Political tea-leaf readers focused so much attention on one “bellwether” race earlier this month — the contest to see whether Republicans could hold a seat left vacant when Randy “Duke” Cunningham was shipped off to the hoosegow on corruption charges — that an arguably even more important outcome was overlooked. Rep. Richard Pombo, a marked man in American politics, coasted to a primary victory in his northern California district.
If the southern California match-up between Brian Bilbray and Francine Busby had national implications in terms of immigration policy, and whether ethics issues would cost the GOP seats, the northern California Republican primary, between Pombo and former Rep. Pete McCloskey, had equal significance in terms of environmental policy.
Pombo, who chairs the House Resources Committee, has led the most aggressive effort ever to overhaul the holy grail of environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act. He’s been a strong defender of private property rights and an advocate for opening more domestic oil and gas fields to drilling. For daring to go where more weak-kneed politicians fear to tread, Pombo has become a target of the environmental lobby, the New York Times editorial page, and colleagues who lack his stomach for taking on tough fights.
These groups have been pulling out all the stops in an effort to defeat Pombo, knowing that without his leadership the push to reform ESA will founder. “Environmental groups, angered by the House Resources Committee chairman’s desire to weaken the federal Endangered Species Act, spent more than $1 million to defeat him,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “They, and national Democrats, see Pombo as vulnerable, particularly if voters carry through in November on an anti-incumbent mood showing up in public opinion polls.”
But Pombo isn’t as vulnerable as some hoped, judging from his 2-to-1 margin of victory over McCloskey (who co-authored the ESA in 1973). This greatly increases the chances he will survive the onslaught from outside his district and live to fight another day, since his general election opponent isn’t very strong.
Greenwire, a must-read website for environmental news junkies, last fall declared Pombo “target number one for enviros” in 2006. “A slew of organizations, including Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club, have joined Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund in attacking Pombo’s record on endangered species, timber logging and stewardship of national parks,” reported the Washington Post. “They have knocked on thousands of doors, sponsored radio ads and called voters in Pombo’s district in an effort to torpedo his political career.”
The opening salvo in the “get Pombo” campaign was launched, not surprisingly, from the east coast, with a broadside by the New York Times editorial page that might have been penned by Howard Dean. The gray lady (or is it the green lady?) spent 700 words slamming Pombo’s “radical turn of mind” and openly cheerleading for someone to knock him off. “Mr. Pombo’s only idea, and it is a terrible one, is to treat this nation the way he treats his congressional district, as if it were ripe for exploitation,” the editorial said.
A Pombo bill that would have opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling was “a sleazy piece of work,” said the Times. The paper called Pombo’s ESA reform bill, which included provisions to compensate landowners when species protections devalue their property, a “dreadfully one-sided bill, cynical and fiscally irresponsible in the bargain.” It was the first time I can recall the Times fretting over the fiscal impacts of an environmental measure.
Pombo has also had to endure some sniping from colleagues, who don’t have either the inclination or the courage to take on the ESA. Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who is a primary reason the effort to reform the law has stalled in the Senate, has been quoted as saying that a “Pombo-ized” bill was impossible to pass.
When attacks on his environmental record didn’t work, Pombo was accused of ethical lapses, as his enemies attempted to smear him as another corrupt Republican. The allegations were nitpicking and never stuck. And when Pombo, a feisty rancher who doesn’t pull his punches, takes on his critics, he’s accused of misusing his office and committee to an unfair advantage. “Pombo is using the resources of the American people to attack environmentalists,” sniffed Center for Biological Diversity policy director Kieran Suckling. “That’s just wrong.”
Thankfully, the New York Times editorial page doesn’t have a vote in California’s 11th District — or even much pull, apparently. And the more than $1 million that Environmental Anxiety, Inc. poured into the district, though it may have had some impact, didn’t do the job.
That’s encouraging news for those who believe the 33-year-old ESA desperately needs an overhaul, and for those who believe that opening up new areas to responsible oil and gas drilling makes sense. But even more importantly, Pombo’s survival shows that the environmental lobby and New York Times editorial page, though they may make waves inside the Washington beltway, generate nary a ripple in the American hinterland.
Coming in the wake of a 2004 election season in which environmental issues, though touted as being decisive, weren’t even a factor, this perhaps suggests that average Americans are tuning out, and are turned off by, the relentlessly alarmist rhetoric of Gang Green. This evident loss of political clout could embolden other members of Congress to show some Pombo-like leadership on ESA reform or other contentious issues.
That would make this not only a bellwether race, but a breakthrough moment in American politics.
–Sean Paige is the editorial page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette.