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Talking with Nevada's top political expert about the rift between Sanders fans and party leaders

Bernie Sanders loyalists and Nevada Democrats have feuded over last weekend's state convention. Is that a sign of a long-term fissure in state Democratic politics?
Bernie Sanders loyalists and Nevada Democrats have feuded over last weekend's state convention. Is that a sign of a long-term fissure in state Democratic politics?
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nevada's Democratic Party is famous for its ruthless efficiency, but this weekend it ran into a force it struggled to control: fired-up Bernie Sanders supporters.

Nevada's state convention on Saturday devolved into a near brawl, with protesters throwing chairs, shouting vulgarities at officials, and even vandalizing state headquarters. The bitterness spilled over after the convention itself, with some activists leveling vile death threats — "praying to God someone shoots you in the face and blows your democracy-stealing head off" — against state party leaders, many of whom backed Hillary Clinton.

On Wednesday, I called Jon Ralston, founder of Ralston Reports and the state's chief political guru, to get the ground-level view of how the convention chaos had rattled state officials.

Ralston and I also talked about why the convention spiraled out of control, what this means for the future of Nevada Democrats, and whether Sanders's national movement can truly upend state and local politics.

Our conversation follows, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jeff Stein: I wanted to go back to the beginning of this: When did you first get the sense that things might get out of hand at the state convention in Nevada this weekend? Was there a moment that made you feel things were really going to go awry?

John Ralston: I knew things were going to get out of hand before the convention even started.

There had been a lawsuit [filed months ago by Sanders's supporters against the party], and I knew that they were loaded for bear. You had Harry Reid go to the unusual length of having Bernie Sanders putting out a "unity statement" the night before the convention — it was a fool's errand, but it was a sign they knew something was going to happen.

And it had become clear from the beginning that there were going to be problems. When the first credentials report was announced, it showed Clinton had the lead [in state delegates]. You could tell there was going to be trouble.

JS: Sanders's statement said that he had been treated fairly in Maine and some of the other state caucuses, but that Nevada was different. If this is really mostly over a procedural dispute, why do you think this cauldron erupted in Nevada and hasn't in other states?

JR: I'm not on the ground in Maine, so I can't make a comparison between what happened here and there. But there are always cries of unfairness in these kinds of processes. And the caucuses make it much worse, because it's not as black and white a process as most primaries are.

But the bottom line is Bernie Sanders lost Nevada on February 20, clearly, and did not say it was unfair then. Then the Clinton camp fell asleep at the switch, did not pay attention to the county conventions, and the Sanders people got a bunch of excited people ready to go. They had 600 more delegates in Clark County than the Clinton people.

Then the Clinton people got it back together and got their delegates filled for the state convention. The Sanders people did not. …

JS: If they didn't come up short for the state convention, would it have mattered much? Aren't we still only talking about a few delegates to the national convention overall?

JR: Yes, all of this is only over a handful of delegates. If you ask the Sanders people, they will tell you it's not about the delegates — it's about fairness, transparency, inclusion, etc.

Will Bernie leave behind a local political movement?

Ethan Miller/Getty A banner at a Sanders rally in Nevada.
A banner at a Sanders rally in Nevada. (Ethan Miller/Getty)

JS: Just to zoom out from the nitty-gritty of what happened this weekend, do you think this weekend is suggestive of a long-term fissure in the Democratic Party in Nevada? Or do you think this is a localized phenomenon to this primary?

JR: I think it's too soon to tell, just as it's too soon to tell what the ramifications are for Philadelphia and the general election, because we don't know if these people will stay involved and try to take over the party.

Do I think they have a chance to do that? Yes. Harry Reid is leaving in November, and so there's an opportunity for others to take control of the party.

The question I would ask is, "To what end?" Harry Reid's takeover of the party has led to one of the most ruthlessly efficient and successful operations in the entire history of this state and this country. I'm not sure, if they try take power, that they'll know what to do with it.

JS: It's interesting that you focus on Reid's effectiveness as a party leader. The point of the Sanders campaign, in a way, is to effectively mobilize support for progressive causes.

When you talk to Sanders people in Nevada about Reid, do they admire that aspect about him or do they just sort of see him as a corporate sellout?

JR: I haven't seen that much disdain for Reid specifically — I think it's much more about the "state party establishment." But Reid is indistinguishable from the "state party establishment." He controls the state party establishment, and my sense from the Sanders people is if you're not a Sanders person, then you're part of the establishment.

Nevada's liberal Democrats backing Clinton, suddenly under siege

Clinton rally Nevada Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty

JS: On this topic, how have you seen local officials either endorse Sanders or signal that they're on the Sanders people's side? Or is this really more that everyone in local politics is on Clinton's side, and only these new activists are going the other way?

JR: Nevada is like most states: Most elected officials here have endorsed Clinton. But Sanders has a couple of state senators, including a veteran state senator and former state party chairman, a guy named Tick Segerblom. Another state senator has endorsed Bernie.

Lucy Flores, who is running for Congress here, has endorsed Sanders and has benefited greatly financially in her campaign from doing so. So there are some people who have done it, but it's like everywhere else: The majority of elected officials are with Clinton.

JS: So to go back to the officials getting death threats, do a lot of these people who are liberal Democrats see themselves as progressive advocates? Is there a profound sense of surprise about being cast as part of the establishment, officials who are saying, "Whoa, this is not how I see myself at all"?

JR: Of course, of course that's going on. There are elected officials who have been in these positions for years, saying, "Who are these newcomers to start throwing rocks at our house without knowing who is inside?"

There are a lot of people who have been working very hard for liberal and progressive causes for a number of years. They've gotten elected to office; they've been up in Carson City or in Washington, DC, working for progressive causes for much of their lives.

But the MO, as I wrote in my column, of some of the Sanders folks is: "If you're not with us, you're against us. You're part of the corporate sellout media aristocracy" — whatever they want to call it.

Provided pic of Ralston

Jon Ralston, a top Nevada political expert.

If you look at the whole list of elected officials in the Democratic Party who have endorsed Hillary Clinton, a lot are tried-and-true liberals.

[Nevada party chair] Roberta Lange is not a business Democrat. She's always come across to me as a fairly liberal Democrat; now she's being painted as the corrupted Hillary Clinton state Democratic Party/Harry Reid machine.

We're still only a few days from this, and we'll see. Certainly, I know there are a lot of people with elected titles who feel that they are being tarred by a very broad brush.

How are Nevada Democrats thinking about the party's future after the convention fracas?

Harry Reid

JS: Have you talked to any new and up-and-coming Democrats in Nevada to see how they are reacting to this in terms of reading the tea leaves about where the party is going?

Obviously, Sanders supporters skew young, and this movement has been so consequential at the national level. Are you hearing from Nevada officials that this is a constituency that they're going to have to work with and get behind?

JR: I think this is all a little too raw for that kind of navel gazing to go on yet. I do think it will go on, and it's going to work on two levels.

One is the mechanics of who is going to sit on the executive board of the Democratic Party. Who will control the levers of power and who will be the next party chair after Roberta Lange?

Then the other is the overall direction of the party in the post-Reid era. The Reid era has been characterized as a ruthlessly efficient machine, by using what is essentially a legalized money-laundering operation and voter registration vehicle to elect Democrats to office — with the one exception of the 2014 election cycle, which was a disaster for Democrats across the country. It's been remarkably successful.

What is the role of the state party? I think that's going to be debated.

Should the role of the state party be about [running this political machine], or should it be more about becoming this cauldron where great ideas are debated and we talk about Wall Street and income inequality and universal health care as opposed to debating whether bylaw 2.30 is fair or not?

JS: Sanders has a very different theory about how you get Democrats elected than a lot of more centrist figures, but what you're saying is his message is being interpreted and layered locally in a way that may not be in line with the ground-level facts.

JR: That's absolutely right.

JS: So are there other ways Sanders's national theory of the case comports with what's going on in Nevada?

JR: I think the Lucy Flores case will be very instructive.

Her campaign was going nowhere; she endorsed Sanders in January, and then suddenly it took off. She has portrayed herself as the only true progressive in the race. … If she comes out of that primary, it's going to be a very strong statement. It will be a victory against the Reid machine, and a victory for Bernie Sanders.

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