinton.

Clinton has been preaching unity. After notching a big win in Pennsylvania’s primary on April 26, she said, “Whether you support Sen. Sanders or support me, there’s much more that unites us than divides us.”

Steve Schale, a Florida consultant who ran Barack Obama’s campaigns in that state, said he thinks Sanders voters will return to the fold. He said that Clinton is winning a larger share of Democratic votes in current polling than Obama did at this point in 2008.

“Empirically, despite the public acrimony that’s going on between volunteers, the data says we’re going into this more unified than we were eight years ago,” Schale said.

Nevada was the third state to vote in the Democratic nominating contest, but it has continued to be a flashpoint for months. Clinton won the February statewide Nevada caucuses 53-47. But Sanders supporters flooded county conventions that would select delegates to Saturday’s state convention, hoping to give their candidate an edge on actual delegates who would be sent to Philadelphia.

Sanders issued a statement on Friday night calling for backers to work together “respectfully and constructively” at Saturday’s convention. But Sanders’ supporters did not seem to heed his advice. They booed when a set of convention rules was adopted over their objections, forcing Lange to bang the gavel in futile attempts to restore order.

“So many of these young people who have worked so hard want to make the country a better place, and I feel like they were shut out,” said Erin Bilbray, a Sanders supporter who’s one of Nevada’s eight superdelegates. “I was really, really heartbroken.”

Anger swelled further after a credentials committee disqualified nearly 60 would-be Sanders’ delegates, saying they didn’t provide proper identifying information or were not registered Democratic voters by a May 1 deadline. The Clinton campaign turned out 33 more supporters to the convention than the Sanders campaign, enough to cement a 20-15 edge among Nevada delegates heading to Philadelphia.

As the event dragged on three hours past its scheduled end, hotel security said they could no longer staff the event and it was closed down.

In a statement, the state party accused the Sanders campaign of “deliberately sharing misinformation about how the convention operates to get people riled up. And after starting this fire, they had no capacity — and no desire — to control their own supporters from hurling threats and insults and being disruptive to the proceedings.”

Tick Segerblom, a Nevada state senator and Sanders backer, said in an interview Monday that he didn’t think the state party did anything improper but that it needed to reach out to the Sanders’ supporters.

“They need to know the process was fair,” Segerblom said. “When one side says it wasn’t fair, you tend to listen to that.”