Why you should care
Because she could hold the keys to the kingdom in Sin City.
Yvanna Cancela became versed on issues of race while studying hip-hop in college, and today she listens to “a whole lot” of Rick Ross and Jay Z’s “Heart of the City” on repeat. She has a union logo tattooed over her heart and is knee-deep into both a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biography and a Dolly Parton podcast. And she was appointed to the Nevada Senate in 2016, becoming the first Latina to serve in the chamber, a surprise even to herself.
After all, she had plans to leave politics for a homestay on an organic farm in Italy, before Donald Trump’s election galvanized her to remain in the arena. “So my Tuscan farm got much further away,” she laughs.
The point: The 32-year-old state senator is a politician firmly rooted in her generation. Which is why it’s all the more surprising that former Vice President Joe Biden, who became a U.S. senator more than a decade before she was born, is now counting on her to help deliver him the Nevada caucus … and, perhaps, the presidency.
Look at the math. Biden has slid from front-runner to underdog for the Democratic nomination according to OZY’s exclusive Forecast prediction model, after finishing a dismal fourth place in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. That makes the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses a critical put-up-or-shut-up moment.
He’s turned [personal pain] into very intense and deliberate public action.
Yvanna Cancela, on Joe Biden
Nevada will be the first test of how the candidates perform in a diverse state since nearly a third of Nevadans are Hispanic. Cancela, who was the first elected Nevada official to endorse Biden and was named a senior adviser to the campaign in January, is essential. “Her dedication to Nevada and ample experience working in the state make her an important addition to our growing team,” Biden’s Nevada state director Hilary Barrett said in a statement.
It’s not just about her heritage. Cancela is also the former political director of the powerful Culinary Union Local 226. The majority-Latino, majority-female union — with its 60,000 members and extensive grassroots political operation — could help fuel a Biden resurgence. Even though the union has not formally endorsed a candidate, Cancela represents a valuable bridge to the organization’s members. And on Tuesday, the union unloaded an attack on Sen. Bernie Sanders, warning its members in English- and Spanish-language flyers that Sanders would take away their union-negotiated health care plans if elected president, via his “Medicare for All” plan.
Tick Segerblom, a commissioner for Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, says the union will probably produce 10 percent of the total turnout in the state on caucus day. “You can’t overestimate the importance of having [Cancela’s] ability to go there and speak,” he says.
Talking at a trendy coffee shop in downtown Las Vegas, Cancela insists that her support of Biden isn’t so surprising. “He has a leadership style that comes from empathy that only someone who has been through the kind of pain he has been through can show, and he’s turned that into very intense and deliberate public action,” Cancela says, from helping pass the Affordable Care Act to sponsoring the Violence Against Women Act.
Demonstrated policy bona fides are especially important to Cancela, whose big break in high school came from joining the debate team. “I was never athletic, but I was good at arguing — and smart,” she says.
The Cuban-American Miami native graduated from Northwestern University with plans to join her father in journalism (her dad, José Cancela, is a longtime Telemundo executive and ran unsuccessfully for Miami-Dade County mayor in 2004). There, she took a class on the politics of hip-hop with professor Nitasha Sharma, which “changed the whole trajectory for the way I saw the world,” Cancela says. “It was one of my first opportunities to think about racism, class and how people fight for their liberation.”
Cancela, like Biden, merges working-class values with political establishment ties. After all, she got the politics bug after interning for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Hispanic press office in Washington in 2009. She worked nights as a bartender near Capitol Hill and days helping confirm Justice Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina on the Supreme Court. While working Reid’s reelection campaign in 2010 in Nevada, she met Donald “D.” Taylor, the president of Local 226 (and now its affiliate, Unite Here!).
When she joined the union as its political director, she was determined to talk about the members’ struggles and triumphs — a storytelling process not unlike the spoken word performances by Sarah Kay or “The Moth” that she spent hours watching on YouTube at night. “There is something so powerful about someone putting themselves in front of strangers, telling their truth,” she says.
Now a lawmaker herself, she’s led on passing drug price transparency and housing laws. Not everyone has agreed with her: A tenants’ rights law she proposed was called a “slap in the face” by the Nevada real estate industry, which spent $2 million unsuccessfully trying to defeat it. And one Republican state senator criticized her for backing a sales tax amendment that appeared to benefit her former employer (the culinary union).
But her influence on the Democratic side is clear — and valuable to Biden. After all, it was another Latina Nevadan, Democrat Lucy Flores, who this spring accused Biden of inappropriate touching at a past campaign rally, a move that threatened to derail his presidential bid before it even formally started. While he weathered that storm, Biden has electoral problems now and will have to push back Sanders, who sits in first place in OZY’s projections and has done particularly well with young Hispanic voters like Cancela.
She, for one, isn’t worried. Cancela believes Biden’s politics match the Silver State (and he has received the endorsement of other top Nevadans, such as Rep. Dina Titus). “Nevada is not as progressive as California or as conservative as Arizona,” she says. And while Biden isn’t the most soaring speaker, Cancela admires his consistency. “He has a track record of proven leadership,” she says, in hopes that even a city known for risk might take a safer bet.