SAN FRANCISCO — Former U.S. Rep. Paul "Pete" McCloskey, a maverick Republican who opposed the Vietnam War and helped write the Endangered Species Act, said Friday he will run against Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy), a leading critic of how the government has applied environmental protection laws.
Nearly a quarter of a century after he last sought public office, the tough-talking, 78-year-old ex-Marine said in a telephone interview that he decided to challenge Pombo in the June 6 GOP primary because of the congressman's efforts to weaken environmental laws and connections to figures in a Washington corruption scandal.
"This is no Republican Party I recognize today," McCloskey said.
But he was candid about his chances, saying he wouldn't have decided to run if he could have found someone else to take on Pombo.
"I do not have a clue about whether I can win or not," said McCloskey, a lawyer who served eight congressional terms representing the San Francisco Peninsula. "It will take five months out of my life and is a worthy cause. We are going to debate critical issues. You could call this a battle for the soul of the Republican Party."
Citing the current lobbying scandal in Washington, McCloskey called for a return to traditional Republican values of honesty and fiscal responsibility. And he called on Pombo to agree to a dozen debates. Pombo was traveling and could not be reached for comment. But his longtime campaign consultant, Wayne Johnson, dismissed McCloskey -- who endorsed Democratic Sen. John Kerry for president -- as a "stalking horse" for the Democratic Party. "This guy was never close to the mainstream of the Republican Party and he is even farther away now," Johnson said. "We are not going to debate Pete McCloskey. We don't consider him a serious candidate or a serious Republican."
McCloskey, who describes himself as a moderate, is best known for running against Republican President Nixon in 1972 while challenging his Vietnam War policy. He served as Republican co-chairman of the first Earth Day in 1970 and subsequently worked on environmental causes, including whale protection and the private land conservancy movement.
"About everything I have been connected with since 1970, this guy would like to roll back," McCloskey said of Pombo.
Pombo, 45, a cattle rancher and six-term lawmaker who heads the House Resources Committee, has been a vociferous critic of many of the nation's environmental laws and regulations. He is a driving force behind a bill to revise the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which critics say would gut protections for plants and animals. The bill, which passed the House, is pending in the Senate.
He has also pushed to limit the scope of the National Environmental Policy Act, which environmentalists call the cornerstone of the country's environmental protection.
McCloskey, who raises horses, olives and oranges on his retirement ranch in Yolo County, said he has rented a studio apartment in Lodi so he can establish residency in Pombo's district and run against him. He said he is looking for a home to buy there.
The district sprawls across parts of the Bay Area and Central Valley counties of San Joaquin, Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara and includes new bedroom communities and agricultural lands.
McCloskey concedes he has a steep learning curve about issues such as development behind aging river levees, which Pombo has worked to fix. He said he knows only about three dozen people in the entire district, and has not raised any money.
But McCloskey is undaunted by accusations of "carpetbagging" or of being too old to serve. "When you get to be my age, you can deplore and wring your hands and play golf and lurk around the house," he said. "I thought I ought to get involved."
McCloskey said he was deeply offended by what he called a corrupt Washington culture exemplified by pending criminal charges against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and the recent guilty pleas of lobbyist Jack Abramoff to federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion.
The Times reported this month that Pombo received $40,000 in political donations from Abramoff, an associate and a Massachusetts Indian tribe represented by Abramoff. The congressman later championed the tribe's efforts to get recognition.
The newspaper has also reported that Pombo and Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Roseville) joined DeLay in trying to stop a federal banking investigation of Houston businessman Charles Hurwitz in the collapse of a Texas savings and loan. Pombo had said the regulators were strong-arming Hurwitz in seeking $300 million for Hurwitz's part in the savings and loan failure, which cost taxpayers $1.6 billion.
McCloskey's last ran for office in 1982 when he was defeated by Pete Wilson for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.
No matter what issues McCloskey raises for his political rebirth, he has virtually no chance of succeeding in such a conservative district, said Republican political consultant Ray McNally.
"I think there is a greater chance that the sun will stand still in the sky," he said. "Very few voters will know who he is, and when they find out, they will disagree with what he stands for."
McCloskey said he would formally announce his candidacy Monday at a Lodi restaurant.