Ninna Diaz checks addreses of registered Democrats and independents on her cell phone before knocking on doors to ask people to vote for Senator Elizabeth Warren on Saturday in Las Vegas. Photo: AFP / Frederic J. Brown

Manny Pacquiao, roast pig dinners and prayer services: Activists are using every tool possible to get the booming Filipino-American community in Las Vegas to the polls for Saturday’s Democratic nomination vote.

Overlooked in the past, Filipinos have rapidly become the western desert state’s largest Asian-American community – almost 200,000 by some estimates, in a state of three million people. That’s forced candidates to take notice.

For the first time, the Tagalog language will be used on voting cards along with English and Spanish at the Democratic caucuses.

“We’re proud that they are recognizing us,” said Margie Gonzales, a Filipina community leader. “It means a lot – it means recognition.”

Gonzales, who chairs the county’s Asian American and Pacific Islanders commission, has also begun training politicians to speak a few Tagalog words.

“When you start knocking on doors, it helps if you greet a Filipino family opening the door in Tagalog,” she said. “That’s a way to make that person smile – you feel welcome.”

Feeling welcome is key for a minority community in which immigration and xenophobia are major concerns. Like Latinos, Filipino-Americans tend to vote Democrat.

“When Trump talks about not bringing in relatives and things like that, that same thing applies to Asians,” said Tick Segerblom, a commissioner for Clark County, where Las Vegas is situated. “So Trump has really been a boon as far as organizing Asians.”

But traditionally Filipino-Americans have not voted in large numbers.

To counter that, Gonzales and her fellow activists introduced a tradition commonly found during election campaigns back in the Philippines – the Kamayan, a large communal feast.

These typically see politicians mingle at long tables covered in banana leaves, with a whole roast pig on the menu.

‘Squeak of a mouse’

The feasts hosted in Las Vegas by Gonzales so far have not endorsed specific candidates. A grand Kamayan is planned once the Democratic Party settles on a nominee – but that has not stopped those in the race from reaching out.

Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard, who is Hawaiian, has made inroads, as have Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren.

“This is an overlooked and often ignored community and I feel like Elizabeth Warren celebrates our existence and doesn’t use us as props,” said Filipina campaign volunteer Ninna Diaz, 27.

The community is “definitely taking notice,” she added. 

More recently, Gonzales has conducted Tagalog-language caucus training for campaigns including that of Bernie Sanders, the front-runner.

“The mere fact that a lot of politicians are calling me and other Filipino-American leaders, it shows you that we are becoming important,” she said.

“They are paying attention to us, because they know now that we vote.”

She added: “Our voice used to be like the squeak of a mouse…. But we are getting fired up now.”

In a sign of the group’s growing visibility, Segerblom and others are leading a campaign to rename a stretch of eastern Las Vegas, which is home to many community restaurants and stores, Little Filipinotown.

But Gonzales turned to one of the most visible icons of all – global boxing superstar and Philippines Senator Manny Pacquiao, who was in Las Vegas for a fight in 2014.

“We were able to get to his suite — he posed with us, holding our banner,” said Gonzales, who now uses the image to boost voter registration drives.

“It gets the Filipinos excited — in fact, even non-Filipinos!”

Crunch time

From glitzy Las Vegas casinos to dusty desert crossroads, Nevada Democrats vote Saturday for who should challenge President Donald Trump in November’s election, with leftist firebrand Sanders riding high in the saddle.

The western state, home to three million people, is the third contest in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Nevada’s vote may serve to entrench Senator Sanders’s status as frontrunner before the deluge of “Super Tuesday” on March 3, when people in 14 states troop to the ballot box.

Or it could provide a much-needed boost for one of the moderate candidates desperate to halt his rise.

On the eve of the vote, Sanders was hit with published revelations from US officials that Russia – which interfered in the 2016 US elections in a bid to boost Trump – was actively trying to help his own presidential bid.

Sanders immediately rejected any help that might come from Vladimir Putin’s government or allies, instructing the Russian president to “stay out of American elections.”

The Democratic race is entering an urgent phase. Any momentum from results in Nevada, and then South Carolina which votes on February 29, could prove decisive, while poor showings are almost certain to close the door on some campaigns.

Of the eight contenders still seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders leads in polling in Nevada and nationally by about a dozen points over second-place Biden.

Recently Sanders has been largely unchecked by his opponents, who have focused more on blunting the advance of campaign newcomer Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York who has poured more than $360 million from his personal fortune into campaign advertising.

But with Bloomberg unconventionally sitting out the four contests before Super Tuesday, Nevada is a fierce battleground for the other candidates.

Its diverse Democratic electorate, one third of whom are Hispanic, may well bolster the fortunes of moderates like South Bend, Indiana’s former mayor Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar, two ambitious contenders who to date have struggled to win over minority voters.

The race’s other centrist, former Vice Presisent Joe Biden, is desperate to right a listing ship.

His frontrunner status collapsed after humiliating performances in the first contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire. A third straight poor showing could spell disaster.

Voting in Nevada begins at noon (2000 GMT) Saturday, and officials are hoping to avoid the chaos that marred Iowa. 

Nevada and Iowa both vote in a caucus format. Unlike in a primary, where voting is by secret ballot, caucus goers attend precinct gatherings where they vote publicly by standing with fellow supporters of their chosen candidate.

– AFP

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