Welcome to Pombo Country 

Congressman Richard Pombo always sides with property owners. Sometimes that includes his own family.

Page 2 of 7

Earlier this month, Pombo obtained $21.6 million in federal funds to study the projects, neither of which addresses the most pressing transportation issue in the Tracy area. One of the proposed freeways is so seemingly impractical that it has been called "Pombo's Folly" because of the time it would take to drive, the tens of billions of dollars it would cost to build, and the environmental havoc it would wreak.

What's more, a recent review of public records shows that Pombo and his family could profit handsomely from the highway proposals, even if no freeways are ever built. The Pombo clan owns more than 1,500 acres of land near the two new freeways and the value of its property will likely skyrocket because of the congressman's actions -- and may already have.

It neither violates House ethics rules nor breaks the law for a congressman to enrich himself or his family through his official actions -- as long as those actions also benefit a significant number of other people. Clearly, Pombo could argue that two new freeways would benefit East Bay commuters. But as ethics expert Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies put it: "The real question is: 'Should he be doing this?'"


Pombo's misshapen congressional district snakes through four counties and includes communities that have little in common. It runs from Lodi south through a section of Stockton; east to rural Escalon; then back west to Tracy; north to Brentwood and Byron; east to Pleasanton, Dublin, San Ramon and Danville but not Livermore; and then south all the way to Gilroy.

When residents of Pleasanton, Dublin, and the San Ramon Valley learned in 2001 that they had been annexed into Pombo's district, many were dumbfounded. They didn't know who he was, let alone that he was an unflinching member of the radical right. For years they had been represented by Ellen Tauscher, a moderate Democrat whose fiscal conservatism and social liberalism seemed to perfectly match their own.

"The San Ramon Valley is a pretty moderate place," said Kish Rajan, a San Ramon Valley resident who became active in a bipartisan effort to defeat Pombo. "If you're a Democrat, you tend to be moderate, and if you're a Republican, you tend to be moderate. But look at Pombo -- his views tend to be very extreme, right-wing positions."

Tauscher blamed the redistricting on former Democratic state Senator John Burton of San Francisco. Redistricting, including congressional districts, is handled every ten years by the state Legislature, and Tauscher believed Burton, who was president of the Senate in 2001, was punishing her for not supporting his longtime ally, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, in her bid to become House minority leader.

Other political observers believed the redistricting had more to do with embattled Modesto Congressman Gary Condit, who was under intense media scrutiny following the disappearance of his intern Chandra Levy. They believed the Democrats were so worried that Condit's troubles could result in the party losing his 18th Congressional district that they carved out southern Stockton, a Democratic stronghold in Pombo's district, and put it in the 18th. To make up for losing Stockton, Pombo was given parts of Tauscher's district.

The Democrats may have saved Condit's district from going Republican, but they only made Pombo stronger. The loss of thirty thousand Democratic voters in San Joaquin County tilted his district farther to the right. Just before the 2001 changes, Pombo's district was 45.1 percent Democrat and 42.5 percent Republican. But as of February 2005, the most recent data available from the California Secretary of State, it was 37.0 percent Democrat and 44.6 percent Republican.

Pombo is indeed beloved by the far right. The pro-gun Safari Club International takes him on junkets nearly every year, and social conservatives know they can count on him. "He continuously scores 100 percent," said Tom McClusky, director of governmental affairs of the Family Research Council, a leading "family values" lobbying group. "He's one of the most reliable social conservative voters." Pombo routinely earns a perfect or near-perfect score from a range of other right-wing groups, such as the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union. It's no wonder. He wants to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness, outlaw abortion, ban same-sex marriage, and kill the Endangered Species Act.

In the 2002 election, stunned East Bay residents attempted to rally behind Elaine Shaw, a Democratic attorney from Danville. But Pombo outspent her by a two-to-one margin and trounced her by twenty percentage points. In 2004, Pombo appeared so unbeatable that few Democrats dared face him. In the end, Jerry McNerney, a Democratic write-in with zero political experience, took up the mantle against Pombo and lost 61 percent to 39 percent. Pombo outspent him by nearly seven to one.

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