Accused in radio ads of condoning voter suppression, Hillary Clinton and her campaign are now attempting to turn the tables, hitting Barack Obama and his supporters with charges of voter intimidation.
The Clinton campaign held a conference call with reporters this afternoon to denounce Spanish-language ads that call Clinton "shameless" for her campaign's tacit support of a lawsuit — since dismissed — that sought to block casino workers from participating in the at-large caucuses on the Vegas Strip this Saturday.
The dust-up over the ads was quickly obscured, however, when farm-worker heroine Dolores Huerta accused the Obama camp of intimidating voters. Speaking on behalf of the Clinton campaign, Huerta said:
These ads that they have, saying that Hillary is trying to deprive Culinary Workers of their vote? It's just the opposite. It's Obama supporters and organizers who are telling Hillary supporters that they cannot vote.
We keep hearing stories of intimidation by Obama supporters and Obama organizers that are out there telling workers that... if they vote for Hillary they could be fired.
Huerta -- who repeatedly belittled Obama, referring to him with the epithet "Â¿CÃ³mo-Se-Llama?" or "What's-His-Name?," saying he was unknown to Hispanics -- provided few details to back up these explosive charges.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton called the intimidation charges "wild" and "sordid."
We're in the day before the caucus and we're hearing sordid attacks that have no substantiation behind them. It's a fairly typical political game to play in the last minute — to try to get people to believe something that isn't true and hope that the election happens before it gets cleared up.
These sorts of wild charges have nothing to do with the substance of the campaign. And it also points up the fact that the Clinton campaign isn't comfortable with its candidate or comfortable with the issues they've been advocating. They have to make up these charges.
Clinton spokesperson Fabiola Rodriguez, reached this evening for comment, clarified that Huerta did not intend to implicate organizers employed by the Obama campaign itself, rather Culinary Union supporters who organize on his behalf.
Asked whether any of the alleged dirty tricks were linked in any way to the Obama campaign, Rodriguez said, "These are people who have endorsed him and who are organizing workers to come vote for him. I would say there is some kind of connection there."
The Clinton campaign put Rolling Stone in touch with two casino kitchen workers who claim to have either experienced or witnessed union intimidation to vote for Obama. While their stories make clear that the union -- which endorsed Obama last week -- has aggressively encouraged its members to close ranks behind Obama, their experiences are far less black-and-white than the charges levied by Huerta. In neither case was any worker threatened with termination.
The first instance involves a food server at the Luxor who is also a shop steward for the Culinary Union and disagreed with the union's Obama endorsement; she asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal. The worker says she was told by the union that she would not be given time off to caucus if she did not pledge to vote for Obama. Ultimately, she complained to Luxor management and was assured she would be allowed to attend.
In the second case, Matthew DeFalco, a kitchen runner at Paris casino, told Rolling Stone he saw a union field representative tell a co-worker that she could not caucus if she didn't commit to supporting Obama. After DeFalco and his mother, a cook, intervened and argued with the union rep, the worker was eventually assured she could caucus. The worker in question, a woman named Silvia Atuna, told the Las Vegas Sun she believed a language barrier between she and the union rep may have led to "a miscommunication."
Calls to the Culinary Union to discuss Huerta's accusations were not immediately returned.
Phil Singer, national spokesman for the Clinton campaign said the campaign stands by Huerta: "We've been getting a lot of calls [from people being told] your job is on the line unless you sign a supporter card for Senator Obama, or you can't take off work unless you support Senator Obama."
As to the UNITE-HERE ads themselves, Clinton campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle called on Obama to "denounce" them. Asked why Clinton could plausibly disavow responsibility for the lawsuit filed by her union surrogates and then insist that the Obama campaign assume responsibility for ads produced by his union surrogates, Rodriguez said the ads were different.
"They're using Senator Obama's name," she says. "The lawsuit did not have Senator Clinton's name in it."