PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS At the Sparks Labor Temple, Jim Hightower told unionists this election is an opportunity to curb corporate power. The banner in the background was used at the special session of the Nevada Legislature that granted the car company Faraday Future $335 million in incentives.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential candidacy has relied partly on anger and partly on hope, but the anger is an essential component. It raises the question of whether Nevadans will respond, when they went through the entire Great Recession with little show of anger.

Last year, the Nevada Legislature enacted, at Gov. Brian Sandoval’s request, the largest single package of corporate welfare in human history for Tesla. The Nevada grassroots showed little distress. Democrats who said they went to the capital to curb the incentives caved in and voted unanimously for them.

Nevada is a tax haven in which the wealthy establish residences to shelter their incomes from taxation, giving the state an artificial average income that costs the state federal funding. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

Foreclosures are still happening at a relatively high rate, with foreclosed home auctions still happening on the Washoe County Courthouse steps. No one seems worked up.

For the asking, the Nevada Legislature hands out corporate liability waivers like cookies to industries from casinos to storage units. They litter Nevada Revised Statutes by the dozen, possibly by the hundreds (no one is certain), and few object.

State unemployment is still fairly high, but politicians detect no discontent among the jobless.

No other state lays down for business like this one, and the state’s soak-the-poor tax structure shows it. Workers suffer in silence.

So is there the outrage among Nevadans that has fueled previous economic populist candidacies like those of Estes Kefauver and Robert Kennedy?

Jim Hightower, a Texas populist who was elected to statewide office there three times and now is a syndicated columnist and radio host, swept through Nevada last weekend campaigning for Sanders in union halls and among ranchers and farmers, trying to arouse those groups to turn out for his candidate.

“Why the hell are you going to pay more taxes for health care and schools and human needs at the same time we’re letting Tesla out of paying?” he asked. “There wasn’t a campaign here against that, and now there can be.”

Asked why the public would respond to Sanders when they didn’t respond to the Tesla welfare, Hightower said, “It’s a personal thing. They have a person they can vote for. … And by the way, Texans are pissed off that you offered Tesla more.”

Where Sanders’s votes will come from in Nevada became an even more urgent question with the photo finish in the Iowa caucuses. He is running on a platform of ending the decline of the middle class by combating income inequality, breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks, and doing something about big money in politics, while also advancing policies like addressing climate change, increasing the minimum wage and Social Security benefits, and free college tuition.

Outsiders

Nevada political analyst Fred Lokken acknowledged that Nevadans tend to suffer in silence, but he’s not sure that will be true this year.

“Yes, I think there is an anger that can be mined by Sanders,” he said. “He is literally connecting with people who are angry and frustrated.”

He said he suspects that unemployment is still in double digits. The official unemployment figure is 6.4 percent. That’s the lowest in five years, but is still relatively high (it’s 3.4 percent in the other early caucus state, Iowa)—and that doesn’t count those who have stopped receiving unemployment benefits.

“People are unhappy,” Lokken said. “They’re against the wealthy because everything is set up as unfair. … Well, you wonder if 2016 will be the exception.”

Lokken, who was skeptical of Sanders early in the campaign and thought he did not belong in the Democratic race, said he is surprised at how people are responding to him, and at the way Republicans have set things up for Sanders.

“Conservative Republicans have come across as mean-spirited, greedy, and Sanders is compassionate and kind with ideals that people can respond to,” he said. “We haven’t had a candidate in their lifetime who talked this way. There is compassion and an agenda no one else is talking about. Something connected.”

Hightower said Sanders’s socialist background can be dealt with by responding, “I mean, Franklin Roosevelt”—and by listening to Sanders.

“He says he doesn’t want the government taking over, but he wants the public to have a full say,” Hightower said.

He also believes that Sanders wants to redeem unfulfilled promises from the Obama years. “Again, that’s bringing the outside in,” he said. Obama, Hightower believes, talked a lot about opening his administration but, then, after becoming president, tended not to bring the public in. Hightower characterized it as, “Thank you. I’ll take it from here.”

Lokken agrees, saying that people feel “used or played” depending on a leader’s approach. Lokken also believes Obama and the Democrats have unfinished business, whether because they think some issues are already resolved or because the Republican Congress won’t let anything Democratic through.

“The promise has not been kept,” he said. “Health care is not affordable. The price of Obamacare keeps going up.”

Lokken, who teaches at the college level, said he has found the young decidedly unconcerned about the socialist label.

“They do want to see wealth redistributed. We’re back at the sense of injustice everywhere” that accompanied some earlier periods of history, he said.

As for whether the working poor in Nevada could become activists for a change, Lokken said the 2015 Nevada Legislature with its GOP majorities have been Sanders’s best friend. Its record could get people to caucuses.

“The result is legislation that we haven’t seen come through the legislature before—no progress on minimum wage, undercutting union rules,” Lokken said. “Those are the catalysts that should allow the Democrats to govern.”

The Sanders campaign sent Hightower to rock-ribbed Republican Douglas County over the weekend to talk with people in agriculture—Hightower is a former Texas agriculture commissioner—and his visit represents outreach to groups that Democrats tend to have written off in the past. U.S. Sen. Harry Reid said after John Kerry’s defeat in 2004 that the Democrats need to try to bring rural areas to the party, but some Nevada candidates who tried it were not successful. But economic populism originated in the farm states, and Hightower thinks the right Democratic candidate could get those constituencies to respond to the party.

The Nevada Democratic caucuses, third presidential nominating event in the nation, will be held on Feb. 20.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...