Coalition of groups tries to counter religious right in Nevada

RENO, Nev. - A coalition of groups representing Nevada's women, minorities, gays and environmentalists launched a voter-registration drive Monday aimed at turning around the nation's worst voter turnout record.

Leaders of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada said they would target low-income and minority communities in hopes of registering 3,000 new voters statewide and countering opposition efforts by the Christian right.

''The religious political extremists vote in droves,'' said Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the non-partisan Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

''They have meetings every Sunday and they make sure they all are registered. It is very admirable. It is something we need to aspire to,'' he said.

Nevada's 38.3 percent voter turnout was the worst in the nation in 1996, well below the national average of 49.1 percent.

''We're a bit embarrassed about being 50th in the nation,'' said Vicki LoSasso of the Nevada Women's Lobby.

''We believe the most direct way to give power back to low-income women is to register them to vote and then get them to vote,'' said Teresa Benitez, interim director of the Nevada Empowered Women's Project.

Others participating in the $40,000 campaign called ''Vote 2000-Nevada Freedom Summer'' include:

Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 86, Alliance for Worker's Rights, Reno-Sparks NAACP, Latinos for Political Education, Nevada Urban Indians, Citizen Alert, the Great Basin Mine Watch and the Reno-based gay rights organization, A Rainbow Place.

''We've got a diverse group, everything from environmentalists to social justice, workers' rights and Latino organizations,'' said Tom Stoneburner, director of the Alliance for Workers' Rights northern Nevada chapter in Reno.

''We want to register all people to vote, especially us minorities who haven't taken part in the past. This is a crucial year,'' said Onie Cooper, past president of the Reno-Sparks NAACP.

Fulkerson said it marked the first time in northern Nevada that so many varied organizations were pooling their resources to register voters.

''It's usually the political parties that do get-out-the-vote efforts,'' he said.

The voter registration effort is non-partisan, with no preferences for candidates. However, the groups participating traditionally have been viewed primarily as Democratic constituencies.

Two key races in Nevada this fall have attracted the attention of leaders of both national parties:

- Former Republican Rep. John Ensign, who came within 428 seats of knocking off Democratic Sen. Harry Reid in 1998, faces Democrat Ed Bernstein in a battle to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Richard Bryan.

- Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley is trying to fight off a challenge from state Sen. Jon Porter in Nevada's 1st District representing Las Vegas.

Rocio Lopez, a field organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said one of the reason's for Nevada's low turnout is that many people move into the state thinking they won't live here long and so they don't register to vote.

Fulkerson said the highest voter turnout comes from older people who are white with moderate to upper incomes.

''We are targeting youths, low- to moderate-income people of color with traditionally low turnout,'' he said.

The campaign is targeting urban areas but trips also are planned to Winnemucca, Lovelock, Battle Mountain and Elko.

''One of the things about us is how diverse we are,'' Benitez said.

''We're going to go out and talk to people who look like us. We can go into disenfranchised communities and explain to them first hand why it is important to vote.''


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