Will the real Mr. Pombo please stand up?

Rep. Richard Pombo, known as the Jerry Falwell of the property-rights movement, has threatened to dynamite the nation’s bedrock environmental laws. Now, he says, he’s learning to compromise.

  • The many faces of Richard Pombo

    Chad Crowe
  • Richard Pombo with the white hat he wore to congress in 1992.

  • California Rep. Richard Pombo, R, has toned down both his look and his rhetoric. He's given up his white cowboy hat and says he's willing to work with his longtime opponents

    San Francisco Chronicle
  • This Land is Our Land

  • From the Tracy High School yearbook, Richard Pombo, center, as a sophomore in the auto shop club

  • Pombo's senior portrait from the 1979 yearbooki

  • Richard Pombo on his family's ranch in Tracy, California

    Tribune Media Services
 

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The "quiet one"

Just as Richard Pombo has reached a position of tremendous power in Washington, however, two factors have begun to erode his traditional base of support back home. First, Tracy and San Joaquin County are changing as extreme housing prices in the Bay Area drive moderate voters into the more affordable San Joaquin Valley. Second, the 2000 Census radically altered Pombo’s district: It now includes sections of Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties, where voters tend to be more moderate.

Pombo’s challenger in 2004, Democrat Jerry McNerney, a wind-energy consultant with a doctorate in mathematics, won 39 percent of the vote, despite the fact that Pombo outspent him by 7-to-1. McNerney had virtually no support from the national Democratic Party, but that is sure to change in 2006. The Democrats have already begun advertising against Pombo, and at least three local citizens’ groups are agitating for his ouster.

Perhaps in response to all this, Pombo has toned down his rhetoric. It’s harder to find him in the spotlight raging against environmentalists. He says he’s willing to compromise if it will bring about change, and that he is more apt to hear out the other side — even solicit their views. Pombo, in short, has again become "the quiet one" who blended into those yearbook photos.

"When I first got here, I thought you could just do everything all at once and get it over with," he told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "Over 12 years, I’ve figured out you can’t do that. It takes incremental change."

Pombo has even changed his look. He has lost the white cowboy hat. The dry-look hair of the outdoorsman has become spiky with mousse. A goatee has joined the mustache to give him a more urbane visage.

He has soothed his Republican elders on the committee by showing them deference. He has even won praise from Democrats for being fair-minded. At a May 25 Resources Committee hearing on reparations for the Marshall Islands, where American nuclear bomb testing in the 1950s left a legacy of illness and environmental degradation, Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, told the island delegation, "Believe me, you are in good hands with Chairman Pombo. There is not a more fair person in the U.S. Congress."

In 2003, Pombo partnered with Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Dianne Feinstein of California, to craft the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. Signed by President Bush in 2003, it expedites environmental review of logging projects to reduce fire danger (HCN, 12/8/03: Forest protection on the honor system). Pombo teamed with Feinstein again in 2004 to pass the Tribal Forest Protection Act, which allows Indian tribes to log federal land adjacent to their reservations and requires federal agencies to accelerate environmental reviews of these projects. It is the only environment-related bill Pombo has ever written that became law.

Despite the makeover and the recent cross-the-aisle cooperation, however, there is no indication that Pombo has changed his views. He is simply moving his agenda in new ways.

In April, Pombo secretly wrote an amendment to the House energy bill, exempting many energy projects from the National Environmental Policy Act, which, after the Endangered Species Act, is perhaps his favorite whipping boy. NEPA requires an environmental impact review for major projects on federal land, and if Pombo’s amendment survives to see the president’s signature, it will be a godsend for oil and gas companies. Though Pombo wrote the amendment, his name did not appear on it; it was sponsored by Rep. John Peterson, R-Penn.

Pombo has also been working behind the scenes to funnel industry money to his allies in Congress. Shortly after becoming chairman, he created a political action committee, a tool that gives politicians access to more industry donations than many congressional committees allow. Pombo’s action committee, called "Rich PAC," has hauled in piles of tribal money, thanks to his support for Indian casinos. And his desire to sell off thousands of acres of wilderness-quality public land in Nevada has brought piles of cash from Las Vegas developers.

Pombo also runs his own "environmental" group, called the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources. The group, funded by large corporations, challenges mainstream environmental groups and crusades for more lenient environmental laws worldwide. Between 2001 and 2003 the foundation collected donations totaling $130,000 from food giants Sysco Corp., Monsanto and General Mills. It then put out a series of "studies" and position papers on the importance of bioengineered food. During the same period, it collected almost $430,000 from restaurant chains, corporate fishing concerns, whaling organizations and fur-trapping associations. The foundation then launched a barrage of counterattacks against animal-rights groups that had organized boycotts of those industries.

Pombo’s industry friends have been generous supporters of his campaigns, too. In the campaign cycle that ended in 2004, nearly two-thirds of his $1.1 million in gifts came from energy, agribusiness and developers.

During the Republican National Convention last year, his backers threw a $250,000 party in his honor at a New York City nightclub. Dubbed "Pombo-Palooza," it was organized by the American Gas Association and paid for by more than 40 special-interest groups, including the American Forest and Paper Association, Chevron Texaco, National Association of Home Builders and National Mining Association. It featured dance-hall girls passing out cowboy hats, a mechanical bull, music by the Charlie Daniels Band, and a curtained VIP area where Resources Committee members could meet privately with industry bosses.

"More people should be concerned," says Mike Casey, with the Environmental Working Group. "He’s one of the loyal foot soldiers in the takeover of government by influence-peddling industry."

Others say Pombo’s opponents portray him as a radical because it suits their own interests.

"I know how much he infuriates some of the environmental groups," says Andal, Pombo’s longtime friend. "A lot of that’s just rhetoric. But from where I sit, there’s a lot of extremism to go around on both sides."