Tracy was just a cow town when Richard William Pombo was born in 1961. But it was destined to be a boomtown, because of its location at the foot of the only good road across the mountains between the East Bay and the Central Valley. As families crossed the Altamont Pass in search of affordable housing, Pombo's family stoked the town's growth -- and profited mightily from it.
Pombo's father and uncles grossed tens of millions of dollars selling farm and ranch land that developers turned into suburban homes and strip malls. His late uncle Ernest, a real-estate investor, broker, and rancher, was personally involved in so many land deals that the computer in the San Joaquin County Recorder's Office crashes when you type in his name and press "Enter." Even today, red and white Pombo Real Estate signs dot the landscape of Tracy and the neighboring countryside.
The tight-knit Pombo family plays a multifaceted role in the life of this fourth-generation Portuguese cattle rancher, born the second of five brothers. Pombo and his wife and children share a ranch with his parents and three of his brothers and their families. He also owns two lucrative businesses with his parents and brothers. He and his brothers -- Ralph Jr., Rodger, Raymond, and Randall -- even share a family tradition in names, after their father, Ralph. Pombo and his wife, Annette, continued the trend, naming their own children Richard Jr., Rená, and Rachel.
The Pombo name came in handy when Richard entered politics. Although his family was not particularly political while he was growing up, at the age of 29 Richard took a shot at public office, winning a seat on the Tracy City Council with a pro-growth property rights platform. The city was in the process of planning its future development, and Pombo made sure that Tracy's unbridled growth continued. Within two years, he had set his sights even higher: Congress.
"The night Richard told me he was thinking about running, I told him he was crazy," said Tracy Mayor Dan Bilbrey, a friend since both were elected to the council in 1990. "But he soon put that to rest."
Pombo ran a tightly focused and passionate campaign, in spite of his relative political inexperience. He railed against big government and environmentalists, whom he decried for using the Endangered Species Act to block property owners from developing their land. In a tough and particularly nasty election, he squared off against Democrat Patti Garamendi, wife of John Garamendi, California's insurance commissioner then and now. Patti Garamendi compared Pombo to Klansman David Duke, but he squeaked by her with a 48 to 46 percent victory.
Taking office in 1993, at the beginning of the angry-white-man revolution in Republican politics, Pombo was viewed by Bay Area Democrats as just another conservative from the western Central Valley. But interest heightened in 2001 when a dramatic redrawing of congressional boundaries added parts of Alameda and Contra Costa counties to Pombo's Central Valley district. Suddenly the liberal East Bay was home to an archconservative congressman whom President George W. Bush affectionately calls "The Marlboro Man" because he often sports a cowboy hat and ostrich-skin boots.
Despite the scorn heaped upon him as the only Bay Area Republican in Congress, he remains wildly popular in Pombo Country, a nickname apparently bestowed upon his town by Daniel Borenstein of the Contra Costa Times. Strong support from voters in the western Central Valley helps Pombo consistently garner at least 60 percent of the vote on Election Day, and his constituents outside the East Bay view him as a tough-talking Western "straight-shooter" determined to battle special interests -- especially the environmental lobby.
Ironically, Pombo and his family can thank East Bay environmentalists for Tracy's eye-popping expansion and their good fortune. Slow-growth and no-growth initiatives in Alameda and Contra Costa counties spurred the housing boom in Tracy and Central Valley cities such as Lathrop, Manteca, and Patterson. Nonetheless, Pombo's primary legislative goal has long been to kill the Endangered Species Act and eliminate barriers to the use of private property. He even has likened the government's use of the species act across the western United States to protecting cockroaches in Manhattan apartment buildings. That's just one example of the over-the-top rhetoric that once prompted the Sierra Club to proclaim Pombo an "eco-thug."
Throughout the 1990s, Pombo ensconced himself in the far right-wing of the GOP, making friends and political allies, but having little legislative success. But more recently, his close relationship with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has helped him gain considerable power and influence. In early 2003, he leaped over more senior and moderate Republicans to become chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Native American casino gambling and the Endangered Species Act. At 42, he became the youngest committee chairman in Congress.
But Pombo's high-visibility chairmanship also helped call attention to a series of ethical woes reminiscent of those that bedevil his embattled congressional benefactor. He has been linked to a longtime DeLay confidante who was indicted two weeks ago on fraud charges. Last year, Pombo came under fire for using taxpayer dollars in apparent support of Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. Most significantly, an article in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year revealed that Pombo's parents stood to gain financially from their son's behind-the-scenes lobbying in Washington.
But the charges in the Times article are not an isolated incident. A closer look at Pombo's career reveals a long-standing pattern of using the power of government in ways that would directly or indirectly benefit his family. The latest case involves the congressman's unwavering support for two new freeways that would link the Central Valley and East Bay in new locations.
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