California Quixote

Can a politically clumsy windmill engineer who wants the U.S. out of Iraq succeed in his quest to unseat Abramoff ally and eco-villain Richard Pombo?

Published August 29, 2006 12:45PM (EDT)

It's a safe bet that most West Point dropouts who decide to study math and design windmills never find themselves in a roomful of people chanting their names. But then, there are probably not many mathematics Ph.D.s who have borrowed against their mortgages to run for Congress. And there is only one windmill designer who has decided to run -- not once, but twice -- against a powerful Republican committee chairman, Rep. Richard Pombo, the environmental community's Public Enemy No. 1, who has been dogged in recent months by his ties to the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

So maybe it is Jerry McNerney's due that he stand in a nondescript office park in California's Central Valley on the first Saturday in August surrounded by about 50 fully grown men and women clapping their hands and shouting, "Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry," as if an episode of "The Jerry Springer Show" is about to begin. In the room next door, there is a spread of iced tea and lemonade, and campaign aides have been passing out ice-cream bars and brochures that show McNerney's open face, his high forehead, faint eyebrows and sincere smile, with a double-entendre slogan, "New Energy for Congress." For the moment, the candidate is surrounded by his true believers, the Pombo haters, the grass-roots organizers, the die-hard Democratic volunteers from the labor and Latino communities who he hopes will take him to Washington. On the occasion of the grand opening for McNerney's new Stockton field office, they chant and clap like it's a revival. "He talks to folks," says one of his supporters, Velma Hampson, explaining the McNerney charm and political history. "It impressed the dickens out of me."

But the mood is not as upbeat as it could be for a liberal candidate in this moderate district of fruit farms and commuter homes 30 miles east of San Francisco. Just before the chanting begins, Tor Michaels, McNerney's spokesman, gives an introduction that recalls a storefront preacher anticipating Armageddon. "We want you all to keep the faith," shouts Michaels, who is on leave from his job as a talk-radio host in Pennsylvania. "Because as the train goes down the track there are going to be a lot of hills and valleys." With a slot just before Rush Limbaugh on WBLF AM 970, Michaels has developed a voice with all the passionate inflection and cadence of a radio professional. But right now he is not radiating confidence as much as trying to lift everyone's spirits. "Stick with us," he implores. "Stick with this guy, Jerry McNerney."

Then McNerney takes the floor to applause. But within minutes he is already veering off his script. He gives short shrift to global warming, oil prices, the Iraq war and GOP corruption and turns his comments to the issue on everyone's mind. "Let me say a few words about the questionnaire," he says, his voice suddenly becoming reserved. "Basically I am just an ordinary guy who is trying to make a difference."

The questionnaire he is talking about comes from Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit nonpartisan group that tries to get candidates on the record about their positions. Veteran politicians, like Pombo, see such requests as booby traps. But last winter, McNerney filled out the questionnaire, naively listing his desire to "slightly" raise gas, alcohol and cigarette taxes, while "greatly" increasing corporate, capital gains and inheritance taxes. Pombo's political consultant, Wayne Johnson, got hold of the answers and turned them into a biting direct-mail piece. To wit, "Jerry McNerney may be the only congressional candidate in America who wants to make it tougher for lower income people to get to work." This was bad news for the Democrat, who is still unknown by many of the district's voters.

But then McNerney, who says he does not want people to pay more for gas, took the advice of an inside-the-Beltway advisor and compounded the problem. He decided to change his Vote Smart answers on 55 of the questions, erasing all evidence of his previous support for higher taxes. The Pombo campaign promptly disseminated news of this "flip-flop" to the local media. "I have never in all my years seen anything as breathtaking as what this guy did," gloated Johnson, who is also the president of the American Association of Political Consultants. "If there is one thing that is guaranteed to kill the passion of your core supporters, it is to change your mind."

And thus the scene in the Stockton office park, where, in a room filled with ice cream and lemonade, McNerney is playing defense before his most avid fans. "Let me tell you one thing. I have not changed," the candidate announces, somewhat incongruously. "I still stand for the things I stood for." A few minutes later, after an audience question, McNerney elaborates. "The honest truth is that I wasn't too thrilled with some of the earlier answers," he says. "We changed them in about five or 10 minutes without giving enough thought. I am just an ordinary person, and I missed that one. It's a miscue. It was a mistake."

Amid this back and forth, Michaels, the talk-radio host, steps in to deflect questions for his boss. "Don't get rattled. Don't give up the faith," the spokesman says, his voice booming through the room. "Because this is going to be one of many."

For more than a year, Democrats and their environmentalist allies have been predicting that Pombo could go down in 2006. The seven-term chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Pombo would be a big-game kill. He had been targeted for years as the No. 1 enemy of the environmental community, a former rancher who wants to vitiate the Endangered Species Act, open public lands to more oil and gas drilling, and relax air pollution restrictions. Pombo had also been tied to the political tar pit known as Jack Abramoff, the convicted GOP lobbyist who stole from his clients and enriched the campaign coffers of many members of Congress. After receiving significant money from Abramoff's clients, Pombo pushed for bills on behalf of Indian gaming interests as well as the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the North Pacific that wanted to keep wages low at its factories. By May of 2006, a poll commissioned by the environmental community found that only 35 percent of voters planned to reelect Pombo.

But as far back as the spring of 2005, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had decided that McNerney was not the guy to do the job. McNerney says that the committee had commissioned a poll in May of 2005 "that didn't show me as strong as we would have liked." So the Beltway bigwigs, without consulting McNerney, went shopping for his replacement. Their first choice, a popular state senator, passed on the job, so Democratic leaders settled on Stephen Filson, an Eagle Scout and former Navy fighter pilot whom they saw as more moderate and electable than McNerney. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the head of the DCCC, asked McNerney for a meeting last summer. "I told him, 'Rahm, I know you want me out of this race,'" McNerney recalls. "'I will get out if it makes sense. If I see Filson pulling ahead, I will get out.'"

Filson never pulled ahead. In fact, he was trounced in the June primary, garnering just 28 percent to McNerney's 52 percent in a three-way race despite significant financial backing from Washington. With egg on their face, the DCCC bean counters announced several weeks later that they would no longer list the Pombo race as a "Red-to-Blue" fundraising priority, signaling that the party had decided there were fish that would be far easier to fry. "They were chagrined and embarrassed about this thing," says Mark Longabaugh, a veteran Democratic strategist who works for Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group that is spending more than $500,000 to oust Pombo. "They had missed the enthusiasm and the effort that McNerney had put into this on the local level."

McNerney has spent much of his time since then trying to convince the country that he can, in fact, beat Pombo. While the race is certainly on everyone's radar, it is widely seen as a long shot compared to dozens of other more competitive swing seats around the country. The 11th District of California, shaped like a horseshoe on a stick, stretches from the San Francisco suburbs of Blackhawk, Danville and Brentwood to the agricultural plains of Tracy, Lodi and Manteca. In each of the last two presidential elections, a slight majority of voters have sided with President Bush, with Gore and Kerry each pulling in 45 percent. "The challenge that Jerry has is still to get introduced," says David Mermin, of Lake Research Partners, who is working as McNerney's pollster. "There is a lot of opportunity there, but the issue is still that Jerry has not established recognition with a lot of the less attentive swing voters."

That is why the Vote Smart blunder is so biting. For McNerney to win, the race has to be about Pombo, a scandal-tarred GOP incumbent who supports an unpopular president during a catastrophic war in the Middle East. But the Pombo camp has no intention of letting that happen. Johnson, Pombo's consultant, has taken to calling McNerney "a Howard Dean activist sort." "The only real question," said Johnson, "is whether there is some partisan meltdown nationwide that could put seats that are normally out of reach into play."

Gerald McNerney was born and raised in Albuquerque, N.M., the son of a World War II veteran who once worked as a machinist in San Francisco. He attended a military boarding school in Kansas, and enrolled in West Point in 1969, months after the peak of American casualties in the Vietnam War. He left after two years, having decided he could no longer support the U.S. operation in Southeast Asia. "As a professional officer, you have to be willing to go and lead American soldiers into whatever war the country is in, and I could see that I was having trouble with the war," he told me in a sit-down interview after the chants and the lemonade. "It was clear to me that that wasn't the right career path."

He returned home to the University of New Mexico, where he met his wife, found a love for math, and lucked out with a high draft number. He eventually relocated to California with his family to design and build windmills for the wind farms that cover the hills of the Altamont Pass in the district. After the attacks of Sept. 11, McNerney's oldest son, Michael, enlisted in the Air Force. Several months later, in February of 2004, Michael McNerney received an early absentee ballot provided to the military that showed all of the declared candidates in the coming election. It listed no Democratic challenger for Pombo's seat. "He called me and said, 'Dad, there is no candidate. I wrote your name in as a write-in,'" McNerney remembers, clearly glowing with fatherly pride. "I said, 'Yeah, I guess he is right. He is doing his duty. I should do mine.'"

So, with just weeks to go before the 2004 primary, McNerney launched a write-in campaign. He only needed 1,740 votes to get on the ballot. On the first count, he came in 69 votes short. He decided to ask for a recount, borrowing against his mortgage to finance the effort. He knew the money would only be refunded if he had enough votes to make the ballot. "We made it by one vote," he says with a grin. "So I got my $18,000 back." He ended up winning 39 percent of the vote against Pombo, one point less than Pombo's Democratic opponent in 2002.

This year he is running as a liberal who still hopes to appeal to moderates disillusioned by GOP leadership. He backs Pennsylvania Rep. Jack Murtha's plan to return the troops from Iraq. He speaks ominously about the dangers of global warming. He opposes a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage. He believes that the nation needs universal healthcare, though he is not yet sure how to get there. On the stump, he is not much of a speaker, displaying an awkward earnestness that includes often losing his place or bumbling his applause lines. But since the district lies between two costly media markets, the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, McNerney will probably not be on television much anyway.

In recent months, McNerney has received some extra support from liberal blogs, which identify with his stands on key issues, from former presidential contender Wesley Clark, and even from a prominent former GOP congressman from the area, Pete McCloskey, a Republican who garnered 32 percent of the vote in a contentious primary against Pombo. A longtime environmentalist and party maverick, McCloskey ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, as an antiwar candidate in the Republican primary. More recently, he has been running a campaign he calls "Revolt of the Elders," aiming to reconnect the Republican Party with its more moderate past. Even after his defeat, McCloskey continues to write editorials and give speeches attacking Pombo. He says Pombo "just looks so evil." McNerney, on the other hand, appears sincere. "Even as bad as McNerney is as a campaigner," McCloskey says, "he still comes across as honest."

That reputation for straight-talking sincerity, however, is easily undercut by controversies like the Vote Smart questionnaire. But there are some signs that the campaign is addressing the issue. A.J. Carrillo, McNerney's campaign manager, said the campaign recently received some good advice from a local strategist who said McNerney should ignore the recommendations of Democratic consultants in Washington, who have been pushing the campaign to become more palatable to moderates. "You go home with the date that brought you," Carrillo said, repeating the advice of a senior state Assembly staffer. "You did it without Washington's help in the primary." Over this past weekend, McNerney's spokesman, Tor Michaels, has also left the campaign.

But with just a few months left, time is running out. And McNerney, who was losing the money race by a margin of 6-to-1 as of June 30, may not be able to shake the inevitable onslaught of negative campaign advertising and direct mail from the Pombo camp. None of this, however, has dulled McNerney's determination or energy. He is convinced he can win. "This seat I am running for is very, very winnable," he told the crowd in his Stockton office, before finding a rare burst of rhetorical rhythm. "We are not going to let them take us down. We are going to take them down. As I always say, we are going to bury Richard Pombo's career. He can have his body. We are going to bury his career in the [local San Joaquin River] delta."

They are big words from an understated man with long odds against him. But then, who better than a windmill designer to make his political mark by tilting at the windmills of an unpopular Republican Congress?

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

MORE FROM Michael Scherer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2006 Elections California