Saturday, Feb. 24, 2007 | 6:53 a.m.
Tom Collins averted a likely power struggle within the Democratic Party when he decided this week to step down as state party chairman, officials confirmed Friday.
Collins said this week he would leave the post to devote more time to his role in the 2008 Nevada presidential caucus. Unspoken was that Collins, who also is a member of the Clark County Commission, faced restive elements in the party and a potentially tough fight to retain the post next month at party meetings - a time when Democrats hope instead to focus on organizing the caucus.
"I think Tom did what was best for the party" by not seeking reelection, said Elliot Anderson, chairman of the party's veterans and military families caucus. "What's most important is that we all work together now."
Marcia de Braga, chairwoman of the party's rural caucus, said she wants "our party reunited, and that didn't happen under Tom's direction. The rurals have been left out."
Traditionally, the party's individual caucuses - its organizational wing - have been represented on the state party's executive board. Some caucus leaders, however, say Collins refused to recognize them, and in turn, they lost their seats at the table.
Unhappy caucus leaders confirmed Friday that they had been searching for a strong candidate to run against Collins in the March 31 party election.
Jill Derby, a former university regent and candidate for Congress last November, was a leading alternative, given her ties to rural Nevada.
Derby confirmed that she had been approached by some disaffected Democrats, who wanted her to mount a challenge. "I've had conversations with people," Derby said Monday. She did not return calls from the Sun on Friday.
Others in the party assume the job is now hers. "We're not really losing Tom as much as we're gaining Jill Derby," said Liz Foley, chairwoman of the Clark County Democratic Party.
Activists said Friday that they hope she can unite the party, which is also without an executive director. Alison Schwartz left the post this month to become Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's Nevada political director.
The vacancies come at a critical time, when the party must meet the rigorous organizing demands of the caucus, which the Democratic National Committee has moved to the second contest in the nation.
Although the party is lacking formal leadership, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his staff have been a steadying hand.
Notably, Reid, Collins and other top Nevada Democrats were in Carson City this week for a presidential candidate forum. The following day, Collins announced he was yielding the chairmanship.
Collins supporters credit him with improving the state party's organization and fundraising ability. The result was evident in November, they said. Democrats captured four of the six state constitutional offices and narrowly lost two House races.
Collins said he easily could have been reelected, but that the time and demands of a county commission race next year and the Nevada caucus commission, which he co-chairs, were just too much. People close to him said he was exhausted and ready to step aside when it became clear Derby could step up.
As for his detractors, Collins, who developed a reputation as an oversized personality with salty language, offered this explanation: "There's always going to be people trying to stir up (expletive). We followed the rules. We won elections. We made great strides. Anybody that's upset, that's their problem."
He said he had drawn the ire of some activists for enforcing party rules, which effectively cut some central committee members from the rolls who had missed past meetings. The enforcement hit rural Democrats particularly hard.
Also, carrying out party bylaws, Collins said he called into question the party's caucus structure, which he said should be organized on a county level, not statewide.
Derby has strong support from the party's many factions - north and south, urban and rural. Having lost a close race last year in the heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District, she's a proven fundraiser and skilled communicator.
Sun reporters Tony Cook in Las Vegas and J. Patrick Coolican in Carson City contributed to this story.