Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground and worshiped, And said…. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
–Book of Job 1:20-21
I know better than to mix my religious faith with politics. Nevertheless, while not into head-shaving, I fully share the prophet Job’s sentiments when contemplating Richard Pombo’s imminent departure from Congress.
The 7-term northern California lawmaker, whose 4-year chairmanship of the House Resources Committee was marked by savage attacks against environmental gains of the last half-century, was surprisingly turned out of office in a well coordinated campaign by hordes of activists who had decided enough was enough.
From among California’s 53-member delegation in Congress, Chairman Pombo was the midterm’s lone loser. This in a state whose legislative gerrymanders are known to protect incumbents with the loving care a polar bear shows for her young.
It should be unnecessary to stipulate that Richard Pombo is not an evil person. He’s been, rather, an historic misfit—Roseanne Barr in a chorus line, say. Though lacking a sense of pride in our national parks or an appreciable concern for the quality of America’s air and water–and showing scant love of animals–he was entrusted by Congress with a wand over all outdoors. Pombo’s chairmanship of the Resources committee brought generous concessions to the auto industry, wanton logging or grazing of public lands, and endless forays against the Alaskan wilderness.
Things seem certain to change when West Virginia Rep. Nick Rahall, ranking Democrat on the Resources Committee, replaces Pombo as chairman, and when California Sen. Barbara Boxer lifts Chairman Jim Inhofe’s gavel on the Senate Environment and PublicWorks Committee. Though no match for Pombo as an ecological scourge, Oklahoma’s Inhofe has intimidated public-interest witnesses by demanding their organization’s membership lists and financial records—hardly a cordial overture to persons not under subpoena.
Long feeling themselves on the outside-looking-in during important congressional battles, pro-environment organizations are salivating over some huge numerical gains where it counts. When a new Congress convenes in January, conservationists will have picked up no fewer than 20 friendly members in the House, plus a half-dozen in the Senate. The League of Conservation Voters had branded 13 individual senators and House members “the Dirty Dozen.” Nine of the 13 were defeated—the blue-ribbon prize, of course, the gentleman from California, Mr. Pombo.
And while the count still leaves conservationists with insufficient numbers to override a presidential veto or to block a Senate filibuster, organizations like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Wilderness and Defenders of Wildlife will no longer be left skulking like declawed pussy cats. In an era of costly campaigning, Chairman Pombo’s foes raised and spent close to $2 million to take him out.
But money alone was not going to do it. Pombo’s defeat came about because of an extraordinary primary challenge within his own party. It came from former Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey, the Korean War hero whose brief congressional service from the San Francisco Peninsula (.1967-72) found him a part of landmark environmental laws. As a co-founder of Earth Day, McCloskey was understandably offended last year when Pombo pushed through a bill to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
The 79-year-old retiree could have sulked, or merely written petulant letters to the newspapers. Instead, he filed as a candidate against Pombo in the June primary. More than content on his small farm, with an intermittent law practice, McCloskey had no desire to return to Washington’s turmoil. Indeed, he knew there was scant likelihood of upsetting an entrenched incumbent within his own party in a heavily Republican district. But McCloskey’s primary challenge drew plenty of attention—and more than a third of the party vote.
Pombo knew he was in trouble when McCloskey remained in pursuit of the thousands of party members who had given him all those votes. “It’s time to return our party to the conservationist tradition of Theodore Roosevelt,” he told them via the op-ed pages.
Which is pretty much what happened as scores of like-minded campaign volunteers from San Francisco and elsewhere swarmed across the mainly rural Eleventh District to ring doorbells, make phone calls and double-check the precinct voting lists on Election Day.
Result: The Eleventh’s new congressman is a heretofore unknown wind power technologist, Jerry McNerney. Amid rejoicing unmatched since folks in Emerald City beheld the meltdown of a Wicked Witch of the West.