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Daniel Corona drove home from City Hall in West Wendover, Nevada, on a recent Tuesday evening, passing the familiar bright waving hand of “Wendover Will.”
Originally part of a local casino, the 63-foot neon cowboy sign has been a community landmark for 68 years, a brightly lit beacon letting weary travelers know they had almost made it to the city after a long, dark drive through the Great Basin Desert.
“He’s seen it all,” Corona later said. “He’s been here for all of it.”
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It had been a week since Election Day, and minutes earlier, Corona had been sworn in as West Wendover’s mayor, marking the beginning of his second term. His first victory in 2016, won by just 100 votes, not only made him the state’s youngest mayor at 25, but also Nevada’s first openly gay, Latino mayor — a win he did not expect in this rural, northeastern Nevada city nestled in Elko County, one of the state’s most conservative regions.
On his drives home, Corona usually slowed to glance up at Wendover Will. Donated to the city in 2004, the sign reminded Corona of the community's resilience, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit West Wendover hard, forcing its five casinos to temporarily shutter earlier this year.
Corona also saw Wendover Will as a reminder to those outside the community of a little more than 4,200 people that the city had its own identity. Elko County is a predominantly white area in which mining remains the top industry; West Wendover is a casino town in which more than 60 percent of the population is Latino.
This year, while Elko County remained a Republican stronghold, Democratic candidates — from the presidential election to a county commissioner’s race — won in West Wendover, making it the only city in the deep red county to go blue. Though the margin was narrow, residents and city officials believe the results reflect increased voting by the community’s younger Latino residents whose beliefs lean left — similar to other states around the country where that demographic led Democrats to victory.
“West Wendover might be a place where there are strong conservative groups, but there's a growing kind of progressive bend,” Corona, whose family has been in the community for four generations, said. “It just goes to show you that rural America and rural Nevada aren’t just monoliths.”© Kim Raff Image: (Kim Raff / for NBC News)
The decision to run
Corona is only about a month younger than West Wendover, which incorporated in 1991.
Less than 8 square miles, West Wendover sits on the edge of the Utah border, so close that the city runs on Mountain Standard Time instead of Pacific Standard Time like the rest of Nevada. Prior to the pandemic, the dusty, desert city saw about 15,000 to 20,000 tourists, mostly from the Salt Lake City region, coming to its casinos each weekend.
A close-knit community in which everyone knows one another by one to two degrees of separation, West Wendover is a place where neighbors leave groceries on the doorsteps of families struggling financially without being asked, residents said.
When Corona told people in high school that he was gay, he was comforted by how accepting most of his classmates were. He found the same reception during his mayoral campaign in 2016, with few residents focusing on his sexual orientation. If anything, he said, they had more concerns about his age or that he still lived with his mother.
“Or they wanted to know more about how I was a Democrat,” Corona said, laughing.
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The city voted for Republican presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012 and has only recently begun to lean more liberal in local and national elections, as the number of registered voters rose from 661 in 2008 to 1,125 in 2020. Residents also say that the city's younger voters — the median age in West Wendover is 31 — became more active in the political process.
Corona became interested in politics at 16 when he heard a speech by Barack Obama. After high school, he moved to Salt Lake City and then Las Vegas to attend college, but he returned to West Wendover in 2015 to be closer to family.
Tired of casino interests influencing West Wendover’s local government — people in upper management at the casinos often won city council seats — and pledging to diversify the city’s economy, Corona signed up to run for mayor. During his 2016 campaign, residents saw him canvassing the city for months, knocking on almost every door, learning about what the community wanted.
“I’d never seen or heard of anyone really doing anything like that in town before,” Carolyn Santillanez, 51, who was raised in West Wendover, said. “I think a lot of people came out to vote for him because he was actually talking to people.”© Kim Raff Image: (Kim Raff / for NBC News)
‘They identify with him’
Corona believes he won over the city’s residents with his support for a 2016 state ballot initiative that legalized recreational marijuana, which he promised to bring to West Wendover as a new industry. While the initiative failed in Elko County, it passed in West Wendover with about 56 percent of the vote, and in Nevada as a whole.
By December 2019, Corona helped open the first marijuana dispensary in the county. The dispensary not only created at least 50 new jobs, but it has also generated $500,000 in tax revenue since it opened, even with a two-month Covid-19 closure, city officials said.
Corona also made local government more accessible — posting city news updates on social media — and exposed the community to more liberal viewpoints. In July 2019, Corona invited then-Democratic presidential hopeful Julian Castro to West Wendover, which marked the first visit of a presidential candidate.
In 2017, Corona spearheaded and passed a city resolution that supported the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA, which allowed immigrants who came to the United States as children but later lacked legal status to remain in the country, after President Donald Trump tried to shut it down.
“To me that really meant a lot that Mayor Corona and the city would even just put their support out there,” Alan Rojas, 25, said. A DACA recipient, Rojas was born in Mexico but had lived in West Wendover since he was a year old. “I still couldn’t vote this year, but I made sure that I told everyone I knew here that they should.”
West Wendover City Councilwoman Kathy Durham, who was elected in 2018, believes Corona inspired more civic engagement, especially with the city’s younger Latino voters.© Kim Raff Image: (Kim Raff / for NBC News)
“They identify with him and see that he can make changes,” Durham, who teaches U.S. history, government and broadcast journalism at the local high school, said.
Jorge Aguirre, 20, said that the recent changes in the city, from the dispensary to the promise of a dog park, made him excited to vote this year. He organized a Black Lives Matter rally in June with three friends, the first of any kind of protest in the city that residents can remember.
“We really wanted to make our own community aware of what was going around in the rest of the country even if they felt like it didn’t affect them,” Aguirre said.© Kim Raff Image: (Kim Raff / for NBC News)
The Covid-19 challenge
All of Corona’s other mayoral duties seemed simpler compared to leading West Wendover through the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly 75 percent of the city’s residents are casino employees, and when Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered a shutdown in March, most were furloughed or laid off.
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That included Corona, who at the time worked as a poker room manager (the mayor’s position only pays $7,200 per year). He lost his job, like hundreds of his constituents. For months, he waited for his unemployment insurance to come through — making choices on which bills to pay — while helping other residents navigate the same process. Corona visited the local food bank, which had gone from seeing 20 families a week to 300, to ensure it had enough supplies for the community, while also picking up food for himself.
“It was a really humbling experience and in the end I feel like it brought me closer to the community, because we all knew we were going through the same thing,” he said.
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The city’s casinos reopened this summer. Most residents complied with Corona’s daily reminders on social media to follow the governor’s mask mandate and social distancing guidance. Some West Wendover residents said that when traveling to other parts of Elko County for groceries or work, they’ve noticed people not taking the same measures. Last week, top state health officials criticized the county for not having clear messaging on Covid-19 safety precautions, noting that cases in the county had quintupled compared to the previous month.
But Elko County commissioners continue to push back on the state’s safety restrictions. After Nevada’s governor limited capacity in casinos and restaurants across the state to 25 percent, Commissioner Jon Karr said in an email that he and the other commissioners were working with the state to come up with a more “reasonable” plan.
The county’s human resources director, Amanda Osborne, told The Associated Press that in Elko County, “local political leadership is very divided. It’s very difficult to have an enforcement plan.”
Since March, the virus has infected more than 300 West Wendover residents, and taken the lives of four.
“Because we’re so small, everyone who passes away is a face, not just a number, and that’s probably been one of the hardest parts of all this,” Corona said.
The voters’ choice
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When Election Day approached, Corona was nervous. He knew the results would depend largely on how residents believed he’d handled the pandemic.
Corona wound up beating his opponent, Mike Katsonis, by a 387-vote margin, more than triple his margin in 2016. Katsonis, 69, a Republican, said he ran in the nonpartisan mayoral election so that Corona did not go unopposed. He knew that winning would be a long shot because Corona was popular and the city seemed to be leaning blue.
“In fact, I even told him after he won, ‘If I had won, I would’ve demanded a recount,’” Katsonis, a retired pharmacist, said.
The results showed the city still has a strong red contingent: Joe Biden beat Trump in West Wendover, but only by 10 votes, much less than Corona’s margin.
Kris Andersen, 55, who's lived in the community for 29 years, said she liked Corona and appreciated his efforts to diversify the town’s economy, but did not vote for him.
“I think he's very, very liberal and I'm much more conservative,” Andersen, a substitute teacher, said. She wanted to make sure that conservative voters remained heard in West Wendover. “I think he’s a good guy, but I just don’t think we have the same political ideas.”
As he drove home after being sworn in as mayor earlier this month, with the casinos’ neon lights in his rearview mirror, Corona worried about the record-setting rise in coronavirus cases in Nevada and the possibility of another shutdown. Corona is not sure if the city’s casinos can survive another closure.© Kim Raff Mayor Daniel Corona in front of City Hall. (Kim Raff / for NBC News)
But he took heart in the mandate from voters he saw in the election results: He received 620 votes, while Biden received only 427 and Trump received 417 in West Wendover.
“To me that means, a lot of people who voted for Trump also voted for me, which is strange because I think of myself as the opposite of him,” Corona said. “But it also shows me that there’s a lot of people who understand that I’m not just a mayor for one group or party, but working for everyone who lives here.”