Rep. Richard Pombo has never gotten over being outfoxed by the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.
The rancher and chairman of the House Resources Committee is closer than ever to his goal of rewriting the Endangered Species Act to expand property rights — his mission ever since the obscure fox species blocked development of a neighboring town 25 years ago.
The prospect of long-fought success has made Pombo a target in the November election. The conservative Republican has abandoned the cowboy hat in his official congressional photo and is looking a little more worldly as he confronts a changing electorate in his district.
Seeking his eighth term, Pombo, 45, faces a primary challenge on June 6 from a moderate Republican who helped write the landmark species protections. Democrats see a glimmer of hope of capturing the seat; environmentalists say his defeat would be the best thing that could happen in November.
On top of all that, Pombo is facing ethical questions arising from his ties with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his own unconventional financial arrangements.
“The easiest thing in the world is for an incumbent congressman to get re-elected if you don’t do anything,” Pombo said in the kitchen of his ranch on sloping central California farmland. “But I figure I’m here for a reason — that’s to get things done.”
Ready for election fight
Pombo grew up in a large Portuguese ranching family. He says his immigrant grandfather taught him to prize land ownership above almost anything. That pride of ownership is evident as he points out cows, sheep and the barn he just built on the ranch he shares with his wife, Annette, and their three children. His parents and brothers live next door.
“There’s got to be something that you’re willing to lose your election over,” he says. He describes moderates as people who “just can’t make up their mind what they believe in.”
Pombo’s country style — he still wears cowboy boots — is an odd fit in upscale, liberal towns such as Pleasanton that were added to his district after the 2000 census. But he remains popular with traditional constituents in the agricultural sections of an area that straddles the San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, including his hometown of Tracy, where signs for his uncle’s real estate firm dot rural roads.
“He comes from a good family, a long, longtime Tracy family,” said Linda Alegre, who works at a menswear store in the fast-growing exurb’s faded downtown. “The Democrats want to get rid of him because he’s gotten too strong.”
But Claudia Hess, a gallery director in Pleasanton and a Republican undecided about how to vote, says, “He looks like a hick to me.”
In 2004, Pombo won with 61 percent of the vote in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats.
Republican challenges Pombo
He is favored against little-known Democratic contenders — among them engineer Jerry McNerney and Steve Filson, a Navy veteran and airline pilot. But it is early and the national Democratic Party is spending time and money to try to weaken him.
First, Pombo faces a primary challenge from former Rep. Pete McCloskey, an author of the Endangered Species Act. McCloskey moved into the district after failing to recruit another Republican to run against Pombo.
“He’s been there too long and power has corrupted him,” McCloskey said.
Environmentalists promise to spend plenty against Pombo. They note his proposals to sell public lands and his support for oil drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, as well as his stance on endangered species.
“Getting rid of him would be the best thing politically that could happen to us in the November election,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
The history of the fox
Pombo’s quest to rewrite the species act had its genesis in an earlier fight.
In the early 1980s, he was upset when the presence of the endangered San Joaquin kit fox contributed to stopping development of a proposed town outside Tracy. After serving on the Tracy City Council from 1990 to 1992, Pombo won a congressional seat by pledging to revise the legislation.
Opponents “were able to use an endangered species that no one had ever seen or heard of in order to stop that project from going forward,” said Pombo, co-author of the 1996 book, “This Land is Our Land: How to End the War on Private Property.”
He pushed a bill through the House last year that would require the government to compensate property owners if species protections thwart development plans and would block critical habitat designations that restrict development.
Senators may write their own version. It remains unclear whether any legislation will reach President Bush.
$7,000 in Abramoff money
As for ethics, Pombo is among lawmakers who got thousands of dollars in questionable contributions from Abramoff or his clients while supporting the lobbyist’s causes. After that came out, Pombo gave $7,000 to charity that he had received from Abramoff. The congressman denies taking any positions because of the money.
Pombo has been criticized for billing taxpayers $5,000 to rent an RV to tour national parks and for letting a top committee aide who lives in California bill for frequent travel to Washington.
Pombo asserts: “I don’t break the rules.”