Around midnight, Jerry McNerney was talking to supporters when a campaign staffer thrust a cell phone in his hand and hustled him out the back door. The crowd at his election-night party started to buzz: was Richard Pombo calling to concede their hard-fought race for California’s 11th congressional district?
No such luck. It was only Bill Clinton on the phone.
“He came out for me,” McNerney said, standing alone on a clear night as TV news vans hummed in the lot behind him. “He liked that I offered an alternative view on energy.”
That might be an understatement. Fourteen years ago, Pombo set out to fundamentally change the nation’s environmental laws. But his more lasting effect might be on the environmental movement that got those laws passed in the first place.
For instance, Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen said his group never had been so directly involved in a congressional race. They began planning their anti-Pombo efforts 13 months ago. Gradually, they pulled together a coalition of environmental and even animal rights groups that helped coordinate volunteers and bring in over $1.5 million in campaign funds. Their success, he said, might lead them to micro-target particular congressional races in the future.
“In 30 years, I can’t recall when the environmental movement has had an electoral victory this big,” Schlickeisen said.
In a bitter contest, both sides seemed to agree that this race was about environmental policy above all else.
“This race is the political epicenter of the country when it comes to environmental issues,” said Larry Russell, national field director of the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, speaking at Pombo’s election-night party.
Pombo was engaged in trying to change the environmental-review process, Russell said. The most prominent part of this effort was an attempt to overhaul the Endangered Species Act; Pombo even floated a bill draft that would build a sunset clause into the 33-year-old law. These reforms were necessary, Russell said, to prevent frivolous lawsuits by environmental groups that sometimes stop highway projects for two decades.
Russell was one of several people at Pombo’s event who took vacation to come from out of state to canvas for the embattled head of the House Resources Committee. Similarly, McNerney was able to nationalize his race with Pombo. He even successfully co-opted the “Pombo Country” slogan Pombo had used for years, saying “We all live in Pombo country!”
Those who considered themselves to live in “Pombo Country” included a woman who traveled all the way from the Artic Wilderness with caribou hairs and soil from the tundra in her pockets, said Mary McAllister, who helped coordinate volunteers for McNerney. Other precinct walkers included a woman on crutches and two older men who worked as a team, she said, the one who could barely hear leading around the one who could barely see so he could talk to voters.
Environmentalists weren’t the only ones targeting Pombo. Tim Goodrich, founder of the Iraq Veterans Against the Progress PAC chose McNerney’s party in San Ramon as the place he wanted to spend election night. A PAC created by the group targeted five Republicans in congressional races with commercials and other efforts.
They won four. The last was McNerney’s race, which was called at about 1 a.m. McNerney’s six-point margin came after Pombo trounced him by 23 points only two years ago.
Given that Pombo hadn’t faced a strong challenge since he was first elected, the mood at his party took a long time to turn. Early returns showing McNerney up by 16 points were shrugged off as urban Stockton and Bay Area districts. Republican Assembly members Alan Nakanishi of Lodi and Greg Aghazarian of Stockton calmly chatted with people and ate barbecue as the news showed them trouncing opponents in their own races.
“We all knew it was going to be close,” said Pombo campaign manager Carl Fogliani.
A year ago, no one gave McNerney a chance–not even other Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee got behind another candidate, Steve Filson. But McNerney, a little known “wind-energy consultant,” used a grassroots network he put together in his last run and pulled it out.
“They didn’t ask anyone in the district our opinion,” said McNerney volunteer John Casey, from Pleasanton. “We felt Filson was being parachuted in to save our bacon, and we already had Jerry who was breathing fire.”
But McNerney also benefited from several advantages that he didn’t enjoy the last time around: Pombo was dogged by corruption charges and his association with an increasingly unpopular President George W. Bush.
Then there was former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, who flew at Pombo like a 240-pound fullback in the Republican primary. McCloskey lost by a 2-to-1 margin, but forced Pombo to spend time and money in a segment of the campaign where he’d never had a significant challenger. The author of the Endangered Species Act, McCloskey was that rare candidate who seemed to care not about winning, but about his opponent losing. Indeed, he spent much of the night at McNerney’s party.
Money flew in toward the end of the race to try to shore up Pombo. Donors included developers and agribusiness, Wal-Mart and Halliburton. The president and first lady both campaigned for him.
But this late surge was offset by both environmental and Democratic Party money, allowing McNerney to go attack-for-attack in an increasingly nasty campaign.
Pombo ran radio ads accusing McNerney of supporting North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. McNerney countered with an ad claiming that Roll Call had named Pombo one of the most corrupt members of Congress–something both Pombo and Roll Call denied, even though Pombo made several other “most corrupt” lists.
In the end, however, it may be that Pombo’s district changed out from under him as its western portion increasingly became a suburb of the Bay Area. Several McNerney volunteers said that it didn’t feel like Pombo even took them seriously until the final weeks.
“We decided the conventional wisdom was wrong and Pombo was beatable,” said Schlickeisen. “At first, it was only us.”
Malcolm Maclachlan is a Capitol Weekly staff reporter.