Once an Underdog, Suddenly a Contender 

Jerry McWho? Jerry McGuy who might just defeat GOP Congressman Dick Pombo, that's who.

Ladies and gentlemen, Jerry McDonkey." That's how former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown introduced the guest of honor at a political event last month at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater. Then, when Brown handed over the mic, he mumbled "McNursery."

The guest speaker's real name was — and is — Jerry McNerney. He's the Democratic nominee in the sprawling Eleventh Congressional district, which spans from the Central Valley into suburban East Bay cities including Danville and Pleasanton.

McNerney says Brown was just clowning around, having some fun with his name. Brown had to know his name, right? He'd been on Willie's old radio show on the Quake — twice. Maybe it didn't matter. After all, everyone in the partisan crowd knew who he was: The guy running against that cowboy-hat-wearing jerk Richard Pombo, the Republican congressman who wants to gut the Endangered Species Act, open up the coasts to offshore oil drilling, and who has ties to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Meet the Rodney Dangerfield of Bay Area Democratic politics, who has struggled to get a little respect even from leaders of his own party. McNerney is a congenial wind-energy consultant from Pleasanton who until recently never got involved in politics apart from polite dinner-table discussions. He's what your grandmother would describe as a "nice man," but not an inspirational one. Barack Obama he ain't. What McNerney is, however, is the Democratic Party's best hope in a dozen years to knock off a fourteen-year congressman once considered unbeatable.

It's almost accidental that McNerney has gotten this far in the first place. Two years ago, no mainstream Democrat even bothered to challenge Pombo, who was perceived as untouchable in a district that leaned Republican by a margin of 45.6 percent to 37 percent back then (the gap has since narrowed to less than six points). Then a wind-power guy no one had ever heard of stepped up to run in the 2004 primary.

McNerney didn't spring from the usual congressional breeding grounds — he'd never been a county supervisor, city councilman, or a planning commissioner. He wasn't even a party activist. The candidate says he was inspired to run by his son, Michael, who joined the Air Force after 9/11. According to McNerney, his son told him he should do something to serve his country. Run for Congress, say. "There was no one running for Pombo's seat, so if no one else was gonna do it, I was gonna do it," McNerney says.

By the time McNerney made his decision, it was too late to get his name on the June 2004 primary ballot, so he launched a write-in campaign. To make the November ballot as the Democratic nominee, he needed 1,740 write-in votes in the primary. He fell 73 short.

McNerney stubbornly refused to believe he'd failed, and paid for a recount, which uncovered 75 additional votes. So he was in, and although Pombo whipped him handily that November, the underdog landed more than 100,000 votes and established important connections with labor and other grassroots groups that he never would have made had he not insisted on that recount. "Maybe it's a twist of fate," McNerney muses, "but I certainly find myself in a position now that I wouldn't have dreamed of two years ago."

The Democratic machine didn't quite know what to do with McNerney. Party leaders had so little confidence in him that they tried to persuade him not to run again this time around. The national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Walnut Creek Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher recruited a more moderate candidate, Steve Filson, who they thought would be stronger against Pombo.

They worried that McNerney was too liberal for the district, despite his measured positions: On health care, for instance, he says the system needs fixing, but he's been fuzzy on the details, and stops short of calling for nationalized health care. McNerney walloped the party-groomed candidate in last June's primary, winning twice as many votes as his rival.

Despite this victory, party leaders resisted putting McNerney on their "red-to-blue" list of races they would target to take back control of the House of Representatives. Finally last week, with internal polling showing McNerney neck-and-neck with Pombo, the DCCC finally dumped $400,000 into the race to air TV ads in the Central Valley portions of the district and added McNerney to its list. The GOP, meanwhile, already had spent $650,000 attacking the challenger, and doubled its media buy the day after the DCCC got involved.

The 55-year-old candidate insists he isn't sore about being snubbed by the party for so long. He understands that officials have only so much money to spend in their national effort to regain the House. "In a lot of ways it's good, because I feel that I've proven myself," he says. "I feel like I don't really owe that much. I can be my own man in Congress. It's sort of a point of pride."

Indeed, that McNerney is just a regular guy without the party pedigree has helped him curry favor among grassroots activists. Unlike most pols, he will hang out and talk to precinct canvassers, and not merely give a speech and then leave, says Leah Scheib, the head of Project Blue Bridge, an East Bay-based political organization that supplies Democratic volunteers to competitive congressional races such as McNerney's. "His lack of political polish is appealing to us," she says. "We're tired of the slick politicians."

McNerney says more people are getting excited about his candidacy, but he concedes that for most of the race, people have been more likely to express disdain for Pombo than praise for him. "Anybody but Pombo" was something McNerney says he heard a lot on the campaign trail.

"There's no question about it: This election is a referendum on Pombo," says Eric Antebi, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, one of a handful of environmental organizations campaigning actively to defeat the incumbent. Antebi estimates that the nonprofit's political arm will spend $250,000 in the race by Election Day. Meanwhile, the political committee associated with Defenders of Wildlife recently bought $500,000 of TV time to run attack ads against Pombo, whose campaign did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.

As chairman of the House Resources Committee, Pombo has made bitter enemies in the environmentalist movement by sponsoring or supporting a host of anticonservation legislation, including efforts to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. "Having him there in that position is no different than having an oil lobbyist there," Antebi says.

But the attacks by Defenders of Wildlife haven't focused on Pombo's environmental record. The group's ads and mailers have consistently painted him as a part of Washington's corrupt culture. A recent hit piece from the group features the congressman's ties to Abramoff, the lobbyist at the center of a federal corruption investigation. It alleges that Pombo refused to investigate human-rights abuses on the Northern Mariana Islands after Abramoff lobbied him in 1996.

The ties between the men are murky. Abramoff personally donated $7,500 to Pombo through the years, which the congressman donated to charity after it became controversial. At the one and only debate between McNerney and Pombo on October 5, the incumbent told the crowd, "I met the guy two or three times in my whole life. He never once lobbied me on anything."

Shortly after the debate, the Associated Press reported that billing records showed that Abramoff had indeed lobbied Pombo at least twice in 1996 on behalf of the Mariana Islands government. Pombo has stuck to his story, insisting that the billing records must have been falsified.

Whatever the case, the latest Abramoff story is the sort of thing that is making Pombo vulnerable, says Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State University. Gerston believes McNerney has a solid chance to become the Eleventh District's congressman. "It isn't so much that he has the capability of winning," he says, "as Pombo has the capability of losing."

There it is again. No respect.


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