A year ago it was virtually unthinkable that Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) — right-wing darling, fundraiser extraordinaire, champion of polluting industries, and enemy No. 1 of the environmental community — could be unseated by any Democrat, much less one with zero political experience to his name. But now, a week and a half before Election Day, the rookie Democratic challenger in California’s 11th District, Jerry McNerney, is giving Pombo a run for his (prodigious amounts of) money.

Jerry McNerney.

Photo: jerrymcnerney.org

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“There’s panic in the Pombo campaign,” says Rico Mastrodonato, Northern California director of the California League of Conservation Voters. “This is the first time in 12 years he’s had to seriously defend his seat in Congress. And now [Pombo’s] in a dead heat with a guy who just months ago he thought he could eat for breakfast.”

At a glance, McNerney does, indeed, look like he’d be political mincemeat next to a campaigning Goliath like Pombo, who easily won his recent elections with more than 60 percent of the vote. A renewable-energy consultant and entrepreneur with a Ph.D. in mathematics and engineering, McNerney is often described as wonky and short on charisma compared to his slick-talkin’, crowd-pleasin’, cowboy hat-wearin’ opponent, who worked on a cattle ranch before his life in politics.

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“A creative fiction writer couldn’t have come up with a guy whose background, demeanor, and message is more diametrically opposed to Pombo’s than Jerry McNerney,” says the Sierra Club’s Eric Antebi. “Pombo has the best spin doctors and image handlers that money can buy, and along comes McNerney, this normal, earnest, salt-of-the-earth tech guy who may very well topple one of the most powerful Republicans in Congress.”

The stark differences between the candidates are reflective of the changing demographics of the district, which was once largely composed of conservative ranchers and farmers, but is becoming ever more populated with exurban transplants from neighboring Bay Area counties.

Richard Pombo.

Photo: richardpombo.com

Irreconcilable Differences

As chair of the House Resources Committee, Pombo has enjoyed tremendous influence over environmental policy making in recent years. He spearheaded an effort to weaken the Endangered Species Act (which passed the House last year but got nowhere in the Senate), and pushed a bill that would lift a moratorium on offshore drilling (which also passed the House and also didn’t clear the Senate). Less successful have been Pombo’s attempts to green-light drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; sell off more than a dozen national monuments, preserves, and historic sites; allow advertising in national parks; and open vast swaths of public land to development under the guise of mining-law reform.

Contrast that with the agenda of McNerney, who is billing himself with the motto, “A New Energy For Congress” — and he means that quite literally. “Jerry’s signature issue will be clean energy,” reads the “Meet Jerry” section of his campaign website. “[H]e is determined to help guide and direct our nation to a sustainable energy policy that will provide the basis for a healthy, prosperous, and secure economy for future generations.” An outdoors enthusiast who professes to love hiking and — apropos of his constituency — hunting, McNerney says in no uncertain terms that his “entire adult life has been dedicated to finding a way in which we can have economic growth that does not take place at the expense of the environment.”

Not surprisingly, environmental groups have flocked to McNerney’s side. What is surprising is the massive amount of money they are plowing into their crusade to oust the incumbent: Groups including the California League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife will collectively “end up spending more than $1.5 million to defeat Pombo,” says Sierra Club’s Antebi. That’s equivalent to roughly 20 percent of the estimated $7.3 million that Pombo has received from polluting industries throughout his 14-year congressional career.

Green groups have deployed an extensive on-the-ground outreach campaign to rally votes for McNerney. Since April, Defenders have had seven full-time staff members in the 11th district who, with the help of volunteers, have knocked on 45,000 doors, says Mark Longabaugh, a lead strategist in the Defenders campaign. This week and next, Defenders and Sierra Club are working together to boost the number of ground troops and “hit another 30,000 doors during the final push,” he says.

Most local newspapers in the district are endorsing Pombo (though some with serious reservations), but many of the more prominent papers in the wider region are backing the neophyte Democrat and sparing little subtlety in editorials skewering Pombo.* Wrote The Modesto Bee, a newspaper that has endorsed Pombo in previous campaigns, “If you prefer the politics of extremes; if you’re OK with selling off national parks; if backroom dealmaking and tainted money suit you; if you embrace out-of-balance budgets and the concentration of wealth — Pombo’s your man. But he’s no longer ours.”

The San Jose Mercury News blasted Pombo as “a national disgrace to the Republican Party,” and The Sacramento Bee, which has also supported Pombo in the past, condemned the incumbent’s “dubious list of financial supporters — development interests, Indian gaming tribes, oil companies, foreign mining concerns, and some of the most corrupt people in Washington, D.C. To earn that support, Pombo has embraced potentially disastrous environmental policies.”

Two Republicans who ran against Pombo in this year’s primary, Pete McCloskey and Tom Benigno, have also endorsed McNerney, even though his victory would bring Democrats one seat closer to regaining control of the House of Representatives (the Dems need to add 15 seats). “I have been a Republican all of my life,” said Benigno at a McNerney press conference, “but Richard Pombo and his leadership have lost touch with us, and it’s time for the corruption to end.” Said McCloskey, a former member of Congress who coauthored the Endangered Species Act, “Jerry McNerney is an honest man; Richard Pombo is not.”

McNerney has also garnered an endorsement from General Wesley Clark, former Democratic presidential contender. McNerney, who attended West Point but dropped out to protest the Vietnam War, says he was inspired to run for office by his son’s decision to join the Air Force in response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Disgrace Under Pressure

According to Amy Walter, who covers House elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, a victory for McNerney would be less an indication of the support he’s managed to generate than of the antipathy Pombo has managed to provoke. “If Pombo loses, it’s not going to be so much because voters decided they want a new approach to dealing with environmental issues,” she told Muckraker, “but because Pombo comes with a lot of ethical questions and political baggage that are weighing particularly heavy on him in the current political climate.”

Last month, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group, named Pombo one of the 20 most corrupt members of Congress. Pombo, whose committee oversees tribal-related legislation, received campaign contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his Indian tribe clients. He has paid at least $357,325 from campaign funds to his wife and brother for “bookkeeping, fundraising, [and] consulting.” He’s gotten numerous large contributions from industries that stand to benefit dramatically from legislation he pushes. These and other questionable dealings by Pombo only add to the stench of scandal afflicting the GOP House leadership, of which he’s a part.

All this has made Pombo politically vulnerable — unexpectedly so, says Walter, who earlier this year thought a no-name like McNerney had scant chance of winning. “Our assumption was that by now Pombo would have broken away in this race and gotten real traction against McNerney, but that’s not happening,” she said. This is particularly startling given that Pombo has out-raised McNerney by nearly 3 to 1, having amassed $3.2 million in contributions for this election compared to the challenger’s $1.2 million.

The most recent publicly available poll, commissioned by Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund and the Sierra Club Political Committee and conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner in late September, showed McNerney leading Pombo 48 to 46 percent, with a 2-point advantage that lay within the poll’s margin of error. Pombo’s team has released no poll data of its own — a decision that speaks volumes, says Walter: “If the Republicans were confident that Pombo was in the lead, why wouldn’t they do a counter-poll to confirm it? If he was at 55 percent, they’d be saying, ‘Dude, this is a joke.'”

As it is, Pombo isn’t saying much of anything. In the midst of the most important political battle of his career, he is reportedly refusing to talk to the press.

*[Correction, 25 Oct 2006: This article originally stated that most local media are endorsing McNerney, which is incorrect.]