The congressional fundraiser was at a pub in the heart of this liberal political stronghold. A local band, The Flux, entertained with a tune titled “Impeach the President.”
The focus of attention: two candidates vying for seats in bedrock conservative districts to the east, currently occupied by Republicans John T. Doolittle of Granite Bay and Richard W. Pombo of Tracy.
Although most experts still give them a narrow edge, Doolittle, 55, seeking his ninth term, and Pombo, 45, pursuing his eighth, are in the toughest fights of their political careers going into the Nov. 7 election.
Their Northern California races are considered the most competitive in the state. President Bush demonstrated his concern by showing up at fundraisers for the duo last week, garnering more than $1 million for their campaigns.
But the prospect of upset victories contributing to a Democratic takeover of Congress -- potentially installing San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi as speaker -- has added another dimension to the Doolittle and Pombo races. Hundreds of volunteers and activists in Berkeley and other Bay Area communities have mobilized on the Democratic side, raising money, manning phone banks and carpooling into the districts to canvass neighborhoods for votes.
“They are already trying to figure out the color of Nancy Pelosi’s rug in the speaker’s office,” said Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, an election compendium.
The Berkeley event at the Albatross Pub was preceded Sept. 27 by a rally at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater at which former San Francisco mayor and state Assembly Speaker Willie Brown urged the crowd to fan out into the Doolittle and Pombo districts.
“There is a concerted effort to nationalize the elections,” complained Doolittle, interviewed after the Bush fundraiser at the Serrano Country Club in suburban Sacramento. “You’ve got a lot of them being bused in here from the Bay Area -- left-wing, antiwar activists.”
Doolittle, whose 4th District stretches from the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento to the Oregon border, is opposed by retired Air Force Lt. Col. Charlie Brown, 56, of Roseville. Brown, a soft-spoken Air Force Academy graduate, is counting on his military background to help him in what is arguably California’s most conservative district, based on Republican registration.
Pombo, whose 11th District includes Bay Area suburbs and San Joaquin Valley ranch lands, is challenged by wind energy scientist Jerry McNerney, 55, of Pleasanton. McNerney’s intellectual and environmental credentials are an asset in some of the high-tech corners of the district, which includes the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
Pombo and McNerney faced off last week in a debate in Tracy, Pombo’s hometown.
The incumbent defended the Bush policy in Iraq.
“Going to war in Iraq was to protect this country,” Pombo said. “I would rather take the war over there than fight it here.”
McNerney countered that “we need to find a smart and a tough way to end this war.”
The McNerney-Pombo contest is a repeat of the 2004 election, which Pombo won handily. Since 2004, however, both Doolittle and Pombo have suffered from their association with convicted Washington lobbyist and power broker Jack Abramoff.
Doolittle’s wife, Julie, owns a political consulting firm that did extensive work for Abramoff. Doolittle has also been criticized for paying his wife’s firm, Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions, a 15% commission on campaign contributions.
When President Bush raised $600,000 at the Oct. 3 fundraiser, Julie Doolittle earned $90,000.
Pombo received $7,500 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and $30,000 from Abramoff clients.
Like Doolittle, Pombo has also come under attack for bestowing campaign funds on his immediate family, including several hundred thousand dollars for his wife, Annette, and brother Randall.
On the heels of the Abramoff matter came the congressional page scandal that led to the resignation of Rep. Mark Foley, a Florida Republican. With the environment for Republicans deteriorating, the independent Cook Political Report last week downgraded both the Pombo and Doolittle races from likely GOP victories to merely leaning Republican.
Still, both Doolittle and Pombo have amassed significant campaign reserves. In the last federal reporting period, Pombo had 10 times more cash on hand than McNerney, a disparity that could give the incumbent a big advantage when television ads begin airing in earnest this month.
Both the Brown and McNerney candidacies, however, have been bolstered by activists from the Bay Area, the most Democratic chunk of the state.
“I’m overjoyed to find a place where I can work and perhaps make a difference,” said Keith Miller, 69, a retired UC Berkeley mathematics professor who spent a recent evening manning a phone bank for McNerney in a downtown Oakland union hall.
In addition to phone banks and fundraisers, the activists organize several convoys a week into the Doolittle and Pombo districts. Their energy and zeal are evident, if a tad florid.
“Yesterday, Sept. 23, 2006, a date which will live in infamy,” blogged San Jose volunteer Jason Spitzer, 43, a semiconductor engineer who has made three trips into the San Joaquin Valley on behalf of McNerney. “The passionate progressive patriots of America suddenly and deliberately attacked the residential neighborhoods of the city of Manteca.”
The volunteer efforts for Brown and McNerney have impressed veteran political observers.
“They see this national Democratic tsunami in which they are on the verge of taking over the House for the first time since 1994,” Hoffenblum said. “The best they can do to participate is work in these two congressional districts within driving distance of the Bay Area.”
Speaking at the Albatross gathering, McNerney was grateful for the help. “This is about the people taking our country back from the corporate interests -- this is ground zero,” McNerney said.
Brown mirrored his sentiments: “John Doolittle likes to say that I like to come to the Bay Area because I’m only interested in liberals. But I like to come to the Bay Area because you want to take this country back.”
Leaders of the migrating Democrats say they are sensitive to local issues and attitudes in districts that are often hugely different from those in the Bay Area. When they go into Pombo’s district, for example, they first ally themselves with local Democratic Party clubs.
“We are aware that these two candidates are not running in Berkeley,” said Kim Wayne, 68, co-chair of the Progressive East Bay Democrats.
Doolittle and Pombo have characterized the Bay Area activists as carpetbaggers who want to implant liberal ideas in the largely conservative districts.
“Brown has become the ultimate chameleon candidate,” Doolittle said on his campaign website. “By day, he pretends to be a conservative. By night, his true colors come out as he raises money and recruits volunteers from the most liberal activists in the Bay Area.”
Pombo has played up the Bay Area liberal invasion theme in his political mailers. Doolittle is expected to make it the theme of his television ads. But the volunteers say they have met with little hostility from potential voters. Political analyst Hoffenblum says the effect of the political activists is still uncertain.
“My guess is that it is probably productive work,” said Hoffenblum. “When someone comes to their door for a candidate, voters seldom ask ‘Where do you live in California?’ ”