Richard Pombo Faces a Green Avalanche


Each year, millions of dollars come pouring into environmental NGOs and activist organizations to support campaigns ranging from PCB cleanup to buying fuel for Greenpeace's good ship Esperanza. And lots of this money gets results.

But this year, many environmental leaders are saying that one of the best deals for green donors can be found in the congressional election in California's 11th District -- in the campaign to defeat Rep. Richard Pombo, chair of the House Resources Committee.

As Adam Werbach, former president of the Sierra Club, puts it, "Investing in Pombo's defeat would be as effective as owning the o's in Google."

Tony Massaro, senior vice president for political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, an organization that pours millions into election races in support of green candidates said of Pombo, "If I were a donor, I would seriously consider contributing in a campaign against him for two reasons: One, he sits on a critical seat of power in the House. Two, unseating Pombo would have more effect than just his absence. The message it would send to the rest of Congress on the public's tolerance for environmental abusers would be loud and clear."

Pombo's 11th District is a Republican anomaly in the otherwise heavily Democratic Bay Area of Northern California. The 11th contains some of the agricultural Central Valley and stretches into the Bay's tech corridor, spreading across four counties. In the more than 12 years he's been in Congress, Pombo's district has become home to some of the most horrendous stretches of strip malls and cultureless housing tracts in California. According to the East Bay Express, Pombo's father and uncles have made tens of millions of dollars selling farm and ranch land to developers. And on Pombo's watch, his district also has come to have some of the worst air quality and drinking water in the country.

While Pombo, who embodies the Republican archetype of the fake rancher, waxes on about "the land" and the generations of Pombo farmers, he has quietly worked his legislative powers to sell his family's acreage to the government for an unnecessary freeway add-on.

And it should come as little surprise that Pombo has danced with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He ranks fifth on the money list of politicians who have taken money from the Abramoff's cash nexus, raking in $54,500. In exchange, Pombo had his fling with the Mariana Islands and played cowboy and Indian casinos. But these political sins don't come up to the ankles of the work he's done to destroy the environment as chair of the House Resources Committee, which then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay cherrypicked him to run in 2003.

It is there that Pombo has committed his worst offenses. And he has done most of it in the neutral-sounding procedural language of committee hearings. Here's a sample from his recent rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, which he managed to ram through the House of Representatives this fall, now awaiting passage in the Senate:

  • (A) in the matter preceding subparagraph (A), by inserting "with respect to a determination of a species to be an endangered species or a threatened species" after "any regulation"; and

  • (B) in subparagraph (B), by striking "the State agency in" and inserting "the Governor of, and State agency in,"

Not quite the same as gut-wrenching imagery of an arctic oil spill or the clubbing of baby seals to be sure. But it's important to remember that what Pombo has the power to do -- and has already done -- is rewrite the very Endangered Species Act itself. And that amounts to fewer whooping cranes, fewer grizzlies, fewer Chinook salmon. Not only this, Pombo's rewrite contains an absurd provision that has the federal government paying real estate developers and oil companies not to kill wildlife.

Pombo's manner in making these radical cuts at his Resource Committee hearings is a sight to behold; he reads from his staff-prepared statements dispassionately, mumbling word-to-word as he announces death sentences to whole bird species and proposals to sell off our national parks to mining and timber interests.

Environmental groups now laying the groundwork for the campaign against Pombo seem almost to relish the fight ahead. Rico Mastrodonato, California director of the California League of Conservation Voters said, "There's no single individual that is more openly hostile, more potentially dangerous on the environment than Richard Pombo." As Grist Magazine reported, Defenders of Wildlife has started its own voter-outreach project and is coordinating with the Sierra Club to assemble a coalition of enviro groups to hire canvassers and organizers collectively.

Defeating Pombo will not be easy. Pombo is a seven-term incumbent, and his family name has wide recognition among his constituents. And he's won his previous contests handily. In the last election, Pombo garnered 61 percent of the vote over Democrat Jerry McNerney's 38. Of the four counties contained in the 11th District, McNerney, an energy consultant and businessman, received less than 50 percent of the votes in all four counties that make up the 11th District.

That said, many of the local officials contacted for this article said that the exposure from the Abramoff scandal and news reports about his works on the House Resources Committee are starting to sink into public opinion. They also cited that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which targets tight races across the country has actively recruited candidates to beat Pombo, indicating his vulnerability. David Burr, chair of the Democratic Committee in San Joaquin County, part of the 11th District, declared this "the year to beat Pombo."

Pombo faces serious challenges in his party primary and in the general election.

First up in the Republican primary is former Rep. Pete McCloskey, who represented the San Francisco Peninsula from 1967 to 1983, and watched as Pombo gutted the Endangered Species Act he helped to author. After fruitless search to recruit a Republican opponent to run against Pombo, McCloskey declared on January 21 that he would jump in the race himself. In 2004, McCloskey endorsed John Kerry. "This guy, Pombo, he wants to privatize the remaining public lands in California, and he has the power to do it," McCloskey told the Associated Press.

If McCloskey doesn't unseat Pombo in the May 11 Republican primary, he may well "tenderize" Pombo for the general election on November 2. While McNerney is running again in the Democratic primary, most observers believe that former Navy pilot Steve Filson has the best chance to unseat Pombo. Filson, who most recently worked as a flight operations manager for United Airlines, has already raised over $100,000 for his election.

Grist has reported that "insiders" estimate the total spending figures for the 11th District race could exceed $5 million. Political observers interviewed for this article estimated it could far exceed that number, especially if regular contributors to green causes see this election as a high-value expenditure in aid of the environment.

Considering the power that Richard Pombo wields from his chairmanship and the early attention his re-election has already received, an avalanche of green money could ensure his political demise.

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