ELKO, Nev.—“I know how to fix it,” says Bill Crabb.
It’s after midnight at the Red Lion Casino. A country band has just packed up gear and split. Crabb, who works for a gold mining company nearby, has the next couple of days off. So he’s sticking around, explaining how to heal American politics.
“Nobody gets re-elected,” he says. “Nobody. And there is no party. One term and you’re out. No special interests, no lobbying.”
Buck Dingey arrives at the bar. He’s a security guard at the casino, just off the clock. “I just heard you talking,” he says. “I’m of the frame of mind that the two-party system should be abolished.”
They agree, and they keep talking. Crabb is going to see Ron Paul later in the day, then caucus for him on Saturday because “there’s not a lot of bullshit” about him, and he has the right ideas about taxes and the Constitution. Dingey won’t vote. There’s no politician he trusts.
“If Obamacare gets in, we could literally pay a fine for not buying health insurance,” Crabb continues. “The way I see that is: Get health insurance, pay the bill, and Sieg Heil!” He lifts his arm in a mock Nazi salute, accidentally showing off a tattoo of a naked woman he got on “one bad night in the Philippines.” The government doesn’t know how to solve problems, but he does. For example: Why not stop bailing out banks and cut checks to voters instead?
“You’d turn the housing market around in six months,” says Crabb.
The angry, anti-government sentiment is what you might expect from voters in a state leading the nation in unemployment and housing foreclosures. But there is one thing: Elko isn’t in bad shape. The unemployment rate in Elko County is roughly half the rate in the rest of Nevada, three points lower than the national number. The gold mines, copper mines, and other sites down the road make this corner of the state one of the only economic booms of the Great Recession. “Anyone who wants a job can get a job,” says Crabb.
It’s a boom town, and it’s as miserable as anywhere else. Among the miseries: The government wants more money from the mines. If you want to start a business, the obstacle course keeps getting longer. The government locks up too much land that nobody can properly use.
For a long time, the people of Elko have dealt with this by voting for Republicans. In 2004, 78 percent of the county vote went to George W. Bush. As Bush’s presidency and popularity cratered, Democrats saw an opening—they could win over enough of Elko’s cynics to cut the GOP’s margin. And it sort of worked, with the McCain-Palin ticket winning only 68 percent of the vote. It may not seem like a large dent, but Republicans need massive margins in places like Elko to overcome a Democratic stronghold like Las Vegas.
The cynicism rolled right back after that. On Saturday, Ron Paul’s campaign is aiming for a delegate surge in Nevada, helped by voter anger in places like Elko. Paul supporters, strong enough last time, have spent four years taking over the local party. But they’re not winning converts because the economy is bad. So what is it?
“There’s the public land thing,” says Marla Criss. She’s one of the Paul die-hards who served as one of his delegates last year, got burned by the GOP, which insisted the state’s delegates go to McCain, and responded by taking over as Elko Republican chair. “Over 90 percent of Nevada is public land. The Bureau of Public Land, and the park service, they’re just getting worse and worse. There’s a lot of support for Ron Paul when he says he wants to close down the Department of the Interior. I’d add that lots of Native Americans support him because the Bureau of Indian Affairs is part of Interior.”
The government here is and always was considered a menace. The mining industry is booming now, sure, and this area’s survived decades of busts and crazes, but the current boom looks like a validation of everything Ron Paul says. Precious metals are worth more because other investments aren’t safe; gold is up because dollars aren’t pegged to anything. Paul’s ideas aren’t just scripture for the people of Elko, they are reality.
The newest villainy is coming from Nevadans United for Fair Mining Taxes, a business-backed group campaigning for an increase in the tax on mining. Right now, the tax is capped at 5 percent; if a ballot measure passes, or the state legislature approves it, the cap could go to 9 percent.
“The mining industry basically wrote our Constitution,” says Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the group. “The industry has done a really good job telling the workers, oh you're going to lose out if the tax goes up and it’s wasted on social services. It’s not true. Come on—they're not going to move the Carlin Trend”—one of the world’s richest stretches of gold mining—“to some place with lower taxes.”
Whether this plan passes or not, Elko will have voted against it. It’s obvious: The political class is trying to suture and duct tape the budget together by taxing the people who make wealth. On Thursday, before Ron Paul’s stop here, Elko’s libertarians keep coming up with reasons to oppose this.
“The mines all pay their way in,” says Lana Noland, a founder of the Elko Tea Party. “They help with scholarships. My daughter, who just graduated—she’s 22—she could get a scholarship and work with the mine for a while, make money. They have been so good to this community! Count up the donations, and it’s thousands of dollars of fundraising. And yet, the liberal media presents them as not environmentalists, as bad for the community.” She sides with the mines over the government? “I do. I see the wonderful reclamation they do, the help they give to communities all over Nevada. And the government wants more. More, more, more. It’s greed.”
Paul’s rally takes place in a Native American rec center a short drive out of downtown. It is scheduled for 4:30, but the first fans start showing up at 3. Before Paul gets there, voters find seats on gym bleachers, grab Paul balloons and signs, and talk about what the government’s taken from them. “It used to be you could dig a hole and mine what you found there,” says Walt Fisk, who’s retired now. “We mined everything: iron, mercury, copper.”
“For a while we supported three families off what we mined,” says his wife Louise. They sit near another couple, Edgar and Sharon Nelson, who worry about Barack Obama ushering in a dictatorship if he wins again.
Paul arrives, only a little late, to a crowd of more than 300 people. Four years ago, in all of Elko County, he only got 212 votes. He stands at a lectern, a barrier of plastic tables between him and the voters, and speaks without notes about how he’ll make the government irrelevant.
“Our foreign enemies are not going to invade us,” he says, “but I'm concerned about our domestic enemies.” Plenty of heads nod at that one. “There's nobody talking about it except for one candidate, and he happens to be in this room right now!”
There’s time for four questions; the first one is about the proposed mine tax hike. Paul asks to hear it again. He gets the gist: He’d be against it. He’s against the government exploiting people like that.
“Maybe they don’t need to own the land,” he says, “and the people of Nevada need to own the land!”
Paul wraps up and gives reporters a few minutes of Q&A before he hops on a plane for Reno. After hearing so many people talk about it, I want to know where Paul is on mining profits. Should they be taxed at all?
“It’s just like any other corporation,” he says. “The tax should be as low as possible. I want real low taxes. That’s secondary to the problem of the welfare-warfare state. If you want to finance endless welfare, entitlements, and all these wars, you have to find all these gimmicks to finance it.”
His answer is almost drowned out by noise. In a corner of the room, half a dozen twentysomethings from Idaho are screaming his name and shouting, “Five hours! Five hours!”—how long they drove to see him. Paul finally obliges them, walking over to sign some fliers and pose for photos.
His young fans are giddy. They celebrate in the parking lot, even as the sun falls and the temperature drops below 30 degrees. Idaho’s holding its own caucus in a month, on Super Tuesday. They know how to fix it, too.