Congressional Derby

No Democrat has ever won Nevada’s northern congressional seat. Is this the year for it?

U.S. House candidate and Nevada regent Jill Derby, seen here with fellow regent Howard Rosenberg at the Nevada Legislature, lobbied state  lawmakers on campus issues.

U.S. House candidate and Nevada regent Jill Derby, seen here with fellow regent Howard Rosenberg at the Nevada Legislature, lobbied state lawmakers on campus issues.

Photo By Dennis Myers

“My values are those of rural Nevada,” Democratic congressional candidate Jill Talbot Derby said.

She was raised on a Lovelock ranch and now hails from Minden, so the comment makes sense. And she was speaking in Pahrump, population 24,631, so it was tailored to her audience. But is it good politics?

Derby is running for one of only 17 open U.S. House seats so far—that is, seats where the incumbent is not seeking reelection. With U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons running for governor, Douglas County Democrat Jill Talbot Derby jumped into the race for a seat in the House that no member of her party has ever won.

Figures for the most recent reporting period give her $351,000 in the bank, which definitely puts her in the ball game, outpacing Republican frontrunner Dawn Gibbons by $128,000.

Derby has been aided by U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, who was assigned to her as a coach by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington. Van Hollen has put his money where his coaching is—Derby’s campaign logged a $1,000 campaign contribution from him on Nov. 16, 2005. But more than that, he and the DCCC have aided Derby with milking money from traditional party contributors.

The Hill, a congressional newspaper, says such assigning of incumbent House members to tutor Democratic challengers adds “policy experience, political acumen and a stable of fundraising contacts” to their campaigns.

Nevada’s second congressional district contains all of Washoe and the small counties and part of Clark County, but the overwhelming majority of voters are in Washoe and Clark. It was first created in 1981 and was configured more or less the way it is now, but Clark initially was only a small part of it. By the end of that decade, Clark had grown at such a terrific rate that the southern portion of the district was becoming more and more important.

That factor was reduced when the state got a third congressional seat in 2002, which was placed in Clark County. But the same evolution is still underway—the Clark portion of the district is growing faster than the rest. In this context, Clark is a flexible term, referring to the county’s “sphere of influence.” It can include towns like Pahrump, which is in Nye County but serves as a bedroom community for Las Vegas. Pahrump falls within the second congressional district. Treating it as a rural county could be a mistake because so many of its citizens are urban-oriented.

The district has long been considered a safe Republican seat, never falling to the Democrats. In January 2004, voter registration figures were 157,000 Republicans, 115,000 Democrats. Today they’re 168,000 to 120,000, reflecting Nevada’s rapid growth. The number of unaffiliated voters is more than 50,000. During a visit to Pahrump in February, Derby touted her actions as a regent supporting community college services in the town. “I was very much behind Great Basin College coming into Nye County,” she said. “I will represent the whole district and span the bridge between rural Nevada and Washington, D.C.”

Not everyone thinks identifying herself with the small counties that way is a good idea. Columnist Andrew Barbano, a former professional campaign manager who himself was the Democratic nominee for the seat in 1984, says Derby’s biggest handicaps are self-inflicted.” Derby could have [won], but she won’t. She has already conceded the race for two reasons.”

Barbano says it was a critical strategic error when Derby failed to go to court to reverse a gerrymander of the seat. In one stroke, she could have improved her chances while publicly bucking politics as usual.

“She seems to be running a campaign apologizing for being a Democrat. … She also seems to be making the mistake of catering to the cowboys who aren’t going to vote for her anyway. She will get the automatic Democrat vote in the rurals, such as it is, but no more. They overwhelmingly consider Democrats as dirty commies who want to take their penis—er, guns away.”

Barbano says the district’s voting population is so heavily urban—one of the most urban congressional districts in the nation—that it is self-defeating to tailor a candidacy to small-county voters.

“The votes live in the Washoe-Carson-Douglas strip, which happens to be, and has always been, the heartland of Nevada liberalism. … Busting the gerrymander and spending her time where the people are is the painfully obvious strategy which should and must be employed—while, of course, giving proper lip service and wave-in-the-annual-parade genuflection to the importance of the liberal-haters of ruralia.”

On the other hand, Thomas “Spike” Wilson—a Democrat who also ran for the seat, in 1996—says Derby may be exactly what will bring the small counties to the Democrats.

“I think she’s a good candidate. I think she’s a conservative Democrat. I think she’s a nonpartisan Democrat. I think she can work with Republicans as well as she can work with Democrats. It’s hard to prognosticate that race. It depends on too many factors.

“She is about as nonpartisan a person as you’ll find, which I think equips her for a district where registration may favor the other party. She’s kind of like rural Nevada. Democrats and Republicans [there] are both conservative, and you sometimes can’t tell the difference.”

Derby says, “I am stressing that I have roots in the rurals because, you know, it’s a big district and it includes all of the rural part of Nevada. But I don’t think I’m tailoring my message to the rurals.” She says what she means by rural values is that in rural areas “people look you in the eye and talk straight and mean what they say … and I think that plays everywhere.”

She says she never seriously considered going to court over the way the seat was redistricted.

“And I plan to run in it the way it is and win in it. Now, in six years when there’s a redistricting, I’d like to see more balance in the seat, but right now that’s the way it is.”

She says serving as a regent has given her a statewide perspective. Derby was involved in the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and in 1980 ran for the Nevada Assembly but lost narrowly in Douglas County, the state’s most Republican county. (She went to bed election night thinking she won.) She was also a member of the National Women’s Political Caucus and was a delegate to its national convention in 1984.

She was elected to the Nevada Board of Regents in 1988. One university administrator says that Derby has been known for easing the chronic problem of transferring credits from community colleges to universities, promoting more diversity on campus, and providing for aid for low income students. She also says that Derby is known in the university system for resolving disputes among contending groups on campus. Derby has even conducted workshops around the nation to teach this skill.

Regent Howard Rosenberg, who has sometimes clashed with Derby on the board, nevertheless says, “Jill is concerned for the students. I mean, there is no better regent than Jill Derby. Absolutely none. … This is a bright lady who’s done an awful lot. There are times when I disagree with her, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she is totally student-centered. She’ll do anything for the kids to make damn sure they have what they need when they need it.”

Derby startled—and offended—many on the state’s campuses in 2003 when she voted, after a closed meeting, to fire a community college president and his adviser without first permitting the two men to hear the charges against them or to respond to the charges ("Without a hearing,” Dec. 25, 2003). The action drew fire from the Nevada attorney general’s office and was overturned as an open meeting violation by Nevada District Judge Jackie Glass.