PHOTO BY JASON BEAN
Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins salutes the crowd from horseback before the Chicago Cubs take on the Texas Rangers during a pre-season baseball game at Cashman Field in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 17, 2012.
Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins, right, speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama after the president’s made remarks Sempra Energy’s Copper Mountain One in Boulder City on Mar. 21, 2012.
Tom Collins is unlike any other politician in Southern Nevada. Maybe in the state. Maybe beyond that.
He’s a bear of a man, and often wears his cowboy hat while seated on the Clark County Commission. He’s not afraid to roll out unpopular positions and irritate his erstwhile political allies.
Some elected officials mellow as they get older. Collins, not so much.
“I was a bit of a risk taker all my life, I suppose,” he said during an hour-long interview last week.
Much of that life has been in elected office. He served in four regular sessions - and five irregular special sessions - of the Nevada Assembly, and before that, seven years on the North Las Vegas Planning Commission.
He was sworn in as a county commissioner in 2005 and has been re-elected twice. Because of term limits, he cannot run again for re-election in 2016, and political pundits have openly speculated that Collins could be a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2016.
Collins’ re-election last year came despite a couple of incidents that would have derailed the career of a lesser man. In an era where politicians lose elections for personal behavior, Collins was charged by North Las Vegas police on July 3, 2012 for shooting at a tree and a post in his backyard. Police accounts describe beer cans and a bottle of whiskey at the scene of the shooting.
The shooting charge was ultimately dropped.
He was also charged with a misdemeanor and fined more than $2,000 for allowing one of his cows to escape and, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, run at a neighbor.
He got publicly called out by Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius in 2010 for being, for a few days, a registered lobbyist at the Nevada Legislature in Carson City for major land developer (and former top state lobbyist himself) Harvey Whittemore (who was sentence to two years in prison for violations of federal elections campaign contribution laws in support of their mutual friend and political ally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid).
Collins, who counts electrical line work among his many former jobs, said he was at the Legislature to make sure utility corridors were established for Whittemore’s 43,000-acre project, called Coyote Springs, that straddles the Clark-Lincoln county line on formerly federal land. He was never cited or fined, but some critics, among them CityLife columnist and award-winning video newsman George Knapp, were critical of Collins’ arrangement with Whittemore since the developer also had business dealings with the Southern Nevada Water Authority, on whose board Collins served as chairman at the time.
(Disclosure: In 2010, CityLife staff writer Launce Rake worked for nonprofit groups that were critical of the Whittemore-Collins relationship.)
Reid, who has been very busy in Washington recently watching as his Republican colleagues prepare to shut down the federal government, said he and Collins remain close.
“I’ve known my friend Tom for decades,” Reid told CityLife in an email last week. “He’s been a good public servant. I still talk to him several times a month.”
Collins divorced his wife Kathy after some 45 years of marriage in March. “She’s too nice for me. I still love and respect her,” Collins said. “She’s in that peaceful, happy mode and I’m out here fighting with alligators.”
He has had well-publicized brushes with alcohol, and for years reportedly swore off liquor.
Now, Collins said, he drinks “every day… a little bit of whiskey. It’s how you cope.”
“I’ve got a bottle of whiskey in my office on my desk, by my bed and by the television.” A former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the ex-Mormon said he no longer is active with any church. But then again, he does his drinking at home: “I don’t stay out carousing anymore.”
His whiskey of choice these days is Pendleton, a Canadian blend.
Collins, 63, been steeped in politics ever since he was a boy, growing up in public housing near Las Vegas’s downtown.
“My grandma got a subscription to the Las Vegas Sun and she had to read that in the morning, every morning, then share the opinions she had with me and the in-laws and so forth,” Collins said in his Clark County Government Center office.
Most politicians keep personal details close to the vest, out of the public eye, as much as possible. Collins, periodically pausing during the interview to spit chewing tobacco, seemed to hold nothing back.
Collins wears cowboy boots, buckles and hats, so it is not surprising that his office is also outfitted in a similar, Western theme, celebrating rodeos and cowboys and cattle and ranching. One wall of his office has a painted scene of cowboys herding cattle.
He was 3 years old when he arrived with a splintered family to the Las Vegas Valley, and has spent most of his life here, although he attended college in Texas, where he also has family, on a rodeo scholarship. Raised in several households and with stepparents, Collins said he was knocked about as a child.
“Things weren’t great at home, so I left early,” he said. He got in trouble with the law and spent a stint in juvenile detention.
But anyone who would dismiss Collins as a rustic boob misses the fact that the man understands complexities of public policy and his district, an odd mix of rural and urban areas. Collins’ extended family was blue-collar and often union, and Collins remains a staunch union supporter.
He has worked in the construction trades, but Collins said he’s also sold cars and cookware. “I’ve had a ton of jobs.”
His district remains a union stronghold. North Las Vegas, Collins said, started as a place for bootleggers to hid their product in the desert. Over most of its history, it’s been a place for low-income and public housing and first-time homeowners, a bedroom community for lower-paid employees in Las Vegas casinos.
Until the Aliante community came along less than a decade ago, “It never got the Green Valley or Summerlin effect,” Collins said.
He said he got involved in professional politics because he was, and remains, unafraid of confrontation. However, Collins found the rough-and-tumble of elections better than some alternatives.
“When I got older I started losing too many fights, so I had to find another way to win,” he said.
One of his first political gigs was working for North Las Vegas councilman Dan Gray in the early 1970s. He eventually served as a chairman of the Nevada State Democratic Party, and built a network of men and women that knew him and owed him: “I worked on so many campaigns, walked so many picket lines.”
He walked with bus drivers, stagehands, housekeepers and more, in front of Binions, and at the longest strike in Las Vegas history, at the Frontier. During the Binions’ strike, he walked with Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“I didn’t wash my hand for a week,” he said. “It wasn’t just who he was but the fact that he was standing up for people.” Collins said he thinks he’s always been someone who wanted to help somebody who honestly needed help.
But while he remains tight with most of the unions, Collins said he also understands the needs of management, including the need to fire employees in either the private or public sectors.
“I’ve been a boss and I’ve been a business owner,” he said.
Collins said he gets along with most of his colleagues on the county commission, including Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, who may be the most politically progressive of the seven. He has disagreed with her on some important issues, including the need to increase a sales tax to benefit Clark County police.
His disagreements with Giunchigliani are “not personal.”
“Some of it is ideology or whatever you call it,” he said. “But we’re friends above all this politics type stuff. We can disagree.”
Collins growled at another colleague, Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak, with whom he has disagreed on the sales-tax increase for more police. “(Sisloak) in my eyes is not a Democrat. Anyone who attacks collective bargaining the way he does is not a Democrat.”
Sisolak, a Democrat leery of taxes and critical of salaries for some government employees, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor in next year.
Sisolak responded in an understated way.
“Tom’s entitled to his opinion,” the county commission chairman said. “I’m a Democrat. I’m a Nevadan first. I believe in doing what is right and being fair. I think I’m a centrist, as far as being one end or the other.”
Collins also recently tangled with the conservation community, which was taken aback by Collins insistence that one of the reasons for the ferocity of recent wildfires on Mount Charleston was the abundance of fuels caused because of the lack of cows in the Spring Mountains.
He has repeatedly said that cattle ranching is consistent with conservation goals, including preservation of the federally protected desert tortoise, although conservationists mostly disagree.
“There’s more tortoises out there than they know what to do with,” Collins scoffed. And courting even more angry opposition, he said that people do not understand the damage to the range that wild horses do to the Silver State.
“I’m afraid that people here are making the mustang the sacred animal of Nevada,” he said, comparing wild horses to India’s sacred cows. “They do more damage than cattle.”
What’s next for the cowboy commissioner? Collins said he would not confirm that he is or is not running for lieutenant governor, telling CityLife that’s he has promised to tell that bit of information first to Sebelius. However, Collins noted that “It would be a lot of fun.”
“Nevada’s a beautiful state,” he said, referring to the opportunity for statewide office.
One of Collins’ concerns is who will take his seat when he leaves it in 2016. He said there are a couple of potential candidates whom he could support: Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, or North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, or Collins’ former community liaison, Janice Ridondo.
Kirkpatrick has been in the assembly since 2004, while Lee was elected mayor this year after two terms in the state Assembly and two terms in the state Senate.
But in an unsolicited aside, Collins said he would not support Las Vegas Councilman Steve Ross for a county commission run.
“I’ve known him too long. I know him too well,” he said. “It just seems like whenever he’s running for office, he’s your best friend. We go way back. I just think he should run for mayor of Las Vegas or something else. I don’t think he fits the district, whether it be the city folks or the county folks.”
Although ostensibly they would appear to be politically similar, both with strong union ties, Ross suggested that there has been some friction between the two elected leaders.
“There’s always been friction between Tom Collins and everybody,” Ross said. “In the past couple of years, he changed… I care a great deal about him, but he’s going down a path that I’m not about.”
Collins, Ross said, would not support him because he, Ross, is “not going to do what he says.”
“I’m worried about him. Nobody wants to see his demise,” Ross said. “He’s got his own style, as do I.” But Ross said both he and Collins want to preserve the rural character of a part of the commission district.
“The things he cares about, I care about.”
Collins said he would continue to fight for what he believes is right, even if it gets him in trouble with some of his colleagues and Democratic Party leaders.
Collins said he thinks politics has degenerated, and you can no longer trust the word of elected officials, that hypocrisy is the order of the day. But he sticks to the old ways, which means that he’s not afraid of a fight.
“Wait a minute,” he told CityLife. “Write this down: That’s how you fix things, and then it gets to the point where you knock them on their ass.
“And then they sue you, these days. Things have changed so much.”
Contact reporter Launce Rake at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-477-3843. Follow @Launce on Twitter.