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Pete McCloskey rides again

 

In February, a new vendor appeared at the weekly farmers’ market in this southern Bay Area town. Pete McCloskey, a soft-spoken 78-year-old farmer with a thatch of unruly gray hair, stood before a folding table flanked by bags of organic oranges. But McCloskey wasn’t pushing fresh fruit; he was hawking his homegrown politics.

Former Rep. McCloskey, who represented California’s liberal San Francisco Peninsula from 1967 to 1982, has taken on the quixotic task of running in the June Republican primary against Richard Pombo, the well-funded incumbent. Pombo, who has been tied to the Jack Abramoff scandal, is best known for his efforts to change the Endangered Species Act. McCloskey co-authored the act in 1973.

Searching for supporters among the fruit stands of this more liberal end of the sprawling 11th District, McCloskey buttonholed passers-by with a friendly query: "Are you a Republican?" McCloskey often gets the same question himself. Wayne Johnson, Pombo’s campaign advisor, says no: "He has no currency with mainstream Republicans."

McCloskey, a fiscally conservative Republican since 1948, has always been an outspoken maverick when it comes to social policy. He opposed the Vietnam War and was the first Republican House member to call for Richard Nixon’s resignation. In 2004, he backed John Kerry for president. Now, he’s calling for a return to traditional Republican values: "ethics and honesty and fiscal responsibility."

McCloskey, who refuses political action committee funds, has zeroed in on the kind of "K Street" money that Pombo took from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who recently pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe members of Congress. But more than the whiff of corruption prompted McCloskey to move 90 miles south from his Yolo County farm to take up residence in Lodi, the northernmost city in Pombo’s district. "I’m running to protect the remaining public lands from the bulldozers Mr. Pombo would unleash on them," says McCloskey, angry about Pombo’s efforts to alter the Endangered Species Act, sell off public lands and revise the National Environmental Policy Act.

But environmentalism is unlikely to play well in this mostly conservative district, says Republican analyst Allan Hoffenblum, adding that McCloskey has no chance of winning unless Pombo is indicted in the Abramoff investigation. Hoffenblum, in fact, doesn’t think McCloskey really wants to win: "He wouldn’t know what to do with himself," he says. Hoffenblum, like other observers, sees McCloskey as more of an aged stalking horse for the Democrats. "It’s not a vote for Pete, it’s a vote against Pombo."

And Pombo’s supporters are quick to drag a skeleton out of McCloskey’s own closet. In 2000, McCloskey gave a speech to the Institute for Historical Review, which questions the reality of the Holocaust. In response, some have accused him of anti-Semitism.

"I’ll speak to anyone," explains McCloskey. But not everyone is willing to return the favor: Pombo has thus far declined a public debate. "I wouldn’t want to say he’s afraid to debate me, but why won’t he?" says McCloskey.

To acquaint his new district with his brand of Republicanism, McCloskey has outfitted a mobile home — "a big ol’ truthmobile" — to tour the district’s four counties.

After the farmers’ market, McCloskey stopped at a café in a nearby small town, where he gave an informal stump speech to the waitress and to patrons Vern and Barbara Deatherage, who live outside the district, in nearby Modesto.

"Do you really think you’ll be able to defeat him?" asked Barbara Deatherage, no stranger to Pombo’s deeply conservative constituency.

McCloskey’s answer to this oft-asked question was an honest, "Well, I don’t know."

But he thinks it’s worth a try: Pombo’s attack on the environment, McCloskey says, "justifies an old fogey like me coming out of retirement to challenge him."

The author is a former HCN intern about to graduate from the University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.