Where sprawl meets rangeland, a GOP warhorse sets out to save his party from itself
|by Dick Russell, Mother Jones, Sept-Oct, 2006|
“Don’t be under any illusions that I’m a great man,” Pete McCloskey insisted, his steel-blue eyes fixed on his interlocutor. “I’m just pissed off.” It was mid-May, three weeks before the Republican primary in California’s 11th Congressional District, and McCloskey was holed up at his law firm, preparing for a debate. On one wall was a cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt shaking his fists at a corporate malefactor. Another held a painting that portrayed Richard Nixon’s Oval Office as a shark tank. There was also a photograph of McCloskey’s current nemesis, a rancher and property-rights advocate turned congressman by the name of Richard Pombo, being patted on both cheeks by George W. Bush.
Back when he was in Congress, between 1967 and 1982, McCloskey was a maverick – the first Republican to challenge the war in Vietnam, an advocate for Nixon’s impeachment, cochairman of the first Earth Day. But never before had he felt as if the party of his affection and long loyalty and the one that governed the country were entirely separate, and possibly hostile, entities. “I’ve been a Republican since 1948,” he said, “before Pombo was born. But I’m ashamed of what my party has become, and to me, Pombo represents the very worst of it.”
In announcing his candidacy late in January, the 78-year-old McCloskey had characterized his campaign as “a battle for the soul of the Republican Party.” He’d left his Yolo County ranch to rent a room in Pombo’s district some 90 miles away. He’d traveled thousands of miles through four counties looking to unseat the powerful chairman of the House Resources Committee – a man whom Bush had nicknamed “Marlboro Man,” whom the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington had dubbed “one of the 13 most corrupt members of Congress,” and who had been engaged in undoing every stitch of the legacy left by McCloskey’s generation of lawmakers. It was, McCloskey had cheerfully admitted earlier, a “damn foolish thing to do” – not a pointless thing, and not entirely hopeless, but definitely the kind of errand a man would undertake when he saw no other way. “I’m under no illusions that my fight will be successful,” McCloskey said, “but somebody had to do this.”
By 4 p.m., it was 97 degrees in the San Joaquin Valley, and McCloskey’s campaign RV, emblazoned with the words “Real Republican Values Express,” was parked outside Williams High School in Pombo’s hometown of Tracy. Pombo’s motor home, with its “Rancher-Congressman” sign, sat 100 yards up the street; staffers handed out granola bars, “nourishment while you listen to Congressman Pombo’s commonsense solutions on energy and transportation.” (Cars, and their cost, were a hot issue in the San Francisco Bay Area bedroom community, where 91 percent of workers commute, some as many as five hours a day.) A man dressed as Abraham Lincoln arrived with a bullhorn and intoned: “The party I started has been riddled with corruption and lack of integrity.” Inside, the crowd was standing room only.
McCloskey took the stage, a tan suit encasing his 6-foot-plus frame, his shock of white hair bright in the spotlight. Pombo made a late entrance with his wife, Annette, and their three teenage children. He had close-cropped dark hair and sported a mustache, goatee, and gold chain. More than half the audience rose in a standing ovation, with a lone voice yelling, “Down with the crook!” “Ride ’em, cowboy!” someone yelled back.
“I went to Washington because I wanted to change the way that Washington worked, and I felt like I could,” Pombo said, his soft, high-pitched voice contrasting with McCloskey’s theatrical baritone. McCloskey talked about the four generations of Californians in his family, and how he’d actually contributed $100 to Pombo’s first campaign. When he said that Pombo had recently taken campaign money from “three people who’ve pled guilty to bribing congressmen,” he was booed.
A week later, as McCloskey was handing out campaign literature outside a Stockton hall where Vice President Dick Cheney was holding a $500-a-head Pombo fundraiser, a much younger, much bulkier man approached him. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” the man said. McCloskey replied, “I think we ought to have ethics in Washington.” When the man continued, “You’re a liar,” McCloskey cocked a fist and stepped up nose to nose. “Who are you calling a liar?” he said evenly.
“McCloskey has always been one of these guys who’s fearless,” says former Colorado congressman Jim Johnson, a longtime friend. McCloskey earned two Purple Hearts in Korea. He then went to Stanford Law; the firm he started after graduating, in 1955, is now California’s largest. An outdoorsman who loved backPACking in the High Sierras, McCloskey left the firm in 1964 to form the state’s first law office devoted exclusively to land use and environmental concerns.
In 1967, J. Arthur Younger, McCloskey’s congressman in the San Francisco Bay Area’s mid-Peninsula district, died from leukemia, and ex-child star Shirley Temple Black announced her intention to seek the seat as a Republican. “We had Ronald Reagan as governor, another actor named George Murphy as a senator,” McCloskey recalls. “Something snapped.” Temple Black was urging more U.S. involvement in Vietnam; McCloskey, after sequestering himself for a month of study, came out against the war. He was 39, sandy haired, and Kennedy handsome. Walking neighborhoods and knocking on doors, he pulled off a stunning upset. The campaign inspired a book titled The Sinking of the Lollipop.
In 1970, McCloskey became the cochairman of the first Earth Day, after which a group of environmental organizers declared war on a “Dirty Dozen” polluter-friendly members of Congress who were up for reelection. Ten were Republicans, and half would be defeated. “So when Congress reconvenes, suddenly everybody is an environmentalist,” McCloskey remembers. “All these Republicans are asking for my speeches on air and water pollution.” Over the next several years, Congress would pass a string of major laws for clean air, clean water, and conservation. McCloskey coauthored the 1973 Endangered Species Act.
Nixon gruffly embraced environmentalism, but McCloskey remained bitterly at odds with the White House over the war. He challenged the president in the Republican primary in 1972, garnering but a single delegate. The next year, as Watergate unfolded, he was the first politician from either party to call for Nixon’s impeachment. After Nixon resigned, McCloskey was targeted for defeat by fellow Republicans, and in the primary he went down in flames – or so it seemed: “I was behind and I’d even conceded,” he recalls. “But we had managed to register a whole bunch of kids at Stanford, and after those precincts reported, I won by 831 votes.”
For the remainder of the decade, McCloskey basked in his role as a troublemaker. He was part of a “Wednesday Group” of moderate Republicans who met regularly to discuss policies out of step with most of their brethren. “But nobody ever made us feel ostracized,” says Johnson, the former Colorado congressman. “We were always treated with a tolerant attitude.” And despite the occasional disagreement, McCloskey was proud to be a Republican at a time when Democrats, after decades in control of Congress, had grown arrogant. “I remember one colleague saying, ‘When a bill comes out of your committee, it ought to go right to the grand jury,'” he says. “It did seem to me that power corrupts, and nobody ought to stay around Washington too long. But nobody bribed Republicans. We considered ourselves the party of honesty and ethics and fiscal responsibility.”
In 1982, McCloskey gave up his House seat to make a bid for the Senate; he was defeated by future California governor Pete Wilson. Soon afterward he married his longtime press secretary, Helen Hooper, and they went on a honeymoon to Idaho’s Snake River, where they did some fly-fishing with Dick Cheney. A few years later the couple moved to remote Yolo County. McCloskey continued practicing law on a part-time basis, often representing San Joaquin Valley landowners whose property had been condemned – the same people who, two decades later, would be among his opponent’s biggest fans.
What’s known as Pombo country begins about 50 miles east of San Francisco, right where the I-5 freeway dips down into the San Joaquin Valley. Here, the town of Tracy was born in 1878 astride a new Central PACific Railroad line. The early settlers drained a huge inland tidal marsh and forged irrigation ditches, creating some of the best crop and grazing land anywhere. Pombo’s grandfather, Joe, a native of the Azores, settled in Tracy in the early 1900s among a wave of Portuguese-speaking immigrants. Today, a two-lane boulevard bears his name.
Tracy was still a cow town when Richard Pombo was born in 1961, the second of five brothers all given names beginning with “R” to match their father’s RP cattle brand. “We used to have to feed the cattle in the morning and work every day after school,” he would later tell reporters. “I loved every minute of it.” (Pombo didn’t respond to requests for an interview.) Pombo led Tracy High’s Future Farmers of America chapter to a state championship in parliamentary procedure. He studied agricultural business at Cal Poly Pomona College but dropped out after three years to help run the family’s 500-acre dairy operation. Today he, his wife, and their three children (who also bear “R” names) share the property with his parents and three of his brothers, all living in separate houses that spread into the hills beyond Tracy’s sprawling subdivisions.
The developer branch of the Pombo clan traces to Richard’s late uncle. “Oh, Ernie was smart,” Pombo’s neighbor Tom Benigno said as he showed me Ernie’s stone house with its pines, olive trees, and waterfall. A squat, mustached, retired farmer and grocer, Benigno was also running against Pombo in the Republican primary. “Ernie had one of the only escrow companies in town,” he explained. “He’d sell folks’ ranches for them, take his 10 percent, then do the escrow, sometimes buy their land back and sell it again. Basically any deal went through his office.” Based on an analysis of property records, the weekly East Bay Express has estimated that Richard Pombo’s father and his uncles grossed tens of millions of dollars selling off Tracy’s farms and rangeland.
Driving past the Lammers Road Exchange, Benigno pointed out more than 1,500 acres of land owned by the Pombos. Nearby, two new freeways had been proposed to link the Central Valley and the Bay Area; Richard Pombo had obtained $21.6 million in federal funds for the study. If built, the freeways would send the Pombo property’s value soaring.
Pombo’s father also owns a 300-acre ranch on Altamont Pass that, for nearly two decades, has been home to a forest of enormous white windmills. The ranch is located in a migratory bird corridor, and numerous raptors (including an estimated 75 golden eagles) have been killed by the turbines’ spinning blades. In 2004 Pombo wrote a letter to the Interior Department, asking that interim guidelines intended to reduce bird deaths from new turbines not be applied to existing wind farms on private land. His family’s connection was not mentioned.
Half an hour up a mountain road about 15 miles outside Tracy, Mark Connolly, a lawyer and one of the moderate Republicans whom McCloskey tried to get interested in running against Pombo, still lives on the 9,000-acre ranch his family homesteaded in the 19th century. “In Pombo’s mindset,” Connolly told me, “land is simply real estate. Their dairy business today is a muddy mess of agricultural refuse. So it makes sense the way Pombo looks at a federal park or wilderness area as commodities – if it’s got oil or minerals, drill it. Richard’s never been a mystery.”
Just as the family business shaped Pombo’s politics, so his political work has nourished the business. In 1990, Pombo was elected to Tracy’s City Council on a pro-growth platform; there, he helped craft planning documents that spurred a development boom. The “Dry Bean Capital of the World” sprouted bedrooms. Young families raced in from the San Francisco Bay Area; between 1980 and 2000 the city’s population more than quintupled, to nearly 80,000. “I don’t know whether it’s Stepford Wives or Desperate Housewives, but it’s become a one-dimensional community,” Connolly says. “Couples between 25 and 35 with an average of two and a half kids, and no diversity in neighborhoods because of the older members largely moving out. There’s no job base at the local level. Tracy is horribly susceptible to being whipsawed by economic problems.”
By 2000, unease about the town’s transformation was running strong enough for voters to pass a slow-growth initiative pushed by Connolly. Its strongest supporters were longtime residents who realized, as Connolly put it, that “they’d been handed a lot of hooey.” But the old-timers were, by now, a distinct minority. Pombo’s original agrarian constituency had been supplanted by newcomers who knew little about the congressman except that through most of his tenure he kept his kids in local schools and flew back to see the family on weekends. Whether these folks were prepared to vote for someone else – or, for that matter, vote at all – was the question on which McCloskey’s errand would depend.
By 1992 Tracy and environs had grown enough to become the centerpiece of a new congressional district; Patti Garamendi, the wife of California’s insurance commissioner, was seen as a shoo-in. But while Clinton eked out a presidential win that year, congressional Democrats were in trouble. Of the 22 worst offenders caught bouncing checks in the House banking scandal, 18 were Democrats. Richard Pombo, just 31 years old and with two years on the City Council under his belt, decided to run. On the campaign trail, he drove a Ford pickup, wore jeans and alligator boots, and railed against big government and the “perks of the Hill.” He defeated Garamendi by 4,000 votes, an early harbinger of the Gingrich revolution.
Pombo quickly joined the congressional chorus pushing for more energy exploration on federal lands, fewer logging restrictions in national forests, and fewer environmental laws, period. He particularly resented the Endangered Species Act, often relating a story about having run for office because his family’s ranch had been designated “critical habitat” for the San Joaquin kit fox, and that this had “forced my family to operate our ranch with an unwanted, unneeded, un-silent partner, the federal government.” (In fact, no critical habitat anywhere had yet been set aside for the tiny fox.)
In 1995 Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) – the new House Resources Committee chairman who dropped the word “Natural” from its name – gave Pombo the task he had been striving for: rewriting the Endangered Species Act. Eleven times during the following decade, Pombo proposed revisions to the act, which he considered an inappropriate imposition on, or “taking” of, private property rights. He became Capitol Hill’s strongest proponent of the “Wise Use” agenda, which had emerged in the 1980s in reaction to the environmental movement’s early successes, and had radicalized a generation of westerners. The victims of “eco-leaders,” Pombo wrote in his 1996 book, This Land Is Our Land, “are everywhere…people whose way of life was threatened by activists and bureaucrats who can’t tell a salmon from a salesman.”
In practice, and even in Pombo’s back yard, environmental sagas never quite played out as neatly, as evidenced by the epic tale of Rana aurora draytonii. The red-legged frog was once found all over California, but today it survives mainly in patches along the coast. “Dan’l Webster,” the champion in Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” was most likely a red-legged frog. The species has been listed as threatened since 1996.
Robert Stack had been intrigued by the frog ever since he bought some property in the Sierra foothills near Angels Camp, the locale of Twain’s tale. A Ph.D. biochemist, tall, gangly, and somewhat reminiscent of Ichabod Crane, Stack had been involved in developing new cancer therapeutics. Biochemists were looking to frogs to supply new medicines, and Stack had always loved amphibians – and Mark Twain. But nobody in Calaveras County had seen a California red-legged frog since 1969; in the annual jumping contests, bullfrogs were used. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had been dragging its feet on writing a recovery plan.
Discovering that “nobody was really looking out for Twain’s frog,” Stack took on the cause. He formed an outfit called the Jumping Frog Research Institute and became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that eventually forced the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare 4.1 million acres protected critical habitat for the frog.
That’s when the Homebuilders Association of Northern California countered with its own lawsuit and, as Stack puts it, “Congressman Pombo decided to use the frog as his whipping boy for many things supposedly wrong with the Endangered Species Act.” (Pombo would later blame the frog for causing nearly $500 million in “regulatory costs” for home-builders.) In 2001 the two exchanged a series of blistering op-eds in the Tracy Press, each man claiming Twain’s mantle. Stack, taking offense at being labeled a “radical environmentalist,” closed an article with a favorite Twain quote: “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” Pombo’s rebuttal ended with a line often attributed to Twain: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid, than to open it and remove all doubt.”
The frog fight stayed bottled up in the courts. Then, in October 2003, Stack got a call from a rancher’s wife in Calaveras County. Her children had found three curious-looking frogs in a stock pond on their property. Stack asked her to describe them. When she mentioned ridges on either side of the animals’ backs, he put down the phone and jumped in his car. The first documented sighting of red-legged frogs in almost 35 years – soon confirmed by the Fish and Wildlife Service – was guaranteed to cause a stir, especially among the residential developers eyeing the region.
Pombo’s response was to reintroduce his Threatened and Endangered Species Recovery Act, which proposed to eliminate mandatory habitat restrictions for any species, and to handsomely compensate landowners who claimed that their property values had suffered as a result of endangered-species protections – a provision that likely would make the act unenforceable. The bill passed the House in late 2005, with virtually no debate.
The following spring, Danny Pearson, the Calaveras rancher whose kids had stumbled onto the frog, made the first airplane flight of his life, to Washington, D.C., to talk to senators about the Endangered Species Act. The frog’s discovery, Pearson maintained, had neither hurt his property value nor impinged upon his ranching practices. “Pombo has done an excellent job portraying this as a bad thing,” he told the Sacramento Bee. “I think it’s a good thing.”
Eventually, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared fewer than 500,000 acres critical habitat for the frog, barely 10 percent of what it had promised in response to Stack’s lawsuit in 2000. None of it was in Calaveras County.
It was in the context of Pombo’s alliance with the property-rights movement that the first signs of his ethics troubles emerged. In 1999, the congressman formed the international Sustainable Use Parliamentarians Union under the auspices of another group, the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources. The foundation was part of the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded “Arkansas Project,” which had targeted President Clinton and was now active in promoting a “sustainable” renewal of commercial whaling and the ivory trade, as well as Monsanto’s biotechnology business. Monsanto was a large donor to the foundation, along with the Japan Whaling Association and the International Fur Trade Association.
In October 2005, the Center for Public Integrity revealed that Pombo had taken more than $23,000 worth of trips sponsored by the foundation – to New Zealand in 2000 with his wife, and to an International Whaling Commission meeting in Japan in 2002 – but apparently had paid no taxes on the trips, as required by law.
Pombo also used his congressional authority to help Charles Hurwitz, a close associate of and leading contributor to his mentor, Tom DeLay. Through most of the ’90s, Hurwitz was the target of an investigation by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for his alleged role in the collapse of a Texas S&L that cost taxpayers $1.6 billion. Hurwitz is the owner of Maxxam, a company best known for logging California’s old-growth redwoods, and at one point in his increasingly contentious negotiations with the FDIC, a proposal surfaced under which Hurwitz was to pay off $300 million of his obligation by deeding the government some of his forestland. Conservatives were outraged at what they saw as environmental pressure tactics, and the House Resources Committee created a task force to investigate the alleged debt-for-nature proposal. Pombo was a member of the task force, and he used its subpoena power to obtain the FDIC’s confidential memos on its legal strategies in the Hurwitz case. He then placed the documents in the Congressional Record where anyone, including Hurwitz’s lawyers, could read them. It was, an FDIC spokesman said, “a seamy abuse of the legislative process” that effectively ended the agency’s chances of recovering any of Hurwitz’s millions. When the Los Angeles Times broke the story in 2006, Pombo said he was merely seeking to stop the government from “trying to take away someone’s property.”
In January 2003, DeLay engineered Pombo’s elevation over seven more senior Republicans on the resources committee to become the youngest committee chairman in either chamber. In his new post, Pombo unveiled another rewrite of the Endangered Species Act; sought legislation aimed at opening up public lands, including 15 national parks, for development by oil, gas, and mining interests; and tried to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and U.S. coastlines to oil drilling. He also took on the National Environmental Policy Act, the cornerstone law that requires all federal projects to be reviewed for their environmental imPACt.
With Pombo’s rise to power came more perks. In the summer of 2005 he took his wife and children on a two-week tour of national parks in a rented RV, billing the resources committee for $5,000. His wife and brother have been paid at least $350,000 out of Pombo’s campaign war chest since 2001 for fundraising, bookkeeping, and clerical services, a practice that is not prohibited under House ethics rules.
The most eyebrow-raising of Pombo’s financial dealings, however, have to do with his campaign contributors. He ranks No. 1 in support from the natural gas industry for the 2005-06 election cycle ($95,900 all told from oil and gas interests) and, as chair of a committee that also handles matters affecting Native American tribes, he has received more contributions from casino and Indian gaming interests than any other member of the House ($179,847 as of the end of May).
The casino donors brought Pombo into the orbit of Jack Abramoff, the influence-peddling DeLay ally since convicted of conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Pombo received $31,250 from Abramoff, his associates, and his clients, ranking him 14th among members who benefited from the lobbyist’s largesse.
“Nothing that I did in trying to run the resources committee was ever influenced by anything that came from Abramoff,” Pombo told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Still, the two clearly had interests in common, including the cause of the Mashpee Wampanoag, the Massachusetts Indian tribe that met the Pilgrims. The tribe had been seeking federal recognition for some years; if its petition was successful, it would qualify for numerous federal aid programs and have a shot at opening a casino on Cape Cod. Abramoff had been helping the Mashpees, who had paid some $40,000 to his firm, much of it originating with a Detroit casino developer. In September 2003, Pombo attended a meeting with Mashpee leaders and then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton; shortly thereafter he received more than $20,000 from the tribe. After he held a hearing on the Mashpee issue in 2004, at least $20,000 more went to two PACs that he controlled. Pombo next took up the cause of the Shinnecocks of eastern Long Island, whose drive for federal recognition is backed by Gateway Funding Associates, another casino developer out of Detroit. Two days before Pombo scheduled hearings on the Shinnecocks’ land claims, people with ties to Gateway hosted a $5,000-per-head Pombo fundraiser at the 2005 baseball All-Star Game.
Pombo also joined Abramoff as part of a January 2004 delegation to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory where “guest workers” sew clothing in near-captive conditions. Sweatshop owners had retained Abramoff to block labor reforms; four months after Pombo’s visit, nine donors with Marianas addresses contributed a combined $7,750 to Pombo’s leadership fund, named Rich PAC. Abramoff’s work on behalf of tribes and the Marianas has been investigated by two Senate committees, but Pombo’s committee has made no effort to follow up.
At the time the DeLay and Abramoff scandals began to break, Pete McCloskey was happily growing organic oranges and raising horses. He was following the news from Washington, and occasionally venting with his friend Lewis Butler, who had been a top official under Nixon. They were both aghast when the House adopted a new rule under which the House Committee on Ethical Standards would have to approve any ethics investigation by majority vote – a rule, it seemed, designed solely to protect DeLay. “I think we were both grumbling,” Butler recalls, “when finally Pete said, ‘Come on, we’re a couple of old farts, why don’t we try to do something!'” They drafted an open letter to the House leadership and enlisted nine other former Republican congressmen to sign, demanding that the old ethics rules be reinstated. (They were.)
As he researched the ethics guidelines, McCloskey began to grasp just how much Washington had changed. In his day, “PACs had been invented but were not a big thing – they were deemed to be a Republican response to the power of the labor unions. Lobbyists maybe paid a hundred dollars to a campaign dinner for you, but they did not control the legislative process. The bulk of your contributions came from people or organizations within your district.” Now, K Street had become “perhaps the most powerful branch of government,” with congressional staffers routinely hired away by lobbying firms, where they would then hold fundraisers for their ex-bosses in exchange for favors. Many lobbyists even doubled as treasurers for congressional PACs. Meanwhile, leadership PACs distributed money from members in safe districts or with particularly massive fundraising bases to party brethren deemed to be in electoral jeopardy. Republicans held fundraising events for these PACs that they called ROMPS – Retain Our Majority Party. “They’ve perfected an art which I think has caused the American people to view Congress as a cesspool,” McCloskey told me.
That summer McCloskey and Butler, along with two other Republicans who’d left the House in the early 1980s – Johnson of Colorado and Paul Findley of Illinois – launched a group they called the Revolt of the Elders Coalition. It sought to find candidates to oust the new breed of Republicans. “DeLay incinerated himself,” Butler notes, “but we discovered that he had two stooges in California – Pombo and John Doolittle.” They found a primary challenger in Doolittle’s Sierra Nevada district, but no “reasonable Republican,” as McCloskey put it, could be persuaded to go up against Pombo. “I sure didn’t want to go back to Washington,” he said. “I’d be about as popular as a skunk in church. But finally, Lew told me, ‘Pete, there isn’t anybody else.'” McCloskey advanced himself a personal loan of $50,000, Butler provided the RV, and the Revolt of the Elders metamorphosed into a full-scale campaign.
Defeating Pombo would not be easy. “This is a gerrymandered district and it’s heavily Republican, so really the only way to beat Pombo is in the primary,” McCloskey said. “But 60 percent of the Republicans live in these farm communities in San Joaquin County, and that’s the majority of voters I have to convince. There’s a vast ignorance and apathy about corruption in Washington. To them, the government is the enemy and Pombo is a sagebrush-rebellion hero.” To succeed, McCloskey – who eschewed PAC money and ended up raising about $500,000 in individual donations, while Pombo pulled in almost $1.7 million – would have to convince voters that their congressman had become as entrenched in a political culture of arrogance as the Democrats Pombo had once fought. In that quest, his foremost ally would be the man who’d vowed to avenge the red-legged frog.
Robert Stack had made up his mind in November 2005 to quit his Silicon Valley job and “devote a year of service to my country” by helping whoever chose to challenge Pombo, and after McCloskey entered the race, he began working 80 to 100 hours a week as the ex-congressman’s chief corruption investigator and fact checker. “I’d been doing high-tech bio-defense work,” he says, “and it took a long time to realize any connection. Then I realized there was – species extinction is low-level bioterrorism, the slow, gradual kind that nobody sees.”
On Earth Day 2006, McCloskey reclined on a couch inside his Winnebago at the edge of a Stockton park, greeting voters and talking strategy with Scott Restivo, a software engineer who’d started a “Vote Pombo Out” website. “Frogman!” McCloskey exclaimed as Stack showed up at the door. Restivo and Stack had “dug up more about Pombo than the whole Democratic Central Committee,” he told me, but the details – Pombo’s ties to Abramoff and DeLay especially – had not caught on with the press. Restivo said reporters were leery of “pissing off Pombo’s side too much, because they need access if he wins again.”
“If he wins again,” McCloskey said quietly, “it’ll be a tragedy.”
Toward the end of the campaign, McCloskey used Stack’s fact sheets to feed questions about corruption in Washington to local reporters covering the Pombo-Cheney fundraiser. The campaign took a distinctly sour tone after that. Five days before the primary, the Stockton Record ran a story about a man named M. Yaqub Mirza who had given a contribution to McCloskey. The Pombo campaign issued a press release that read: “Self-described ‘left-wing liberal’ Pete McCloskey has agreed to return a $2,100 contribution to his congressional campaign from a man under investigation by federal authorities for financing al-Qaida and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
McCloskey, a friend of Yasser Arafat and over the years a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, said he’d never met Mirza, whose Virginia offices had been raided by the FBI and U.S. Customs in March 2002 for an alleged role in laundering money to terrorists. Mirza was never charged, and the Stockton newspaper’s review of state and federal records showed that he had given more than $17,500 in campaign contributions, including some to the Republican National Committee. Nonetheless, McCloskey returned the donation. “We’d expected to get blasted toward the end,” he said, “the Karl Rove technique.”
What he hadn’t expected was seeing his old allies weigh in for Pombo. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a friend from McCloskey’s days in Congress who was now chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called Republican voters to tout Pombo’s record. Then Senator John McCain, one of the few GOP politicians McCloskey considered environmentalists, “began making calls, telling people to vote for Pombo. That finally reduced my wife to tears. We couldn’t think of a single thing that McCain and Pombo agreed on. But I got the picture. I was persona non grata.”
On Election Day, June 6, Pombo took 61.7 percent of the Republican vote. (The Elders’ other candidate, Doolittle’s challenger, was beaten by an even bigger margin.) Turnout was poor, around 28 percent. McCloskey wasn’t entirely surprised. “About four weeks before the end of the campaign,” he told me, “I realized my message of honesty and ethics clearly didn’t excite anybody. I’d go into a restaurant and talk to people, and I’m afraid the percentage who were interested was about one in five. I saw apathy, disinterest, cynicism – you know, ‘Aren’t they all crooks?’ To find that people didn’t care was the greatest blow.”
But he had gone too far to turn back. After the election, McCloskey emailed supporters to say he planned to help Pombo’s Democratic adversary, a wind energy executive named Jerry McNerney. “Clearly it is a time to fight back,” he wrote. “Party loyalty be damned.” A few weeks later, on a foggy afternoon in San Francisco, he met with Lewis Butler and “Frogman” to plan the Revolt of the Elders’ next gambit. Movements, he said, “civil rights, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, ending the war, were all essentially led by young people. So we’re going to try to get as many young people as we can to agree with us, and turn the scoundrels out in November.
“Lew and I may be the last of the naive believers that the system works if you get folks involved in it. But nobody’s said, ‘You’re a damned old fool.’ Yet.”