Four years after being voted from office, former Rep. Richard Pombo (R) of California is attempting to resurrect his political career in a new district where few voters know his record for seeking to rewrite some of the nation's premier environmental laws.
But observers of environmental politics during the 1990s and 2000s are all too familiar with Pombo, whose re-emergence has set off a flurry of opposition from advocacy groups who believe his return to Congress would rekindle the rancorous -- and some say anti-environmental -- debates that defined his tenure as chairman of the House Resources Committee from 2003 to 2008.
As a 14-year congressman representing California's 11th District, in the Central Valley east of San Francisco, the ultra-conservative Pombo earned the scorn of environmentalists for working to expand oil and gas drilling on public lands, including within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and for attempting to ease the sale of public lands to the mining industry.
These and other actions prompted a coalition of environmental groups to mount an aggressive campaign that contributed to his 2006 defeat to Rep. Jerry McNerney (D). McNerney was re-elected to the 11th District seat in 2008.
Now, many of those same groups, led by the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, are pulling out the stops for the June 8 Republican primary election in the nearby 19th District, where Pombo is seeking to replace the retiring Rep. George Radanovich (R).
As part of the campaign, environmental groups are running radio ads claiming that while in office Pombo tried to sell national parks to private developers and sponsoring robo-calls accusing him of violating federal bribery laws.
"He represents to them the devil incarnate with respect to environmental issues," said Bruce Cain, a political expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
But Pombo, 49, who describes himself as a San Joaquin County cattle rancher, has a very real shot at winning the Republican nomination for the District 19 seat, according to Cain and other campaign watchers.
And four years away from Congress clearly has not softened Pombo's hard-line stance on a slate of key wildlife and public lands issues that once prompted Rolling Stone magazine to label him an "Enemy of the Earth."
In an interview this week, Pombo said that, if elected, he would work with like-minded Republicans and some Democrats to push initiatives that could dramatically change federal policies governing federal land management, wildlife protection and domestic energy production.
- Amending the Endangered Species Act to focus more on active wildlife recovery efforts and less on restricting development within endangered species habitat. Specifically, Pombo would propose eliminating ESA's critical habitat provisions, which have prohibited or severely restricted land use across millions of acres of public and private lands.
- Easing Interior Department restrictions on oil shale recovery research and development on public lands. Interior last year began requiring leaseholders to submit a development plan within nine months of receiving a permit, with commercial operations required within two years. As a result, some energy companies have shied away from developing technologies needed to tap the estimated 1.5 trillion barrels of recoverable shale oil in parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
- Reversing onshore oil and natural gas drilling reforms on federal land. Interior this week finalized leasing reforms that would require more detailed environmental reviews, more public input and less use of a controversial provision to streamline leasing (E&ENews PM, May 17).
"We ought to be encouraging and doing everything we can to develop homegrown energy," Pombo said. "I believe the administration is going in the wrong direction when it comes to developing American energy.
"With my return to Congress, it would definitely send the signal back [to Washington] that it's time to start developing our own energy and reforming our laws," he added.
Capitalizing on anger
But perhaps more than any other issue, Pombo's campaign is being fueled by local anger over federal water restrictions in the San Joaquin-Sacramento Bay Delta, which provides water both for endangered species and for irrigators in the farm-rich Central Valley and beyond. Federal regulators established the restrictions on water withdrawals to protect endangered delta smelt and threatened salmon.
But the significant reduction in the amount of water that can be pumped out of the Delta for agriculture, Pombo said, has resulted in the loss of as many as 70,000 jobs. Meanwhile, an estimated 600,000 acres of California farmland sit unused due to a lack of water.
Pombo has vowed to pursue legislation granting a temporary waiver to the Bureau of Reclamation, which has jurisdiction over water management in the San Joaquin-Sacramento delta, allowing it to bypass endangered species mandates and restore pumping to previous levels.
The strategy has worked before. In 2003, Pombo helped former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) push through controversial legislation forcing BuRec to open a section of the Rio Grande River to agricultural irrigation and municipal drinking water use, instead of holding it to ensure an endangered silvery minnow had enough water to survive.
"We could do something very similar to that," Pombo said. "It would buy us time and deliver water for agriculture in California, and in the meantime give us an opportunity to go back and look at the Endangered Species Act and find a permanent fix to the problem."
With less than three weeks to the GOP primary, polls suggest voters are beginning to respond to Pombo's message.
While voter surveys in March showed Pombo in third place behind state Sen. Jeff Denham and Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson, a more recent poll conducted for Western Pacific Research showed Pombo trailing only Denham by a slight margin. What's more, the polling data revealed more than a third of registered voters in the district remain undecided.
Yet the very prospect of Pombo's resurgence has national environmental groups pouring tens of thousands of dollars into radio, television and newspaper attack ads.
William Lutz, senior director of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, which has sponsored a number of the critical ads, declined to discuss Pombo's track record or respond to the legislative agenda Pombo laid out in this week's interview.
Lutz, whom Pombo describes on his website as a "liberal operative" and "socialist enviro," wrote in an e-mail to Land Letter that Pombo's political agenda is "old news," and that "it's the cloud of corruption surrounding him that voters should be worried about" -- an apparent reference to Pombo's reported ties to disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Even so, experts say that if Pombo can overcome such attacks and win the GOP primary, he will likely return to Washington next year. The 19th District has a slight Republican majority, and none of the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination are viewed as serious contenders.
"If [Pombo] gets out of the primary," said Cain, the UC-Berkeley political expert, "he's back in Congress."
In many ways, Pombo's resurgence should come as no surprise.
The pendulum of voter discontent that swept the Republican majority from office since 2006 is now moving in the other direction, and his pro-domestic energy production message has found renewed favor with some voters.
The anti-incumbent sentiment got an additional charge this week when veteran Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was defeated in Tuesday's Democratic primary, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) was forced into a runoff just to have a chance to qualify for the November general election ballot.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a fellow conservative who has endorsed Pombo's election bid, said the former congressman's success is remarkable considering that he is running in a reconfigured district adjacent to his old District 11.
"You've got 60 percent of the district that Richard never represented and [where he] didn't have any name ID, and he's continued to climb despite the onslaught of negative advertisements and being attacked from every which way," Nunes said.
Pombo has responded with radio ads of his own, and his campaign has set up a "Myths and Smears" website that purports to "set the record straight" on the claims made against him by "political opponents and left-wing lawsuit abusers."
But Pombo said he and his volunteer staff have done most of their campaigning by going door-to-door throughout the district, which spans the socioeconomic spectrum from rural farming communities to larger cities like Fresno.
"We've probably hit several thousand homes already," he said.
Pombo said he is also pleased with the response he has gotten from those he has met on the campaign trail.
"I know that the way it feels on the ground is that we've definitely got the momentum and things are moving in my direction," he said. "I'm very encouraged by that. We've got three weeks left to finish this thing out, so I'm just going to work as hard as I can and hope that it works."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.
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