In the exit poll data released by CNN to explain what voters were most concerned about in yesterday's election, corruption ranked at the top. Next came the economy, terrorism and Iraq. Missing in action: the environment.
Not so in California Congressional District 11. There, to the joy, delight and outright shock of environmentalists everywhere, six-termer Richard Pombo, the powerful chairman of the House Resources Committee, lost to wind power consultant Jerry McNerney. Looking for a referendum on how to treat Mother Earth? Try Pombo.
Pombo's sins against the environment are well documented. Global warming, he declared, was a "myth." He worked to gut the Endangered Species Act, to permit drilling for oil off the California coast, to sell public lands to mining interests. He was supported financially by the oil, gas and timber industries, and seemed to relish making outrageous statements designed to drive environmentalists into apoplectic fits. From the day he came to Congress -- as part of the momentous Republican takeover of the House in 1994 -- he has done his absolute best to support the interests of private enterprise at the expense of the public good.
That this man could be reelected six times in California, one of the most environmentally progressive regions on the planet, has been an enduring shame for many Californians. It has also, until today, been the clearest proof available of the weakness of environmentalism as a political force -- nationwide, and beyond. When voters kept sending Pombo back to Washington, they were telling the entire world that the U.S. simply didn't just take climate change seriously, but that responsible environmental stewardship was irrelevant in the American realpolitik calculus.
But now voters have spoken with a different voice. Sure, Pombo got caught in a perfect storm. His ties to Jack Abramoff made him an easy target. The anti-Bush groundswell helped knock him off his feet. But these factors are all mutually reinforcing. Remember that exit poll data point about corruption? When corporate interests buy lawmaker votes that promote private enterprise at the expense of the environment, that is corruption, pure and simple. There's a lot for Democrats and environmentalists to be happy about on this morning after. But there may well be no more significant victory, for the earth itself, symbolically speaking, than the ouster of Richard Pombo.