Sunday, May 28, 2006
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McCloskey takes challenge to run against Pombo

By Lisa Vorderbrueggen

Former Peninsula Congressman Paul "Pete" McCloskey Jr., best remembered for his Vietnam War opposition and his speech calling for the impeachment of President Nixon, will announce his candidacy Monday in Lodi as a Republican challenger to Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy.

The feisty 78-year-old beat the bushes for months in his quest to find a Republican willing to run against the seven-term incumbent with whom he has major political differences.

But when no one volunteered, McCloskey asked, "Why not me?"

After all, he said, Benjamin Franklin was 82 when he cast his vote for the U.S. Constitution, and former President Bush sky dived on his 80th birthday.

McCloskey, a decorated Marine who served in the Korean War and an attorney, says he wants to restore Republican values such as fiscal restraint, reduced government and balanced budgets.

He also believes Pombo has behaved unethically on several fronts, such as hiring family members to work on his campaign. And he says the incumbent votes too often with former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is fighting a campaign money laundering charge back home in Texas.

McCloskey and Pombo will also knock heads over environmental issues.

McCloskey, who served eight terms in Congress from 1967 to 1983, wrote the 1974 Endangered Species Act that Pombo has worked to alter for the past 13 years. Pombo finally passed a bill out of the House last year that would fundamentally change the way the country protects threatened plants and animals, although the bill faces an uncertain fate in the Senate.

"It's time to take Pombo out," McCloskey told the Times' editorial board Wednesday.

Reached by telephone, Pombo welcomed McCloskey to the race but rejected his would-be opponent's suitability to serve in District 11 and the assessment of his job performance.

"From what I've heard, Mr. McCloskey sounds more like a liberal Democrat candidate than a Republican," said Pombo, who was 11 years old when McCloskey challenged Nixon for president in 1972.

Few believe McCloskey, who lives in rural Yolo County, can win.

He must connect with voters in fewer than six months in a district he doesn't live in -- although he is renting a house in Lodi -- and beat a popular and well-funded incumbent. The district is composed of San Joaquin County and slices of Contra Costa, Alameda and Santa Clara counties.

McCloskey often embraces Democrats and their views and endorsed John Kerry for president, saying he thinks President Bush is too heavily influenced by the religious right.

On the other hand, McCloskey is often unpredictable and outrageous, an invaluable trait in a cash-strapped race in which press coverage and word-of-mouth cost nothing.

"It would certainly be a major upset for McCloskey to defeat Pombo ... but McCloskey will add a lot of drama and theater to the race," said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican campaign consultant.

McCloskey's presence on the ticket may do more to help the Democratic candidates, including pilot Steve Filson of Danville, energy consultant Jerry McNerney of Pleasanton and electrician Steve Thomas of Danville.

If McCloskey softens enough Republicans who are willing to vote for the winning Democrat, it could hurt Pombo in the general election, Hoffenblum said.

"One thing for sure, the primary will be a precursor as to whether Pombo is in trouble or not," Hoffenblum said.

Pombo is under fire because he was one of dozens of members of Congress who accepted contributions from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his tribal clients. Pombo says that he is not under investigation and that neither he nor his staff have been contacted by federal prosecutors.

McCloskey has baggage of his own, however.

In the past two decades, he has become a critic of pro-Israeli U.S. policies and visited the late Palestinian leader, Yassar Arafat.

He adamantly denies that he is anti-Semitic. But he fueled the allegations in 2000 after he spoke to the Institute for Historical Review, whose members either deny or contest the details of the Holocaust. A speech transcript shows that McCloskey said, "I don't know whether you are right or wrong about the Holocaust ... "

The group cites McCloskey as one of its supporters on its Web site and fund-raising letters.

On Wednesday, McCloskey called the group a "bunch of nuts" and said the transcript was inaccurate. He recalled "being booed" when he talked about the Holocaust.

"Of course the Holocaust existed," he said. "But I will go and speak to any group."

Meanwhile, his campaign chairman, Lewis Butler, said he would demand the organization stop using McCloskey's name.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen covers politics. Reach her at 925-945-4773 or