Of all the Election Day upsets in congressional races across the country, none was more surprising than the defeat of veteran Central Valley lawmaker Richard Pombo, who has represented California’s 11th District in the House of Representatives since 1992. The seven-term congressman, chair of the House Committee on Resources, was unseated by a candidate with virtually no political experience and little name recognition outside his immediate family.
Despite representing a district where Republicans hold an edge over Democrats in voter registration, Pombo garnered only 47% of the vote on November 7, versus 53% for opponent Jerry McNerney, an engineer whose resume identifies him as a wind-energy consultant and novelist.
“Pombo’s defeat sends a clear message to those who share his ideology that when it comes to the elections, the environment is now a giant-killer,” Sierra Club Director Carl Pope told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Pombo’s loss, although celebrated with almost giddy enthusiasm by his critics, will no doubt lead to a marked change in congressional debate over national environmental and energy policy. But his successor as leader of the Resources Committee, which has tremendous influence over matters near and dear to the hearts of Californians, such as water, energy and public lands, won’t have to spend a lot of time trying to unravel Pombo’s legacy. That’s because there is not much of a legislative legacy to unravel.
Despite tireless and occasionally hyperbolic efforts to revise some of the nation’s most far-reaching environmental statutes — mainly the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — Pombo has almost nothing concrete to show for his 14 years in Congress. Environmental advocates have long regarded him as Public Enemy No. 1, and can justifiably claim the lion’s share of credit or blame for his defeat last month. But their antipathy toward the former rancher had more to do with ideology than with his record of legislative achievement. And there was more to Pombo’s defeat than his hostility toward environmental regulations.
Some political analysts have noted that Pombo’s district, once reliably Republican and conservative, has been changing as exurban refugees from liberal bastions in the Bay Area seek more affordable housing on the edge of the Central Valley. Hopeful Democrats have been predicting for several years that liberal commuters might finally spell defeat for a congressman wedded to the policy priorities of farmers, real estate investors and oil-patch workers. But of the forces that finally conspired to send Pombo packing, changing demography likely played the smallest role.
The 11th District was created after the 1990 Census, when California gained seven House seats. The district originally included the southern and eastern parts of Sacramento County and nearly all of San Joaquin County, and Democrats led Republicans in voter registration 48% to 41%. The district was still Democratic, on paper at least, when Pombo first won election in 1992, and it remained that way through 2000, although the margin had narrowed by then to 45% Democratic and 43% Republican.
Redistricting in 2002, however, shifted Sacramento County out of Pombo’s district and added inland portions of Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties. And the balance of power flipped. Republicans led Democrats in voter registration that November 47% to 38%. That margin has since narrowed, and in fact it fell this year from 6.5% during the runup to the June primary to 5.6% for the November general election. Still, Pombo won re-election repeatedly, and by large majorities, even when he represented a Democrat-dominated district.
Scandal probably played a more important role this year than demography. Pombo’s critics hammered relentlessly on his ties to convicted influence peddler Jack Abramoff, from whom Pombo accepted campaign contributions, as well as his reliance on campaign money from oil and gas companies that stood to benefit from the changes he promoted in federal energy policy. They also raised questions about money he directed from campaign funds to his wife and brother.
Ultimately, however, it was Pombo’s environmental record that finally did him in. Probably not directly — his attitudes toward environmental policy have been consistent since he first went to Washington, and voters resoundingly re-elected him anyway — but because it finally drew the attention and money of big-name advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife.
Pombo’s signature issue has been revising the ESA to make it friendlier to business and property owners, a responsibility GOP leadership handed to him shortly after the party took control of Congress in 1994. His first 11 efforts were stymied either by a certain White House veto or opposition by moderate Republican colleagues. However, the stars finally seemed to align for him last year, thanks to strong support from the Bush administration and a larger Republican majority in Congress. In October 2005, the House approved Pombo’s 12th ESA rewrite on a vote of 229 to 193, sending it to a still-uncertain fate in the Senate (see CP&DR Environment Watch, November 2005).
Pombo also drew heat, but not much support, for proposals to sell off portions of the national park system to finance transportation projects, expand oil and gas drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, allow mining companies to claim ownership of public lands, and revamp NEPA.
Environmental groups have been battling Pombo’s legislative proposals for more than a decade, but the groundswell of anti-incumbent sentiment this year offered a chance to eliminate him altogether from the policy debate. Although Pombo raised and spent twice as much as his opponent — $3.8 million vs. $1.6 million as of the close of the October 18 reporting period — that margin was narrowed by environmental groups, which spent more than $1 million on McNerney’s behalf and mobilized volunteers to knock on thousands of doors in the district.
Pombo’s defeat opens the door for Resources chairmanship to Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the committee’s ranking Democrat. Environmentalists may welcome any Democrat as an improvement over Pombo. But Rahall represents a coal-mining state, and he has pressed for federal investment in coal liquefaction and gasification technologies, which have the potential to boost greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate destructive mining practices. Federal Election Commission records show he’s received substantial campaign contributions from coal mining companies, coal-hauling railroads and the coal-burning electricity industry.
Nevertheless, the League of Conservation Voters gave Rahall a 92 rating for his votes in the 109th Congress. Pombo scored a 3.