LAS VEGAS -- Presidential candidate Kamala Harris zeroed in on the Democratic Party's debate over health insurance Friday as she made her pitch to one of Nevada's most powerful political forces, the casino workers' union.
Leaders and members of the Culinary Union and its parent organization, Unite Here, have made it clear they don't favor "Medicare for all" plans like those proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that would eliminate private insurance.
Before Harris took the stage for a town hall with union members, vice president Leain Vashon said the union fought hard to get the "the best" insurance and "we're not looking for second best from anyone."
Harris, who is struggling to catch up to Sanders, Harris and Joe Biden, highlighted her Medicare for all plan that would preserve private insurance as the biggest contrast between her and some of her rivals.
"I had you in mind because I know what you have given up to get that coverage. I know what you've given up," Harris said.
Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a 60,000-member group of housekeepers, bartenders, porters and others that keep the glittering resorts of Las Vegas humming, is one of the most powerful political forces in Nevada, the third state to weigh in on the presidential contest next year.
An endorsement from the organization could be decisive in the state's February caucuses.
The union has not yet decided it if will endorse anyone in the primary, but it's listening to candidates and telling them what workers want, secretary-treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said.
Though most of the Democratic candidates have held private meetings with the union's leaders, Harris was the first to get a coveted invite to speak to members. About 250 gathered to hear her Friday night at the union's hall north of the Las Vegas Strip.
The group is planning more town halls with other top Democratic candidates, though it has declined to say which have received invitations.
Nevada, considered the first test of a candidate's appeal in a diverse state, has a 29% Latino population. The heavily immigrant, majority Latino union is seen as a key mobilizer of Latino voters and does outreach in English and Spanish, as well as in Tagalog, Amharic and Chinese.
The union's organizing is credited with helping former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid win a tough re-election campaign in 2010 and delivering Democratic victories in 2016 and 2018.
In the state's early presidential nominating caucuses, the Democratic Party traditionally sets up at-large caucusing locations near the Las Vegas Strip, which allows casino shift workers to participate in the meetings.
The union's backing hasn't always translated to a slam-dunk for candidates: In 2014, union-backed Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford lost in a Republican wave.
In 2008, the union decided to back Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. The move was a boon to Obama, who won more delegates in Nevada, but Clinton won the popular vote and had a strong showing at the at-large caucus sites near the Strip.
The union sat out the 2016 Democratic primary.
Some of the 2020 candidates have waded into the union's dispute with Station Casinos over unionizing votes at several of the company's Las Vegas properties, issuing statements urging the company to join the bargaining table.
Harris on Friday told a worker at one of the company's properties that she had called one of the company's executives to press that point.
The California senator pumped her fist and led members in chants of "We vote, we win" and "Si, se puede" before describing her plans to use executive orders as president to extend protections for young immigrants in the country illegally and their families.