Monday, October 23, 2006

Richard Pombo: Politically Endangered

USA Today reports on Richard Pombo today:

Two lawmakers with Abramoff ties in tight races
Updated 10/23/2006 7:50 AM ET
By Martin Kasindorf, USA TODAY
TRACY, Calif. — Rep. Richard Pombo's record as chairman of the House Resources Committee has environmental groups so riled that they're spending more than $1 million to beat the seven-term Republican on Nov. 7.

In a normally ironclad GOP district that Pombo won with a 61% majority two years ago, polls show that the environmentalists' TV spots and doorbell-ringing are helping to make him a candidate for the politically endangered list.

The Sierra Club calls Pombo, a Stetson-wearing cattle rancher, an "eco-thug." The League of Conservation Voters says he advances a "radical, anti-conservation agenda." The Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund voted him "wildlife villain of the year." Rolling Stone magazine dubs him "enemy of the earth."

Pombo, 45, entered politics to stop a nature trail from running through his 500-acre spread in Tracy, a San Joaquin Valley agricultural town that's turning into an affordable bedroom community for San Francisco Bay Area commuters. In Congress, Pombo has tried repeatedly to rewrite the Endangered Species Act to make it friendlier to landowners. He has proposed selling 15 national parks.

Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Pombo, says the environmental groups "need a boogeyman to sell their message and raise money," and that Pombo disagrees with "the very left-leaning ... organizations on the best approaches to protecting our environment."

Polls show races tightening for Pombo and Republican Rep. John Doolittle, worrying GOP leaders enough that President Bush flew out this month to raise $400,000 for Pombo and $600,000 for Doolittle in their districts.

As secretary of the House Republican Conference, Doolittle, 55, is the sixth-ranking House GOP leader. He and Pombo were protégés of Tom DeLay of Texas, the former House majority leader who was indicted last year on charges of violating state campaign-finance laws.

Two Democrat-commissioned polls show Pombo in a dead heat with Democrat Jerry McNerney, 55, a wind turbine engineer. An independent poll published Oct. 12 by Seattle-based Constituent Dynamics, a non-partisan group, shows Doolittle leading Democrat Charlie Brown 52%-44%. The poll of 1,000 likely voters has a margin of error of +/—3 percentage points. Brown, 57, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

After commissioning three private polls it won't release, the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent $625,000 on Pombo. "When a cadre of radical environmental groups is spending millions of dollars on vicious, negative advertising, the Republican Party had to level the playing field," says Jonathan Collegio, NRCC spokesman.

The group also spent $114,000 on Doolittle. "The national atmosphere for Republicans is not as good as it was two years ago," says Richard Robinson, Doolittle's campaign manager.

Pombo's district includes the upscale San Ramon Valley suburbs of San Francisco, including Dublin and Danville. There, "culturally moderate, suburban GOP women don't identify with ranchers as much as in the San Joaquin Valley," says Allen Hoffenblum, publisher of the California Target Book guide to congressional and Legislature races.

Both Republicans are under attack for links to GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who has been convicted of conspiracy and fraud. Though national environmental organizations are angry at Pombo over his stands on conservation, they're zeroing in on Pombo's ties to Abramoff and on the campaign contributions to Pombo from oil and mining companies. "Our polls found his constituents of all parties thought he was way too close to the special interests," says Roger Schlickeisen, president of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.

In Doolittle's race for a ninth term — his district stretches from Sacramento's northeastern suburbs to the Nevada and Oregon borders — Abramoff and an alleged "Republican culture of corruption" have become key lines of attack by Brown. Doolittle is hitting back with ads stressing the Democrat's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union and alleging softness on illegal immigration.

Pombo's campaign committees received $54,500 from Abramoff, his associates and his Indian tribal clients from 1999-2005, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group. Abramoff's billing records, released by Senate Democratic staffers, show he billed the Northern Marianas Islands government for lobbying Pombo.

Doolittle, over five years, has accepted $140,000 from Abramoff, associates and clients, according to Federal Election Commission records. Grand-jury-subpoenaed records show that Abramoff's law firm paid Doolittle's wife, Julie, $66,700 for working for a personal charity of Abramoff's. A Senate committee concluded she was blameless in any bribery scheme because she didn't know the money came from a California Indian tribe.

Pombo has given Abramoff's personal $7,500 campaign contributions to charity. Doolittle has kept Abramoff's $14,000 in personal checks, along with $118,000 he received from California defense contractor Brent Wilkes and associates. Wilkes is under investigation in the bribery case of Rep. Randy (Duke) Cunningham, who pleaded guilty in November.

Interviews with voters show most intend to follow party lines, and that Republicans are reluctant to jettison the longtime incumbents because of Abramoff.

"I don't like what I hear (Doolittle) saying," says Steve Abeln, 42, a security-business owner in Rocklin, and a Republican. "But the fact is he's a Republican. I want to keep a majority in Congress."

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