STOCKTON — Wayne Johnson knew Richard W. Pombo was in trouble late last week when people he canvassed in San Joaquin Valley farm towns began using the politically deadly "time for a change" phrase.
"When you hear that," said Johnson, a veteran Sacramento political consultant, "you know it is over. They'll say, 'I agree with Richard on this' and 'I agree with Richard on that,' but just as you are going out the door they say, 'I just think it is time for a change.' "
That, in a nutshell, is how Pombo, the seven-term congressman from Tracy and chairman of the House Resources Committee, became the only incumbent in California's 53 member congressional delegation to lose a seat in Tuesday's elections.
Although historically a safe Republican seat built around its conservative rural core, California's District 11 also contains parts of suburban Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties that have traditionally voted Democratic. Driven by steep Bay Area home prices, the suburbs and emerging exurbs have been steadily encroaching eastward into the orchards, dairies and ranchlands of the San Joaquin Valley.
In the previous seven elections, Pombo, a former feed lot operator and truck driver whose Portuguese family has ranched in the area for generations, had always been able to count on overwhelming support from San Joaquin County cities like Stockton, Manteca and Ripon to make up for his differences with the liberal East Bay hills.
But in this election, for a variety of reasons, the San Joaquin support was not there. Pombo won San Joaquin County by only 1,244 votes, or 50.8%. Democratic challenger Jerry McNerney, meanwhile, overwhelmed Pombo in the other counties by a total of 11,500 votes, cementing the victory. Final results showed McNerney with 53.2% of the vote, compared with 46.8% for Pombo.
"I think it was a number of things that cost Pombo votes here," said Joe Franscella, a newspaper editor in Ripon, an almond-growing center north of Modesto that is one of Pombo's strongholds. "Corruption was one. But people here were fed up with the high price of gas, which they blamed on the Republicans."
Franscella also credited political neophyte McNerney with running a strong campaign, bolstered by hundreds of volunteer activists from the Bay Area who worked phone banks and canvassed neighborhoods on his behalf.
"I think Pombo was blindsided with how much work McNerney's people put in," Franscella said.
Taking in his victory Wednesday, McNerney said the grass-roots efforts by volunteers made for the logistical difference in the campaign. "On each of the days leading up to the election we had at least 1,000 volunteers in the district," said McNerney, a married father of three grown children who lives in Pleasanton.
The 55-year-old McNerney was a political unknown when he first filed in the Democratic primary as a write-in candidate to run against Pombo in 2004.
When the primary ended in a narrow loss, McNerney mortgaged the family home to pay for the recount, which he won by one vote. Pombo tromped him in the general election, 61% to 39%.
When McNerney offered himself up again for election this year, he was rebuffed by the national Democratic Party, which preferred former Navy pilot Steve Filson. But McNerney, who had the support of the state party, easily beat Filson in the primary.
But even after these earlier efforts, McNerney still went into the race against the powerful, well-established Pombo as a virtual unknown.
McNerney attended West Point for two years and has a doctorate in mathematics from the University of New Mexico. After working in the 1980s and early '90s as a wind-energy consultant for Kenetech Corp., which developed wind turbines on Altamont Pass and for PG&E, McNerney launched two private alternative energy companies, with little success in either.
In his spare time he wrote three novels, which he described as a post-Cold War high-tech thriller, a personal drama loosely based on his own experiences and a horror book. With daughter Windy, he wrote a "diet book spoof."
When he goes to Congress in January, McNerney will be one of its poorest members, saying his net worth is only "a couple of hundred thousand," including his Pleasanton home.
"I don't have a lot of financial resources," McNerney said. "I just felt our country was in trouble and I risked everything to make it better."
He acknowledges that many of the votes he received may have been more anti-Pombo than pro-McNerney. Pombo made enemies in the environmental community with his proposed revision of the Endangered Species Act and plans to sell off national parkland.
"Pombo had acted with impunity toward the environment, so it wasn't surprising that a significant number of people wanted to come in and remove him," McNerney said.
But campaign aide Yoni Cohen said the margin of the McNerney victory also shows that McNerney collected some votes in his own right.
"Jerry isn't under the illusion that all 53% of the people voted for him," Cohen said. "But his margin of victory in a district with a significant Republican registration advantage shows that he wasn't just riding the tide."
Sitting over coffee in an East Stockton coffee shop, die-hard Republican Tommy Edwards, 62, a retired phone company technician, said he voted for Pombo just as he had in all previous elections.
But this time around, Edwards said, his wife broke with him and voted for McNerney. The key issue, Edwards said, was not so much anything McNerney had to say but reports that Pombo had used several hundred thousand dollars of campaign money to pay salaries to his wife and brother.
"My wife's mad at Pombo because he hired his wife," said Edwards. "This was the first time she's not voted for him."