The contest between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney dominates the news. But amid reports about gaffes and political tactics, is the campaign addressing issues that matter to real people? Kalamazoo independent journalist Chris Killian is on the road to find out during his Swing State Stories project. Over the next few weeks he’ll visit states where the race is close, beginning in Nevada.
It’s a Friday night in Elko, Nevada, and the wind whistles through the town’s downtown streets. It blows trash and desert dust past tiny pubs and glittering corner casinos, their names lit in hundreds of lights, brightening the night.
Eric Mitchell and Gus Rackley sit outside the Stray Dog Bar and Grille on 5th Street, sipping their drinks.
Both men are dressed in thick, black leather vests. “Snake River Club,” the name of their motorcycle club is stitched on their backs. They are massive men, intimidating even. But they have a softer side, a longing for more cooperation between friends and strangers. The world, Gus says, is getting too complicated: “Anymore, people are too busy with their cell phones, with their computers, with their TV, with their silly video games to get out there and help each other out.”
Gus might preach the Golden Rule, but in Elko it’s just gold that rules. The world’s second largest gold mine sits about 40 miles outside this city of 12,000 and talk about the spot price of the yellow metal is commonplace. The mine brought jobs and growth to Elko where the unemployment rate sits at about six percent.
But Cole Morse says that growth has come at a price. The fourth-generation Elko resident says high paying mining jobs mean the price of everything has gone up. Cole says everyone who doesn’t work in the gold mine struggles to keep up.
“They’re getting paid high dollar so the rent and cost of living is high dollar. Where you’ve got these people that support the miners – food, Walmart and all that – minimum wage, part-time. So, yeah, the people are making a killing that own businesses that are apartment rent. They all think everybody works for the mines so we all make $30 an hour, but you can’t live off that (minimum wage).”
Cole says he’s been optimistic his whole life. But now he looks toward the future and sees a grim horizon, with nations like China and India having more and more sway over the United States. Cole thinks the end of America’s world supremacy is near.
“We’re gonna fall apart just like Rome did and all the others as far as I’m concerned – and it’s coming. We’re getting too much of a diversity of opinion of people who are learning to use out laws against us and it’s wrong. Every big nation has tore itself apart. It does well for awhile, I mean throughout history it’s a known thing. Every big nation has fell apart. We’re just gonna do it a little sooner than most.”
In many ways the politics of Nevada are shaped by space, of which there is plenty. The government owns 86 percent of the land here. The sparseness in the north creates a self-reliant spirit and distrust of government, while government is more accepted in populated areas to the south, like Las Vegas and Clark County. Barack Obama won Nevada by nearly 13 points in 2008. This year the race is much tighter.
To understand the vastness of this state, drive south on US 93 from the dusty northern outpost of Wells to Las Vegas, the Nevada’s largest city. For over 400 miles there are just a handful of tiny towns like Ely, Caliente, and Pioche – their elevations five or six times their populations. US 93 cuts like a ribbon of loneliness through a beautiful and rugged landscape of hulking mountain ranges, flat deserts and wide, wind-swept valleys that seem to stretch forever. Then Vegas emerges, the city buzzing with light.
Sam Castrogiovanni has run an auto repair shop in Las Vegas for 20 years. The grime under his nails has been there for almost as long, he says. He’s an independent, and like many voters is frustrated, confused, even angry. Castrogiovanni says the economy doesn’t work for Average people anymore.
“I believe that the economy is working for the very rich. They’re the only ones…they don’t have any problems. The middle class is pretty much…here in Vegas it’s wasted. It’s bad. People don’t have money, they’re losing their homes left and right. They have lost their homes. They can’t make their payments, a lot of them can’t buy food. My wife was at the health department a couple of months ago and they were handing out bread to people because people don’t even have enough money to pay for bread. That’s terrible. And this country’s giving out money to other countries or whatever they’re doing with China and all that. That money needs to stay here.”
The struggles of the Las Vegas economy over the past few years are no secret. Jumping in the 1990s and early 2000s, easy credit led to a housing boom that went bust when the market crashed. Foreclosure rates here are still among the highest in the nation.
Take a drive south on Decatur Avenue near the city center and you see the aftermath of the burst bubble. There is land for sale; two-and-a-half acres here, two-point-one acres there, if anyone is looking to buy. Few are.
In places, residential streets abruptly stop, almost awkwardly, giving way to land that developers once had plans for but has been returned to the desert’s embrace.
Take a walk down Mohawk Street and the busyness of Decatur fades into the hot, dry air. The only sound is the chirping of birds in dusty bushes and the buzzing of electricity running through the thick transmission lines overhead.
But there is reason for optimism. Just talk to Vegas resident Cordia Smith. After being homeless for eight years living on the streets of San Diego, she rose out of that and now sees light where once there was darkness: “Everybody has a hard time at some point in our lives. We do not float though this life without obstacles. And once we find out what we can do to deal with these obstacles then life becomes a little smoother and that was the main lesson I learned when I was out there. That’s what helped me get off the streets.”