In 2004, Democrat Jerry McNerney lost to Rep. Richard Pombo in a race for California's 11th district congressional seat by a 20 point margin. He's back again for another run, and this year's race is proving to be exceptionally close. As Mother Jones reported in September, Pombo's abysmal environmental record and ties to Jack Abramoff have made him politically vulnerable for the first time in his seven terms in Congress. And McNerney might just pull off a victory.
Recent polls have shown the McNerney/Pombo race in a dead heat and though Pombo has claimed he's not worried, there's much to suggest he is. In previous election years Pombo spent the majority of his campaign money helping other Republican candidates but this year he's spending all of it ($3.7 million compared to McNerney's $1.1 million) on himself. Even the White House seems concerned; Pombo's seat and his influential House Resources chairmanship could be lost. President Bush attended a fundraiser for Pombo in early October, and Laura Bush is scheduled to make an appearance for him this Friday.
Pombo has increasingly been on the defensive and his once solid standing in the conservative ranching and farming district is on much shakier ground, making room for a possible McNerney victory. One local newspaper, The Modesto Bee, which had supported Pombo throughout his 14 year political career, endorsed McNerney this year: "If you prefer the politics of extremes; if you're okay with selling off national parks; if backroom deal making and tainted money suit you; if you embrace out-of-balance budgets and the concentration of wealth -- Pombo's your man. But he's no longer ours."
Still, McNerney must prove to the 11th district's Republican majority that he's the right replacement. Yesterday, Mother Jones talked to Jerry McNerney about the campaign, his thoughts on Pombo, and his ideas for California's Central Valley should he win.
Mother Jones: What made you want to run in the 11th district?
Jerry McNerney: I've just been more concerned about the direction our country's headed in. I think the leaders have been irresponsible. They got us into a war of aggression and they're corrupt, especially Richard Pombo, he's one of the more corrupt. It's time to get rid of him and put a responsible government back in Washington.
MJ: When you ran in 2004, despite getting more votes than any previous candidate against Richard Pombo, you lost quite decisively. Why do you think this time will be different?
JM: In 2004 voters thought Pombo's corruption was just campaign talk. Now it's different, I'm getting a lot of traction with that. The mood of the country is different. The war has brought out the incompetence. [Pombo] hasn't brought any improvements to our district. We're having an interstate repaired with local tax money. Pombo's one of the most powerful members of Congress and he hasn't brought anything home for that. He hasn't even acknowledged global warming. His website doesn't even talk about education or healthcare.
MJ: There are more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district and it seems you will need at least some support from traditionally Republican voters in order to win. How will you get them to vote for you?
JM: It's about a six point registration difference but Republicans are just a disgusted with the situation as anybody. This last Saturday I was precinct walking in Tracy, Richard Pombo's home town, and I went to four Republican households. Two of those said "Enough is enough. Enough of the corruption. Enough with the misleading statements on Iraq." They want a change. One was undecided and one said he was sticking with Pombo. I've talked to Republicans and they're saying, "I want someone different."
MJ: What issues are voters in the 11th district most interested in?
JM: I think Iraq is just something that brought [a lot of issues] up to the surface. The fact that it's clear now we were misled about the war and it's been handled by incompetent leaders at the very top. And that Congress let this happen without any oversight. Corruption is a big issue. The fact that [Pombo] pays his family so much out of campaign funds, his ties to DeLay whose now indicted and Abramoff, and many other things he's been associated with.
MJ: Your campaign website says that your central issue is "clean energy." What ideas do you have for pushing that kind of agenda in congress?
JM: I think we can become a lot more efficient. We have the technology to make our cars get much better gas mileage. We have the technology to expand our use of renewable energy, solar wind energy. And one thing that makes me very excited about the district is that we have agricultural assets. We can create bio diesel and bio ethanol and we have the capability of exporting that so I think it's a terrific opportunity for our district.
MJ: The Cook Report just ranked your race as a "toss up" elevating it from "likely Republican" and even "leaning Republican." Why do you think the race has accelerated so much in the past few weeks? Do you have a sense of why it has gotten so close?
JM: The funny thing is the race was always close and no one ever recognized it. The thing that really sort of tipped it was President Bush coming out to visit Richard Pombo. That showed that Pombo was tied at the hip with failed Bush polices, that Pombo was in trouble and it backed fired on him and it brought a lot of media attention to my race. We also announced a significant fundraising milestone around that time. But the polls have been consistent for the last two months and now all of a sudden all hell's breaking loose. There's a lot of interest in the race. Bill Clinton is coming out tonight and Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are coming Saturday. You can just feel it; there's a lot of excitement. The volunteer meetings we have are just overwhelmed with volunteers.
MJ: The Pombo campaign has claimed that most of your supporters come from outside the district. Any truth to that?
JM: First of all it's a hypocritical thing for him to say because his campaign is run on outside money. Sixty percent of his money comes from outside of the district. But, we had a meeting here the other night in Dublin which would be the one where you'd expect a lot of people from Oakland and Berkeley. There were 80 people here and I think there were less than 5 or 10 people from outside of the district. The Sierra Club and Defenders of the Wildlife have people come on the weekends and those I suspect could be mainly from out of the district. But our campaign is fueled by people in the district. I would say that less than half of our campaign is from outside the district.
MJ: If you do win how do you plan to address the many loyal Pombo conservatives in the district?
JM: For one thing, I definitely want to work with farmers. I want to bring farmers in to the idea of producing energy feed stocks because that will increase their revenue. I've also been talking with them about streamlining government regulations which is an important issue to them. Lastly, the Endangered Species Act. Pombo's been so extreme that he hasn't been able to get anything done on it. I want to protect our species and I think that we can work with landowners and developers and farmers and come to some sort of agreements that will benefit everyone and still preserve our species.
MJ: What do you think will be Pombo's legacy should he lose to you next week (or even if he wins)?
JM: His legacy will be ineffectiveness because he's too extreme.