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Grand Old Pete

January 25, 2006

PAUL N. "PETE" MCCLOSKEY, a 78-year-old former Bay Area congressman, long ago retired from politics and moved to a ranch in Yolo County. But he recently rented a studio apartment in Lodi in order to establish residency in the 11th Congressional District so he can run in the Republican primary against incumbent Rep. Richard W. Pombo. That's called carpetbagging, and it would be easier to deplore if McCloskey weren't the best thing that could happen for the district, the state, the nation and possibly the Republican Party.

McCloskey is an ex-Marine who opposed the Vietnam War and a strong environmentalist who helped write the Endangered Species Act; he has taken heat from his party for endorsing John Kerry for president. He's the kind of Republican who in other states might be called a Democrat, yet in eight terms in office, ending in 1983, he remained true to what at the time were core Republican values: fiscal conservatism and ethical behavior. Both are in short supply among today's Republican leaders. And as for environmentalism -- well, it has been a long time since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House.

Pombo's campaign consultant told The Times last week that Pombo wouldn't debate McCloskey and that the consultant didn't consider the former congressman to be a serious candidate, or even a serious Republican. "This guy was never close to the mainstream of the Republican Party, and he is even further away now," the consultant said. He may be right -- but the same could be said for his client.

Pombo is in his seventh term in Congress, but he owes his recent dramatic rise in stature to former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who put the ex-cattle rancher at the head of the House Resources Committee. DeLay's cozy attitude toward lobbyists seems to have rubbed off on Pombo, whose efforts to obtain federal recognition for a Massachusetts Indian tribe that happened to be a hefty campaign donor are under investigation by the FBI. Pombo was named among the 13 most corrupt members of Congress last fall by a watchdog group, in part because of payments made to his wife and brother from campaign funds and his efforts to suspend federal guidelines on wind turbines without revealing that wind farming is a key source of income on his parents' ranch.

Pombo's possible ethical lapses pale next to his assault on the nation's environmental protections. He or his committee have attempted to dismantle the Endangered Species Act, let states opt out of the federal moratorium on new coastal oil drilling and allow federal lands to be sold for mining. In a sophomoric attempt to show what the committee claimed it would take to make budget targets without opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, it even proposed selling off national park sites or selling advertising space in them.

The 11th District deserves better. And although Republicans have recently followed President Bush's lead as despoilers of the environment, McCloskey is part of a long tradition of conservative conservationists -- indeed, many of Pombo's most destructive policies have been shot down by more moderate members of his own party. If Pombo represents today's Republicans, they'd do well to look to yesterday.

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