Pombo Won’t Make Political Comeback

Posted May 9, 2007 at 6:37pm

Former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) on Wednesday ended speculation about his political future, saying in an interview that he will not be a candidate next year for the 11th district seat he lost in November to now-Rep. Jerry McNerney (D).

Just before announcing at an event in Washington, D.C., that he had accepted the position of national spokesman and honorary chairman of the conservative group Partnership for America, Pombo ruled out making a political comeback in 2008, indicating his career as an elected politician was probably over for good.

“I will not be a candidate in 2008,” Pombo said. “I spent 14 years as a Representative from California. I worked on a lot of different things and was happy with the things I was able to do. It was a lot of fun doing it, and quite an education being a Member of Congress. But at this point in my life I’m moving on.”

McNerney, a liberal Democrat who upended Pombo in a fairly Republican district, was aided in that effort by a collection of environmental advocacy groups that spent millions of dollars on independent expenditure campaigns targeting Pombo. Although President Bush won the Central Valley district in 2004 with 54 percent of the vote, McNerney beat Pombo 53 percent to 47 percent in 2006 after losing badly to him two years earlier.

Pombo, discussing his thoughts on the race publicly for the first time, credited the independent expenditure campaigns waged by the environmental advocacy groups — not McNerney — for his ouster.

Contrary to claims by those organizations that they succeeded in sullying Pombo’s reputation by educating 11th district voters about his environmental record, Pombo said their campaign worked because they drove up his personal negatives and discouraged voter turnout. Pombo also blamed GOP voters’ disgust with Republican leadership of Congress for his defeat.

“What really happened in the race is that [environmental advocacy groups] spent almost two years camped out in my district, and they did drive up my negatives,” Pombo said. “The enviros like to say that they talked about my environmental record. The truth of the matter is, the environment was almost a non-issue in the campaign.

“This guy who ended up winning, nobody knows anything about him. They didn’t then and they still don’t,” Pombo continued. “He’s a very liberal Democrat who doesn’t fit the district, but nobody even knows that yet.”

Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic consultant who in the previous cycle worked for Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund — one of the organizations that targeted Pombo — acknowledged ethics played a role in the campaign waged by the various environmental groups.

But exposing Pombo’s environmental record played just as prominent a role in voters’ abandoning him, if not more so, Longabaugh said, adding that while McNerney began the race as an unknown, he certainly didn’t finish it that way.

“Pombo may want to do some revisionist history on his tenure in Congress and on the campaign. But I would argue strenuously that the environment played a role” in his defeat, said Longabaugh, who recently launched his own Washington, D.C., firm, Wild Bunch Consulting.

Sources say Pombo still was considering running for Congress in 2008 as recently as a few weeks ago.

Pombo’s decision could cause several Republicans who have been mulling a challenge to McNerney to declare their candidacies. Thus far, former state Assemblyman Dean Andal (R) and current state Assemblyman Guy Houston (R) have shown the most public interest.

Some Republicans have suggested that Pombo’s decision to stay out of the race could make it easier for the GOP to oust McNerney. Without Pombo as an opponent, they say, McNerney will be forced to run more directly on his record because the same environmental groups that targeted Pombo in the previous year will be less inclined to repeat their effort in 2008.

“For these groups, it was as much personal as it was political,” said one Republican strategist who followed last year’s 11th district race.

In addition to his work with Partnership for America, Pombo is continuing as a senior partner with PACWest, a public affairs consulting firm.

With offices in Golden, Colo., and D.C., Partnership for America is a grass-roots lobbying organization advocating a politically conservative approach to energy, environmental and natural resource issues, often functioning as a counterpoint to groups such as the Sierra Club.

Pombo called the 501(c)(4) nonprofit PFA a good fit and said it will allow him to continue fighting for the policies he pushed for as Resources Chairman. The former Congressman was flanked by Reps. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) at the event announcing his association with the group.

“I wish he was still in the Congress with me,” said Melancon, who served on Resources with Pombo. “You knew what he stood for. He didn’t mince words.”