Environmentalists savor Pombo defeat as sign of power

Times Staff Writer

In playing a critical role in the defeat of seven-term GOP incumbent Richard W. Pombo of Tracy, environmental groups demonstrated political muscle that has eluded them for years.

Led by Defenders of Wildlife, a group better known for its wolf preservation efforts than its campaign clout, environmentalists poured money and volunteers into a race that was at best considered a long shot. “Nobody, not the Democrats, not the political analysts, not many of our own believers felt we could actually beat him,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

But when the votes were counted, Pombo, the powerful chairman of the House Resources Committee and a longtime incumbent in a comfortably Republican district, had been unseated by Democrat Jerry McNerney, a wind power expert he trounced two years ago.

“Rep. Richard Pombo’s loss represents the most significant electoral victory the environmental movement has seen in decades,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund. “It should now be clear to all that we have the political strength to take on and defeat extreme anti-environmental politicians, even powerful chairmen of congressional committees.”


Analysts say that along with the environmental effort, a variety of factors undermined Pombo: the anti-incumbency mood that swept across the nation, Pombo’s brush with the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the changing nature of his district.

But “it’s easier to imagine Pombo surviving if environmental groups hadn’t gotten involved,” San Jose State political science professor Larry N. Gerston said. “I believe this is an eye-opener for many environmental groups. They saw what they could do.”

On the resources committee, which shapes public lands, energy and water legislation, Pombo is likely to be replaced as chairman by ranking Democrat Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia, a 30-year incumbent who has fought many of Pombo’s efforts to weaken environmental laws and open up public lands to private development.

While Democratic victories around the country robbed environmentalists of some moderate Republican allies -- most notably Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- Pope said they emerged from the election well ahead.

“We have picked up 19 to 20 new environmental votes in the House,” he said. “We expect five new votes in the U.S. Senate and we have picked up four new governorships.”

With Senate Democrats remaining short of enough votes to override a presidential veto or block a filibuster, the next two years are nonetheless unlikely to produce major environmental laws, Pope said.

“I don’t think we’re going to see, at a national level, major progress because Bush is still going to be there,” he said.

But without Pombo at the helm of the resources committee, conservationists will be waging fewer pitched battles in Congress.

A property rights advocate backed by big business interests, Pombo pushed a bill through the House last year to weaken the Endangered Species Act. His committee staff drafted budget language, never introduced, that would have sold more than 15 million acres of national park land in Alaska to raise federal revenue.

He tried to lift a longtime moratorium on selling federal mineral lands to mining companies for a fraction of their worth, pushed to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling and to expand oil and gas drilling off the nation’s coastlines, including California, and sought to slash royalty payments by energy companies prospecting for oil in Rocky Mountain shale deposits.

Some of those proposals won House approval, but none have so far made it into law, stalling or dying in the Senate, sometimes at the hands of his own party.

But it was not Pombo’s environmental record that conservationists highlighted in their drive to unseat him. Rather, in television and radio ads, they portrayed Pombo as a corrupt servant of corporate donors who had also taken campaign contributions from an Abramoff client.

The environment played “very little” role in the race, political analyst Allan Hoffenblum, who publishes the nonpartisan California Target Book, said last week. “They’re not putting up billboards and doing TV ads saying, ‘Save the Endangered Species Act,’ but dealing with his character.”

The election marked the first time the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund was involved in a congressional race. Before, the group deferred to the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, traditionally the environmental movement’s political combatants.

“I felt we needed more,” said Schlickeisen, who played a key role in raising the roughly $2 million that conservation groups spent on defeating Pombo.

A poll conducted by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund a year ago exposed Pombo’s vulnerabilities in the district, Schlickeisen said. That prompted the organization to set up a website on Pombo’s corporate donations, to start running attack ads and sharing information with other environmental groups.

“We’ve joined together in a way that exceeds anything we’ve ever done.... He was such an inviting target for all of us. We could all make him a priority,” Schlickeisen said.

At a Wednesday afternoon news conference in Tracy, Pombo was calm and gracious, refusing to criticize the environmental campaign.

But earlier at the Waterloo Restaurant outside Stockton, where he watched election returns spell his doom just after midnight, he complained: “What are you going to do? They dumped millions on my head.”