WASHINGTON — Central Valley Congressman Richard Pombo,who promised in his first term to limit himself to six congressional terms,now plans to run in 2004 for a seventh term.
Doing so would allow the Californian to aim for the full six years that committee chairmen can serve on Capitol Hill under Republican Party rules.
Like his support for term limits,Pombo also has shed the white cowboy hat that was his signature headgear on Capitol Hill for years.
Even so,”I don’t think I’ve really changed,” the 42-year-old Republican from Tracy,Calif.,said earlier this month in an interview in his congressional office.
But others say the congressman has changed perceptibly,possibly the result of what has happened to him in his sixth term on Capitol Hill when he became chairman of the House Resources Committee.
“Being a chairman after five terms,that doesn’t happen,” Pombo said,noting that he passed people with more seniority for the position. “I’m going to play this out and do the best job I can,being a chairman of a committee,and then I’ll see what happens after that.”
The House Resources Committee has jurisdiction over energy,public lands,and water and mineral resources.
Pombo said he has always been a supporter of term limits,but California’s term limits for state offices may have hindered the ability of legislators to get things done.
“We lost a lot by going to such a short period of time that somebody could stay in office [in the Legislature],and it might have been better off if we’d gone to a longer period,” he said.
California law allows three two-year terms for Assembly members and two four-year terms for state senators. There is no limit on the number of terms a representative can serve in Congress.
Pombo greets visitors in an office that’s spacious and comfortable,similar to other congressional offices. His shelves and tabletops are crowded with pictures of his three children and wife,Annette,a reminder of his family that lives in Tracy.
His office is often jammed with people filtering in and out; some are hometown constituents,others are lobbyists or staffers all wanting a piece of his time. He gives a big smile and a firm handshake to each,glances quickly at his watch and ushers them in.
Pombo’s constituents have seen changes in the number of projects he’s winning for the district.
A one-time opponent of pork-barrel spending,Pombo was criticized for doing little to get funding for transportation projects in Stockton during the last round of transportation appropriations in 1998.
The latest transportation-appropriations bill includes nine projects his district,California’s 11th District. There are also appropriations in the energy and water bill for 11th District water projects.
“Every appropriations bill has something in it that we’re dealing with. You try and watch every single one of them as they’re moving through to see that your project is in there that you’re fighting for,” he said.
Pombo said projects in the bill include funding for the Altamont Commuter Express train and Arch/Sperry Road construction project in San Joaquin County,as well as projects in Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties.
Redistricting two years ago added parts of those counties and Alameda County to the 11th District,which still covers much of San Joaquin County.
Jonathan Grella,a spokesman for Pombo’s friend,House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas,said Pombo was instrumental in generating several pieces of legislation in the Resources Committee.
“As far as qualities go,what stands out the most is Congressman Pombo’s work ethic — he is highly viewed as one of the most effective congressman of the year. He really hit the ground running,” Grella said.
He said DeLay’s and Pombo’s friendship ultimately helps the 11th District.
Even the minority leadership on the Resources Committee acknowledges Pombo’s ability with legislation.
Nick Rahall II of West Virginia,the senior Democrat on the committee that Pombo chairs,was not available for comment but issued a statement about their working relationship on environmental issues.
“As the ranking Democrat,I obviously do not see eye to eye with him on all aspects of the issues before our committee,but he has been an engaged chairman and proven himself to be a skillful negotiator in the legislative process,” he said.
Pombo has drawn sharp criticism from environmental groups,however.
Dan Lavery,a spokesman for the Sierra Club,said Pombo has not done enough to protect the environment,instead favoring oil and gas,mining and logging interests.
“Of all the people,Mr. Pombo has a chance to bring a balanced energy policy to the country,but all we’ve seen is he’s brought a one-sided argument” that favors the oil and gas industry,he said.
Lavery added that the Sierra Club is not against gas and oil but favors exploring alternative technologies that would reduce dependence on oil and gas.
“Even we,in our worst nightmare,did not think it would be as bad as it has been,” he said.
“He’s the same ol’ Richard Pombo,but his constituents are different,” Lavery said,referring to the addition of liberal Bay Area residents to the 11th District.
Kish Rajan,a spokesman for Eye on the 11th,a Bay Area activist group that has sprung up since redistricting and aims to replace Pombo with a more moderate candidate,echoed that opinion.
“His votes across the board consistently are extreme conservative positions that are inconsistent with our part of district,which tends to be more moderate and middle of the road,” Rajan said.
Pombo retains support from old friends such as Dean Andal,a former California Assembly member who has been named to Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition team. Andal said he and Pombo met in their late 20s when both were Central Valley Republican activists.
“Richard was a relatively shy person,” he said. “He was not outspoken and not prone to puff himself up.”
Andal said Pombo is just as humble as he was when they walked precincts together when Andal ran for re-election to the Assembly and Pombo for Congress. But he said he’s noticed a change in Pombo’s leadership style.
“He’s really grown into the job,and he gives an excellent speech,and he’s very confident in discussing his issues,” Andal said. “Richard is not prone to rash decisions — he makes them thoughtfully,and he knows a lot more than he did before,because he’s curious.”
Pombo’s schedule has become busier as he’s taken on the challenges of meeting the needs of a district that stretches across the Altamont Pass,becoming a committee chairman and recently becoming a conferee for the energy bill.
A conference committee drafts final language when the Senate and House have passed different versions of a bill.
“We’re trying to watch every single thing that’s going on that we have jurisdiction over,” Pombo said. “At the same time,I’ve got constituent interests and California interests that I’ve had to keep up with as well. So it has been very time-consuming,trying to keep up with everything.”
Pombo has also been co-chairing a natural-gas and energy task force with Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin,R-La. Pombo said the task force is trying to find ways to deal with high natural-gas and energy prices nationally and in California.
Leroy Ornellas,a San Joaquin County supervisor and longtime friend of Pombo,said the congressman has less time to spend with community leaders.
“He’s much busier,and he’s much more in demand than before,” said Ornellas,a Tracy Republican.
Pombo’s cousin Ernie Pombo,a Tracy farmer with real estate interests,said the congressman has remained true to the beliefs of those in his district,which led to his quick rise in the Republican Party and to his rural upbringing.
Most constituents don’t recognize him when he goes out,because he does not dress or act like a politician,Ernie Pombo said.
“If you weren’t looking for him at an event,” he said,”you wouldn’t even know he was a congressman.”
And,Ernie Pombo added,”he would never let you know he was one.”