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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Challenging Pombo

Air Date: Week of January 27, 2006

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More than 30 years ago, California Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey co-wrote the Endangered Species Act. Last year California Republican Congressman Richard Pombo tried to undo much of it--and that really angered McCloskey. Now the 78-year old retiree has moved to Pombo's district to challenge the powerful incumbent in the Republican primary. Living on Earth's Jeff Young profiles the race.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. As chair of the powerful House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo, the Republican Congressman from California, attracts plenty of attention with his pro-business, anti-regulation approach to the environment. Mr. Pombo seeks to re-write the Endangered Species Act, expand oil drilling, and sell off some public lands.

Those stands have now sparked a challenge from within his own party. Seventy-eight year-old former Republican Congressman “Pete” McCloskey, who once took on President Richard Nixon over the Vietnam War, is coming out of retirement to take on Mr. Pombo. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report.

YOUNG: For much of the past decade, former congressman Pete McCloskey has been a farmer, enjoying his retirement growing grapes and olives in California’s Yolo County. Now, the decorated Marine veteran has left the farm for one more fight.

MCLOSKEY: Yep, (laughs) probably no fool like an old fool, but I think somebody has to challenge this man’s philosophy and his conduct. This man has called environmentalists radicals and almost communists, and I take umbrage at that.

YOUNG: McCloskey’s talking about California Congressman Richard Pombo, whose 11th congressional district is McCloskey’s new home. He made his campaign announcement in a noisy beer hall in Lodi, where he’s moved just to take on Pombo in the primary. Pombo’s actions in seven terms in office so routinely outrage environmentalists, the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page dubbed him the "dark knight of the environment."

The contrast between the old moderate and the young conservative could not be sharper. Mccloskey co-founded Earth Day and spoke out against whaling. Pombo wants to drill in the arctic refuge and favors Japanese whaling. Last year Pombo wrote a bill to undo parts of the Endangered Species Act, the landmark law McCloskey helped write.

MCCLOSKEY: That Act is listed now for 33 years. There’s no question it could use some changes, but the changes that can be made should not gut the Act. And this man has tried to literally gut the Act. I have no problem running against him.

YOUNG: Actually running a campaign wasn’t the original plan. Last year, McCloskey and a few disaffected Republican moderates formed something called the "revolt of the elders" to round up opponents for House members like Pombo who are closely tied to now-indicted former majority leader Tom Delay. They couldn’t find anyone to take on Pombo, so McCloskey is doing it himself.

MCCLOSKEY: I think Mr. Pombo has been corrupted by his power as chairman. I think some watchdog in Washington called him one of 13 most corrupt members of congress. I think even conservative Republicans might be embarrassed out here to have their congressman one of 13 most corrupt in a town which is not known for lack of corruption.

YOUNG: The nonpartisan group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington put Pombo on that list of 13 for paying family members as campaign staff and taking campaign money from groups with business before his committee. Pombo is also under fire for taking money from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramhoff and his clients and then refusing to investigate Abramhoff’s dealings with Indian tribes.

Pombo was unavailable for comment. His campaign spokesperson, Wayne Johnson, says Pombo has done nothing improper and donated to charity the money he took from Abramhoff. Johnson claims the ethics complaints against Pombo are engineered by Democrats, and he says the same is true of McCloskey’s campaign.

JOHNSON: So we just think he’s in the wrong primary. He really ought to run as a Democrat. That’s who behind this is, the Democratic congressional campaign committee. We know that, they know that, if Pete McCloskey doesn’t know it he’s the only one.

YOUNG: Pombo is equally unapologetic about his environmental record. In this interview on energy issues last year he said he’s been singled out for criticism because he wants to increase energy supplies.

POMBO: We are doing something different. We are taking issues on the table congress has been debating for 30 years and doing something about it. People that like the status quo, who are dependent on the status quo, don’t like it. And you have the special interest groups out there screaming about it cause they don’t want us to do anything. You can’t go to the deep sea, you can’t go to ANWR, you can’t go to the Rocky Mountains, you can’t do oil shale, everything that’s proposed they’re opposed to.

YOUNG: Several national environmental groups have targeted Pombo this year and are
already active in his district. Sierra Club national political director Cathy Duval hopes voters in the conservative farming valley will give more thought to conservation issues.

DUVAL: I think McCloskey getting into the race is going to draw real distinctions around these issues. He really wants to draw distinctions between moderate republicans who represent the values of the citizens of California versus the extreme actions Pombo’s been taking.

YOUNG: But most political observers don’t take McCloskey’s challenge seriously. Alan Hoffenblum tracks state political races for the non-partisan California Target Book. Hoffenblum adds up Pombo’s incumbency, campaign money, and recently redrawn district boundary and concludes McCloskey’s chances are somewhere between slim and none.

HOFENBLUM: But the question is not whether he wins the primary but what percent of the vote he gets – how he does in the primary. There will be a lot of people looking. And that will be a strong determining factor as to whether or not a serious Democrat can win in November.

YOUNG: Hoffenblum says if McCloskey gets as much as 30 percent of the primary vote, it’s a sign that Republicans are unhappy and that Pombo could be in trouble. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

 

 

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