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U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren...

Democratic White House hopefuls target labor at Nevada forum

LAS VEGAS — Democratic presidential contenders were pressed Saturday on their plans to reform health care and fight for workers’ rights at a forum held by the nation’s largest public employees union in Nevada, the state that will cast the first votes in the West in next year’s primary.

Former Obama Cabinet secretary Julian Castro kicked off the day pledging to follow Nevada’s footsteps and expand collective bargaining rights for government employees, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren said labor would have a voice at the table in her administration as she tries to move the country to a government-run “Medicare for All” health insurance system.

They were among 19 Democrats scheduled to speak at a labor forum hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a public employees union that represents 1.6 million workers. The event is a moment for the candidates to prove their pro-union credentials as they jockey for support from a powerful source of cash and manpower. Some Nevada Democrats hope to zero in on kitchen-table issues that matter in a state hit hard by the Great Recession.

But immigration drove the day’s first conversation, with Castro saying he’s not attacking former President Barack Obama by suggesting in a recent debate that Democrats should learn from the past on immigration policy. Castro said the Obama administration got “better over time,” but said Democrats should have seized the opportunity for immigration reform when they controlled Congress early in Obama’s term.

“There are lessons that we can learn,” Castro said. “This is not about criticizing President Obama, this is about ‘OK, what does the next administration have to do?'”

Castro also doubled down on his idea that border crossings should be decriminalized, and said he wouldn’t try to use deportations as a bargaining chip with Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.

The Democrats in the crowded field have presented a broad array of policies to help working Americans, including easing student debt and raising wages. They’ve tussled, though, over health care reform, an issue that is very important to many union members. While Sanders and Warren have pushed for a complete elimination of private and employer-sponsored health plans, Biden and others argue workers have bargained hard for benefit plans they’ll want to keep.

Warren said she’d make sure that union members and other workers are “fully compensated for everything that they negotiated for” under their private insurance plans but didn’t explain how that would occur.

AFSCME President Lee Saunders told reporters before the event began that his members support the idea of a single-payer government health insurance program even though they’ve negotiated for hard-fought benefits under private plans. He welcomes the debate among Democratic presidential candidates over whether to eliminate employer-provided health insurance under “Medicare for All” but said labor needs to have a voice in discussions about changing America’s health care system.

The union has not decided if it will endorse in the Democratic primary but will take its time considering because they’ve “got a lot of friends in the race,” Saunders said.

While candidates won’t get to make lengthy speeches at the union forum, many are packing in events around the Las Vegas area over the weekend in a nod to Nevada’s status as the third state where Democrats will vote in the primary, just after Iowa and New Hampshire and before South Carolina. Warren, speaking at a town hall Friday night in a high school gymnasium, said she’s expanding her footprint in Nevada and will soon have six campaign offices, more than any other candidate.

Despite Democrats largely sweeping the state in 2018, it remains a battleground where President Donald Trump sees a chance of winning next year. He lost the state in 2016 to Democrat Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points.

More than a decade after the Great Recession, economic anxieties remain strong among the state’s voters, who often cite them among the top concerns they want the next president to address.

Aside from its robust labor unions, the Western state is home to a diverse immigrant community and a population that’s 29% Latino.