Saturday, October 07, 2006

Pombo Country and the Washington Connection - California Dreamin' Part IV

A leg of my California tour last week took me from San Leandro in the East Bay Area to my next project in the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Manteca, which means lard in Spanish. I had a hotel reservation in Tracy, just west of Manteca.

A steady stream of traffic flows eastward on Interstate 580 during the late afternoon commute. The Bay Area extends its reach east all the way to Tracy and beyond, where workers priced out of the market in the Bay Area find more affordable cookie-cutter squeaky clean tract homes in the flat farmlands of the northern San Joaquin Valley. Tracy, it seems, is evolving into a bedroom community. Large tracts of land around Tracy are for sale and the signs facing the freeway are all Pombo Real Estate.

At the heart of it all is Richard Pombo – “Rancher and Congressman,” which is the slogan one sees everywhere on the campaign signs as the November election approaches. It’s the kind of slogan you would expect would ring solid with the electorate of this agricultural area. Pombo is the powerful Chairman of the House Committee on Resources and is running for his eighth term in Congress. He is known as a strong advocate of private property rights and not exactly a friend of the environment.

I first heard of Richard Pombo in 2004 when the Wild Sky Wilderness Bill was being discussed in the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. The bill would have designated as wilderness 106,000 acres of lowland forest and high mountains of the western Cascades area around the Skykomish River. The bill had broad bipartisan support and input from many stakeholders, including snowmobile and off-road vehicle enthusiasts. The bill twice passed the Senate, only to get stalled in the House Resources Committee, never being voted on in the full House. In a committee hearing, Chairman Pombo expressed reservations about 16,000 acre portion that the Forest Service did not want included as wilderness.

Back then in 2004, Representative George Nethercutt, a Republican from eastern Washington was contemplating a run for Senator Patty Murray’s seat. Senator Murray was a prime sponsor of Wild Sky in the Senate. Nethercutt needed to show he had the environmental credentials with the voters of western Washington. He took it upon himself to work with Pombo to make changes to the bill that would get it out of committee and onto the floor where passage was assured. The whole thing turned ugly when the compromise proposed by Nethercutt was unacceptable to the bill’s original sponsors, primarily Representative Rick Larsen, Democrat, in whose district the Wild Sky Wilderness would fall. Chairman Pombo withdrew the bill and said he acted after being told that the Washington congressional delegation couldn't resolve their differences.

As it turned out, Nethercutt did run for U.S. Senate in 2004. He was thoroughly trounced by Murray, losing by 12 points, receiving only 43 percent of the vote to Murray's 55 percent.

Richard Pombo is quite a controversial figure in his own right. Besides being a forceful advocate for private property rights, supporter of drilling in ANWR, and a reformer of the Endangered Species Act, he’s also paid significant amounts of money to family members out of campaign funds, supported the construction of a freeway to enhance the value of real estate he owns, and had links to Jack Abramoff. Currently Pombo is running against Democrat Jerry McNerney for his congressional seat. The race is becoming a close one. A recent poll showed McNerney leading by two points.

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