Monday, Oct. 13, 2008 | 2 a.m.
At the Best of the West Rib Cook-Off in Sparks, a massive gathering of carnivores and country music fans in late August, Jill Derby, clad in a red vest, skirt and boots, worked the lines of hungry constituents and California tourists.
On a woman who holds two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s and a doctorate in cultural anthropology, the cowgirl outfit seemed more awkward costume than campaign attire.
Derby, of Gardnerville, hopes to become the first Democrat to represent Nevada’s 2nd Congressional District, a Republican stronghold where rural bona fides can be as important as a candidate’s position on the issues. Represented by one-term Republican Rep. Dean Heller, the district covers the state’s rural counties, Washoe County and a thin slice of Clark County.
The red boots have become the symbol of Derby’s campaign, featured on her Web site and fliers. “Give ’em the boot,” the ads say.
She also emphasizes her status as a fourth-generation Nevadan, her family’s founding of the Flying Flapjack Ranch in Lovelock, and her husband’s career as a former large-animal veterinarian. At the same time, her campaign makes scant mention of the degrees and her time spent living in Saudi Arabia, where she worked as a dental hygienist.
Yet this election season, the traditional touchstones might not matter as much. Differences between the state’s rural and urban voters appear narrower in light of a reeling economy.
Voters in Sparks, and throughout the district, have echoed concerns of voters statewide. They cite the economy, home foreclosures and the war in Iraq as the issues that will determine how they cast their votes. Many say they want change.
“That’s what this election is all about,” Derby said. “It’s his record. And what I say is, Nevada can’t afford more of the same.”
For those who would write off Derby, her campaign cites the massive Democratic registration gains, national discontent with Republican President Bush and a strong showing against Heller two years ago.
Derby has attacked Heller’s record in Congress. She has said that, unlike Heller, she would have voted to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program for low-income children, and for the credit card holders’ bill of rights, which she said would protect consumers from unfair practices by credit card companies. She has also criticized his votes against renewable-energy tax credits.
“In 2006 there was a mandate for change,” she said in an interview. “That change hasn’t really happened. Health care, energy, the war in Iraq. People now are feeling much more — well, desperate isn’t the right word — but we have a long way to go toward being headed in the right direction.”
On the $700 billion financial bailout, Derby said she would have voted against it, as Heller did both times it was before the House of Representatives.
Although she was long in favor of the government taking action, she said the bailout as structured had too many problems. She pointed to the spending added to the bill — “some would call it pork” — that wasn’t offset by reductions. The bill should also have included stronger provisions to allow people facing foreclosure to readjust their mortgages, she said.
Heller has criticized Derby on the bailout, saying she has not taken a clear position.
“She was for it, before she was against it, before she was for it,” Heller said in an interview.
Heller’s campaign has tried to paint Derby as “liberal” and a “career politician,” citing her 18 years on the Nevada Board of Regents, which sets policy for the Nevada System of Higher Education. (Regents’ positions are unpaid and nonpartisan.)
Heller served 12 years as the elected secretary of state, a full-time position.
Two years ago, Derby came surprisingly close to beating Heller, taking Washoe County but losing mightily in the rural Northern Nevada counties, to end with 45 percent of the vote to Heller’s 50 percent.
This year, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is running an aggressive campaign in Washoe County, where Democratic registration has pulled even with Republican, a shift that would have been unthinkable just two years ago.
In November 2006, Republicans held a 50,000-voter registration advantage in the 2nd Congressional District. By September it stood at 25,000.
Even with increased Democratic registration, the district remains quite conservative, according to longtime political operatives. That could make Derby vulnerable to Heller’s attacks on her for being head of the state Democratic Party, a voluntary position she took after she lost to Heller and from which she resigned to run for Congress.
Yet political observers say the race likely relies on factors beyond Derby’s or Heller’s control. If Obama can turn out newly registered Democrats in Washoe County and the rural counties, Derby has a chance, they say.
In Elko last month, where Obama was holding a rally, Jim Duncan, 43, said he was preparing to vote for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in his life.
As for the race between Heller and Derby, he said, “I’ve always voted Republican, but we’ll see.”