Politicians show their cards in Las Vegas

When I travel, I often tell lawmakers I’m headed to their home state or district. I often suggest we meet for coffee or breakfast sometime. As a reporter, it’s a helpful contrast to see House members and senators in Washington – and also on their home turf.

It helps me understand them better, get a sense of the issues which are important to them and determine what makes them tick.

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Years ago, I casually mentioned to the staff of then Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., I was traveling to the Congressman’s district to attend a wedding. A few weeks passed and I didn’t give it any more thought. Much to my surprise, Frank himself phoned back the day before I left with suggestions for restaurants and dining. He also gave me a brief tutorial about the culture of his district.

Most lawmakers love to hear when you are coming to their district or state. They know every nook and cranny. They know the people. The attractions. The restaurants. And they love to show off the place they represent in Washington.

I had never been to Las Vegas until a few years ago. In that instance, I didn’t tell any members of the Nevada delegation I was heading to the Silver State. But when I returned, I ran into then Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., in a corridor just off the House floor. I told Berkley I had recently visited Las Vegas.

“Where did you stay?” inquired an interested Berkley.

I subsequently told Berkley I stayed at The Venetian, the legendary hotel and casino known for replicating the canals of Venice, the Palazzo Ducale and the Rialto Bridge.

It’s also operated by business magnate Sheldon Adelson.

“Oh, Chad,” Berkley chided gently with a smile on her face. “You stayed at the only non-union hotel on the Strip.”

Las Vegas is a union town. And Adelson is well-known for bucking the labor movement.

“Well,” continued Berkley. “Did you lose any money?”

I don’t gamble much. But I did hit the numbers a few times on the roulette wheel and had some good runs on slot machines.

“We actually came out ahead,” I told Berkley.

She grimaced a bit. On one hand, Berkley perhaps hoped I had won, and thus enjoyed myself and would come again. On the other hand, perhaps Berkley was concerned that my good fortune was bad for the Vegas economy. It was still struggling at that point after the 2008 financial collapse. Many residents were miffed by some stinging remarks dished out by President Obama.

“You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college,” the former President once said, stirring the ire of locals.

“Well, Chad,” sighed Berkley. “Did you see any shows?”

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I hesitated to answer for a moment. Yes. I had. But I was worried about Berkley’s response.

“We went to see Jersey Boys,” I told the Congresswoman, “But I’m afraid you’re going to tell me they’re against health care reform.”

Berkley laughed.

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Fast forward to the government shutdown of 2013. It was a Saturday evening and the Senate just wrapped for the day. No end to the shutdown was in sight. I was the last reporter leaving the Capitol. As I came to the first floor elevators near the Senate Carriage Entrance, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., materialized. He too was heading home. Reid had known I had visited Vegas a few times by that point. I asked how he was doing and mentioned I needed a vacation once the government was funded again.

I told Reid of one of my favorite restaurants in Las Vegas: Lotus of Siam. It’s a well-known Thai restaurant located off the Strip. The restaurant is in a different location now. But at the time, Lotus of Siam occupied a spot in a run-down strip mall. The entrance to the restaurant belied the culinary magic inside. The walls were plastered with pictures of Hollywood types and rock stars, all who patronized Lotus of Siam when they visited Las Vegas.

Reid proceeded to tell me Lotus of Siam was one of his favorite restaurants. I asked what dishes he liked there. And with that, the Senate Majority Leader whipped out his phone dialed his wife Landra, asking for the name of a dish the two of them often enjoyed.

“Honey, what is that dish you like so much at Lotus of Siam,” Reid asked his wife. “It’s with pumpkin?”

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Wendy Sherman was one of the most senior figures at the State Department in 2014. Sherman and other officials journeyed to Capitol Hill to lead a Senate-wide briefing in the basement of the Capitol Visitor’s Center on North Korea’s nuclear program.

TV networks positioned a bank of cameras in the Senate subway station in hopes of grabbing a few senators as they came and went from the briefing. I asked another colleague to handle the stakeout and headed to Cups, a coffee shop in the basement of the Russell Senate Office Building. My plan was to grab a cup of coffee and then cut past the subway station stakeout en route to the Capitol Rotunda. That’s where I was scheduled to meet a source.

Just as I walked up to the stakeout, Harry Reid appeared atop a small escalator leading to the subway station and near where senators would receive their briefing. I hadn’t spoken to Reid directly in a while. He waved hello. We met at the top of the escalator. I told Reid that I’d be heading to Las Vegas again in a few weeks during the upcoming Congressional recess.

We spoke for a moment, ear-to-ear. Naturally, all of the cameras at the stakeout focused on the two of us talking, as though we were exchanging important information about Pyongyang.

“Where are you staying,” Reid asked.

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I told Reid we previously stayed at the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay. But we weren’t sure yet this time.

“Stay at Wynn,” said Reid, without missing a beat.

“Wynn” is a hotel/casino complex on the north end of the Vegas Strip. Casino Mogul Steve Wynn ran the place until being forced out last year due to sexual misconduct allegations. Reid was telling me this years before anything was known publicly about Wynn’s alleged infractions.

Reid, being Reid, was always frank in his assessments of most situations. Even if it came to hotels on the Vegas Strip.

“Steve Wynn is an ass but a friend,” said Reid of Wynn. “But he has the nicest place in Las Vegas.”

I thanked Reid for the suggestion and headed up to the Rotunda. Reid went the other direction, toward the North Korea briefing.

By the time I reached the Rotunda, my email exploded with questions from reporters at the stakeout who spotted the escalator exchange but couldn’t hear what we were saying.

“What did Reid tell you about North Korea?” they all asked.

“Nothing,” I told them.

“Come on, Chad. What did he say?” probed one incredulous colleague.

Finally, one of Reid’s aides reached out, curious what the Majority Leader had said.

Reid’s staffer was just being diligent, wondering if he needed to brace for a juicy report on North Korea.

“He told me to stay at Wynn,” I replied.

No special information about Pyongyang. No intelligence on Senate parliamentary strategy. No information on Reid’s political future.

Just an unsolicited hotel recommendation.

Stay at Wynn.

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Perhaps one of the most interesting manifestations of democracy I’ve ever seen unfolded in Las Vegas during the 2016 presidential caucus in Nevada. Most of the hotels and casinos granted workers an hour or so off the clock to attend a caucus. The lines of caucus goers represented a fascinating cross-section of every type of employment possible in Las Vegas. Those in line were attired in full work regalia – just taking a few moments to make their voices heard: Blackjack dealer. Bartender. Bellhop. Showgirl. Custodian. Limo driver. Chef. Dishwasher. Housekeeper. Security Guard.

All political caucuses and primaries reflect the states or towns in which they’re held. But this was a presidential caucus in Las Vegas. And those participating in a caucus in Las Vegas were going to cut a very different political figure than caucus goers in Iowa, Colorado, Hawaii or Kansas. It was signature Las Vegas.