GOP Incumbent's Ties to Abramoff Stir Debate in California House Race

The Democratic Party's campaign against a "culture of corruption" in the Republican Party has cooled down over the last few months, but the campaign catch-phrase remains alive and well in a handful of districts where incumbents have been tied to the former GOP influence peddler and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

One Republican congressman who remains under fire is Rep. Richard Pombo, who represents the 11th District in California. He is facing a phalanx of opposition in the form of Democrats and special interest groups who say his connection to Abramoff makes him a tainted lawmaker.

"Our opportune moment is here," says Nagaraja Rao, chairman of the Contra Costa County Democratic Central Committee. "The corruption issue is pretty big among voters right now. I think this is the time for Pombo to just move out."

Pombo's opponents say his ties to Abramoff, Indian tribes and big oil money have confused his priorities, and they believe the current mood against incumbents throughout the country puts him within striking distance.

"He hasn't brought a whole lot home," said Jerry McNerney, the Democrat opposing him in the race. "He's fought hard for tribal gaming, big oil subsidies … drilling in Alaska; but he hasn't fought for us."

Though some political analysts are starting to put the 11th District on a growing list of competitive races this fall, others warn that it's still majority Republican and that Pombo is a seven-term incumbent with great name recognition, a chairmanship on the powerful House Resources Committee and $1 million dollars on hand.

Tom Del Beccaro, chairman of the Contra Costa Republican Party, adds the district which is dominated by San Joaquin County in the Central Valley in Northern California, still loves Pombo.

"There is a lot of genuine love for Pombo in this district," said Del Beccaro. "The reason being, he's not your typical politician."

Pombo, 45, easily stood out in past congressional directories because he was the one wearing a cowboy hat.

"What's his bumper sticker say? Rancher Congressman," Del Beccaro said. "He's an everyday person, and many people in this district liked him for that, for not just being a congressman. I don’t think he's vulnerable."

But Pombo is not your average rancher either. He comes from an old, influential family of ranchers and real estate developers in San Joaquin — so big and so successful, streets there are named Pombo.

He has been a tough advocate for private land rights and an even tougher opponent of strict environmental regulations. He became a target of environmental groups after his electon in 1992, when he began a so-far unsuccessful campaign to rewrite the Endangered Species Act to make it friendlier to landowners.

In 2003, Pombo became chairman of the Resources Committee, making him the youngest committee chairman in the House. Supporters say it made this virtually unknown representative an influential player and asset to the district.

"It's our job to go out there and tell the people what the congressman has done," said Pombo campaign manager Carl Fogliani. He points out a number of recent accomplishments, including millions of dollars for local water supply, control and recycling projects — which are a big issue in this district — and nearly $200 million in transportation projects.

"He's done a good job not only for his district and the country, but I also think he is a very passionate and energetic chairman, and I think voters who live in that area will recognize that and return him," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., who has served with Pombo on the Resources Committee.

Scandal took down one California Republican — Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned this year after a conviction for taking $2.4 million in bribes, unrelated to the Abramoff scandal.

Meanwhile, other California representatives including Pombo have been tied to Abramoff, who entered into a federal plea agreement in January admitting to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe members of Congress and their staff.

Abramoff's clients at the center of the controversy were representatives from Indian tribes with gaming and casino interests. He has agreed to help federal investigators in their continued investigation on Capitol Hill.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 2003 Pombo received $40,500 from Abramoff and his client tribes. Pombo is the top House recipient of casino gambling and gaming industry contributions and 11th in Congress for oil and gas industry contributions.

Bob Mulholland, a Democratic political strategist in California, said Pombo and other lawmakers must be worried about where the federal investigation is going. "I doubt Richard Pombo wakes up every day without a lawyer at hand," Mulholland said.

Pombo is also considered a protégé and staunch supporter of scandal-embattled former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who resigned from the House this year.

"Richard Pombo is clearly vulnerable," said Kate Bedingfield, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "He's mired in ethical problems."

In July 2005, Pombo took heat for hosting a fundraiser for his political action committee, Rich PAC, with the same businessmen who were bankrolling an Indian casino that was seeking resolution in a federal land claim dispute from Pombo's committee the same week.

Government watchdogs have also attacked Pombo for allegedly taking his family on vacation at taxpayers' expense, allegedly abusing congressional mailing privileges to boost the administration ahead of the 2004 election, reportedly giving his congressional staff paid leave to work on Republican campaigns and allegedly using his position to help his family's land deals back home.

But Pombo supporters say the Democrats are grasping, as Pombo was never charged with any ethics violations nor is he under any official scrutiny for his dealings with Abramoff.

Fogliani said the congressman has been attacked by "extremists and leftists" like "who don’t have any accountability to the public as to who they're getting their money from." He also said McNerney "can't raise money and has no message … so their solution is to go negative, go dirty."

McNerney said he has a message — get the congressmen corrupted by big special interests out of Washington, and concentrate "on things that are important to people's lives," like fuel and gas prices, healthcare costs and local education. "Everybody is ready for a change," he said.

Not everyone thinks the "culture of corruption" label is going to have much bearing here, though. "When this stuff comes up," said Greg Terzakis, executive director of the San Joaquin County Republican Party, "the electorate just rolls its eyes and says, 'there you go again.' Voters have become inured to it."

As for the criticism of Pombo, he said, "this is politics, the best way for Jerry McNerney to raise money is to make the voters and donors think he has a chance."