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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: Central Valley | Government & Elections
The Rise and Possible Fall of Richard Pombo
The banner stretched across the entrance to the Crobar a trendy New York nightclub read, "Welcome to the Pombo-Palooza". At the door, members of the Rockettes handed out cowboy hats to the A-list invited guests. Inside, a model clad in rhinestone hot pants and a cleavage-enhancing top that might have chastened a Hooters waitress rode a mechanical bull. On the stage, the Charlie Daniels Band cut loose with fiddle-driven Southern funk as lobbyists and lawyers, politicians and tycoons danced the two-step and drank iridescent blue martinis.
Such was the scene in 2003 at Congressman Rick Pombo's coming out party. The young legislator from Tracy, California had just been appointed the new chairman of the House Resources Committee. At 42, he was the youngest chairman on Capital Hill. Bush couldn't attend the hoedown but he sent a herogram congratulating the congressman he calls "Marlboro Man".
In 1992 Pombo won his seat in Congress after narrowly defeating Democrat Patty Garamendi, daughter of the hugely unpopular state insurance commissioner John Garamendi.
In 1996, Pombo published a book-length screed against the Endangered Species Act and environmentalists. Titled This Land is Your Land, the book was ghost written by rightwing columnist Joseph Farrah. Woody Guthrie wouldn't recognize many of the sentiments set forth in the Pombo-Farrah tract, which called for the dismantling of the Endangered Species Act and disposal of public lands to private interests. Though not a bestseller, the book acquired the allure of a Gnostic gospel among the "Wise Use" crowd, whose concept of wise use derives from God's commandment to Adam in the book of Genesis to pillage the earth's natural resources as he thinks fit. The book put Pombo on the ledger as an apex berserker in what Ron Arnold, the P.T. Barnum of the Wise Users, has billed as the War Against the Greens.
But the Wise Use Movement's backing of Pombo certainly doesn't explain his rise to power. The Wise Users have had their congressional champions in the past, notably Helen Chenoweth, of Idaho. But they've tended to labor in obscurity, deemed as coarse Visigoths even in their own party. For his first few years, Pombo toiled in a similar kind of isolation. His speeches at property rights confabs denouncing Bruce Babbitt as an agent of the United Nations and the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone as an example of "political paganism" garnered only the occasional comical notice in the gossip pages of the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. His bills to dismantle the Endangered Species Act rarely attracted more than a few dozen co-sponsors and usually went extinct without a hearing.
Lately, though, Pombo has been on a roll. His McCarthyesque hearings on the dangers of "eco-terrorism", where environmentalists were hauled up before the House Resources Committee and forced to endure harangues from both Democrats and Republicans, have now culminated in a series of arrests by the FBI of nearly a dozen environmental activists on charges of sabotage, conspiracy and arson. Rod Coronado, an editor of the Earth First! Journal and probably the most famous animal rights activist in North America, was also arrested for giving a speech in 2003 at UC San Diego where he demonstrated how to make and use a Molotov cocktail.
Pombo's scheme to sell off millions of acres of federal forest and range lands, once considered political poison, was adopted by the Bush administration this fall, with a proposal to dispose of 200,000 acres of public land to mining and timber companies and real estate speculators, all in the name of funding rural schools.
This fall Pombo came close to realizing his wildest dream when the House of Representatives passed his bill to annihilate the Endangered Species Act by a hefty margin of 229 to 193. Soon after this mighty triumph, the Washington Times announced the onset of "Pombomania" among young Republican ultras.
Ironically, Pombomania may owe more to his enemies than to the shock troops of the property rights movement. Plucking bellicose quotes from his book and his stump speeches, the Sierra Club turned Pombo into the personification of environmental villainy. In dozens of mass fundraising appeals, Pombo was presented as the new James Watt, the dark agent of the looting of the public estate. Pombo glories in his role. "I'm their bogeyman", Pombo gloats. "They need me to raise money."
The Sierra Club's threat inflation of Pombo almost certainly factored into Tom DeLay's decision to catapult the congressman over the heads of more senior members to the chair of the Resources Committee, one of the most prized seats in Congress.
Pombo also got help from the Democrats. His rewrite of the Endangered Species Act, which eliminates the designation of "critical habitat" for listed species, sets in legal stone many of the practices implemented administratively by his former nemesis Bruce Babbitt when he served as Clinton's Interior Secretary.