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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pombo Fights for His Seat

Air Date: Week of

California Congressman Richard Pombo (Courtesy of: Richard Pombo for Congress)

Republican Resources Committee chair Richard Pombo influences much of the environmental and energy legislation in Congress. Now he finds himself in the race of his life. Ingrid Lobet reports on the California congressman's changing district and the fierce effort by environmentalists to oust him.


CURWOOD: A powerful Republican congressman, who chairs a key committee on the environment, has represented an historically conservative ranching and farming district in California's Central Valley for seven terms. But times have changed. Many voters who don't share his views have moved into his district, and environmental activists have energized a fierce campaign to unseat him.

Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports on the newly vulnerable Richard Pombo.

LOBET: Around the towns of Stockton, Tracy, Lodi, and Manteca, California, Richard Pombo has a popular family name that goes back generations, a name that graces yard signs, not just in election time, but all year-round. Pombo Real Estate sells horse acreage and ranchettes in these sun-washed hills.


LOBET: Inside the Pombo campaign office in Stockton, Heather Sevo is spending her Wednesday stuffing mailers.

SEVO: When I moved to Tracy, I was so proud that he was going to be my congressman. I've always known about him growing up, and I thought he was just a wonderful man, and I also feel that he's very strong in his beliefs.

California Congressman Richard Pombo (Courtesy of: Richard Pombo for Congress)

LOBET: The congressman is known here as a defender of rural enterprise. Because fertilizer is made from natural gas and heavy equipment runs on diesel, keeping the price of fuel down is a priority. And though Pombo's family sells land, some see him trying to maintain that land for agriculture.

SEVO: He wants to make sure that the environment is preserved for future generations. He is for the rights of property owners.

LOBET: In Washington, Pombo chairs the House Resources Committee. He's among those who shape American policy on the environment and energy. Most significant bills on those subjects don't become law without his consent. Since he went to Congress 14 years ago, few have matched his will to open up more of America's oil and gas frontiers.

POMBO: We had the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and they vote no. We had a bill last year on the floor that expanded wind, solar, geothermal. They voted no. We’ve had the opportunity five times to vote on an energy bill that put money into alternative energy, renewable energy, conservation. And they voted no.

LOBET: Pombo does talk about the importance of clean fuel, and using less fuel, but he says it has to be voluntary.

POMBO: Let me let you in on a dirty little secret. U.S. automakers manufacture cars today that get 35, 40, 50 miles to the gallon. What they want to mandate is not that car companies make cars that get 50 miles to the gallon, they want to mandate that you have to buy them. They want to force them down your throat.

LOBET: Congressman Pombo has tried to weaken provisions of basic environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, to change species protection in favor of developers and landowners, and to make it possible to buy land if you stake a mineral claim, even if it's public land. Much of this he has done in the open, daring environmentalists to take him on.

YOON: He is not like any other members of Congress that we've seen over the last several decades, in the manner and speed in which he has tried to roll back environmental protection laws.

LOBET: Ed Yoon heads up an office of eight full-time workers from the group, Defenders of Wildlife, who've set up a full-blown Defeat Pombo campaign. Defenders alone has plowed in 1.4 million dollars. Environmental groups are running blogs, radio and television ads, and buses that bring in protesters from San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley—outside Richard Pombo's district—into the district to go door-to-door talking to voters.

YOON: This has been an incredible experience for me just seeing the outpouring of support and activism in the community for a congressional race. Just the fact that we’ve had over 150 people come out to canvass in a congressional race? A lot of people are saying ‘anybody but Pombo.’

LOBET: So concerted is this campaign, that at times it overshadows Pombo's Democratic opponent. He is Jerry McNerney, a wind power engineer, a businessman, married to a Latina. He attended West Point, though he's not a veteran, and he has a PhD in math.

MCNERNEY: I’ve always been good at math, and I’ve always loved it. There's a beauty to it, and there is something that’s nice about finding answers that are real and can't really be questioned. But I wanted to actually make things happen.


Democratic candidate Jerry McNerney (Courtesy of: McNerney for Congress)

MCNERNEY: And so, we are getting a little breeze now. You can see the windmills in the distance turning, and when they get to synchronous speed, then we’ll close the contactor and the generator will start producing power.

LOBET: McNerney got in at the ground floor on wind energy more than 20 years ago. He designed and tested wind towers in New Mexico, Massachusetts, and then up here in Altamont Pass, in Richard Pombo's district. In fact, the company McNerney worked for installed windmills on Pombo property. The candidate sees possibilities for the baking hot agricultural San Joaquin Valley he would represent, in ethanol, biodiesel, wind, and solar production.

MCNERNEY: As you can see, it's bright and sunny out here, and I think we can produce a lot of solar activity out here. We can, hopefully, do a little bit of manufacturing as well, and become, I think, and I hope, a center for new energy technology--the Silicon Valley of new energy technology.

LOBET: McNerney was somewhat less soft-spoken at a recent debate with Congressman Pombo in Tracy.

MCNERNEY: We have the technology to make our automobiles get 100 miles a gallon with improved performance using plug-in hybrid technology, using turbo diesel, using carbon fibers for reducing weight. We have the technology. Let's take the bull by the horns, and do it right here in our district! Let’s create jobs! Let's build our future! (applause)

LOBET: The race between Richard Pombo and Jerry McNerney this year is playing out in a region undergoing dramatic change. The district itself has been redrawn in a way that is less favorable to Richard Pombo. Forty-five percent of the voters are now on his western flank, nearer to the Bay Area. They are Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans, many of whom abandoned Pombo in the primary. And the whole district is rapidly becoming more Asian and Latino. Rupa Nurain says she'll vote for the windmill engineer.

NURAIN: It's important because it concerns the global warming, you know, and we have to become less dependent on oil, you know, from foreign countries, and find alternative ways to find energy use that tap the sun and the wind.

LOBET: But this mother of a soldier in Iraq, who preferred we not use her name, says her vote will go to Richard Pombo.

WOMAN: We have somebody who is risking his life over there every single day, so we’re pretty worried about him, and we think that they deserve a lot of support at home. And we think Pombo’s going to provide that, and has demonstrated that.

LOBET: For Jerry McNerney, it's win or go back to his patent on a wind turbine algorithm. For Richard Pombo, it's win, lose, or win and lose. He only retains his powerful committee chair if Republicans keep a majority in the House. For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.



Richard Pombo for Congress

Jerry McNerney for Congress

Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund – Pombo’s in their Pocket

U.S. House of Representatives: Committee on Resources


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