Monday, October 17, 2011

On Perception & Reality As Nevada Takes Center Stage

Finally, all eyes will be on us this week... Oh wait, they're not? Who are those candidates looking at? Are they lusting for New Hampshire again (while they're supposed to be with us)?

When Nevada elbowed its way toward the front of the presidential calendar, the idea was simple: No longer would candidates ignore the West and its issues. Rather, they would come here and speak to the concerns of people like Victor Tingley.

At 56, the former assistant casino manager has been jobless for nearly three years. His home in North Las Vegas, purchased more than a decade ago when the neighborhood was more desert than development, is worth less than a third of its former value.

Yet Tingley, a Republican-leaning independent, has heard nothing meaningful from the GOP hopefuls about the collapse of the housing market or the resulting implosion of Nevada's building industry, which, experts say, may take decades to recover. Not even from Mitt Romney, who took a well-publicized tour of Tingley's foreclosure-wracked neighborhood in April and held it up as an example of the nation's struggling economy.

"They don't give a [damn] about us," said Tingley, as he stood in his front yard surveying a gloomy landscape of empty and abandoned homes, many worth far less than their outstanding mortgages.

There's a reason why the Republicans are largely ignoring Nevada's economic woes. Since most of the rest of them don't expect to win here, they're deliberately downplaying our concerns and drumming up the kind of extreme rhetoric that excites the hearts of teabaggers in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. And perhaps more importantly, the Republicans' campaign donors don't really care about things like home foreclosures.

The virtual silence from the GOP field is not just frustrating to Tingley and his neighbors — "They're not really talking about it. Nobody is," said Republican Shirley Ayala, 77 — but also puzzling to business and economic analysts. They say the economy will not fully recover, here in Nevada or elsewhere across the country, until housing rebounds and the construction industry mends.

"Job creation" — which the candidates have emphasized — "is not, in and of itself, the answer," said John Restrepo, who runs a Las Vegas economic consulting firm. "You have to deal with the housing market, since that's one of the biggest assets most people have."

[... T]he GOP hopefuls have little incentive to raise the issue — or, for that matter, visit Nevada all that much. Compounding the snub, several said last week that they wouldboycott the state's Jan. 14 caucuses in a dispute over their timing.

Although Nevada is tentatively third in line to vote, Iowa and New Hampshire are still far more consequential. So the candidates are spending the bulk of their time in those two states, where the housing issue rarely comes up. While Nevada ranks first in foreclosures, New Hampshire and Iowa rank 15th and 33rd, respectively. Joblessness in the two states is less than half of Nevada's 13.4% rate, which also leads the country.

So we're in this weird pickle of a situation where we can't get the attention of these GOP hopefuls, even when we're supposed to be taking center stage. But really, is anyone taking Nevada's economic concerns seriously?

Right now, the focus seems to be largely on which big power players are supporting whom in the next election cycle. Who's raising money for Romney? Who's headlining the next Perry event? Who's still packing the room for Obama? Who's in? Who's out? Who's getting the best consultants? In a state like Nevada, where our "elite" are so tight it seems incestuous at times, it's easy to just speculate on who the power players are gravitating towards.

But when one looks beyond the power players to the rest of the state, one sees a different picture. For most Nevadans, none of the insider horse race matters because they fear losing their homes, losing their jobs, losing it all. Outside the glitzy Vegas Strip casinos and posh Tahoe estates, it's a grim picture out here.

That can explain why the Occupy/99% movement seemed to pick up momentum this past weekend. Larger than expected crowds turned out in Las Vegas, Reno, and Carson City. Nationwide, local Occupy chapters are forming and protests are emerging. And now, we are finally starting to see a common message emerge, one of people fighting back and directly challenging the reign of powerful elite.

But is anyone in power really paying attention? Perhaps. Notice these new ads from the House Majority PAC, and notice President Obama's barnburning campaign speeches? National Democrats may now be realizing the angry mood of the electorate and the return of economic justice as a winning populist message. When people are angry about lagging economic recovery (that they don't even believe is happening) after allowing the G-O-TEA to gain a strong hold on Congress last year, this may really be the best way for President Obama to respond.

And thank goodness he is responding. I just hope he will be willing to step outside the cozy confines of The Strip to see for himself the painful reality of Nevada's broken economy when he campaigns here again. Lordy knows the Republican candidates apparently don't care for that when they're here.

What we perceive isn't always what's real. Studying Nevada's political scene today makes one learn this lesson the hard way, and all the attention we will be getting this week should make us think more about what's really happening when the GOP candidates take the stage at The Venetian tomorrow.

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