In many congressional swing districts, seniority is falling by wayside
Friday, October 15, 2010; 12:25 AM
TRACY, CALIF. -- For 14 years, Richard W. Pombo was the congressman for the San Joaquin Valley district here. In that time, he built a cowboy persona - George W. Bush dubbed him "The Marlboro Man" - and amassed power, rising to chairman of the House Resources Committee.
From that perch, he was able to steer a disproportionate slice of federal money to this sprawling agricultural and suburban district and become a fierce protector of property rights.
But the Republican also got wrapped up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and used campaign money to hire family members. By 2006, voters in California decided that he had become more beholden to the ways of Washington than to them and opted for a change.
So out went Pombo, with his cowboy hat and ostrich-skin boots, and in stepped Democrat Jerry McNerney, a soft-spoken mathematics PhD and windmill entrepreneur.
Four years later, voters appear ready to kick out McNerney in favor of a new, new guy. That puts this swing district, like more than two dozen others across the nation, on the cusp of possibly having its third congressman in four years - or two years, in some cases.
"I think we ought to kick 'em all out," Bob Stevhens, 67, a retired real estate agent, said as he sipped iced tea at a downtown cafe this week. "The more seniority, the more apt I'd be to vote against 'em. Look at the results they've gotten us."
The 2010 midterm elections can be interpreted any number of ways - President Obama and the Democrats overreached, the tea party movement is ascendant, the people are angry and angsty. But in the minds of voters here the calculus is much simpler: Things are bad and getting worse, so a change must be made. And another change, and another change until things get better.
By doing so, voters in districts like these are upending the once-inviolable notion that seniority - that most valuable of Washington commodities - is always to be treasured.
At the moment, with less than three weeks before Election Day, these swing voters appear to have all the power. Which way they go will determine which way Congress goes. But the moment the elections are over, districts like these will have the least sway in Washington, as longtime incumbents from elsewhere settle into the seats of power. The newest members will be relegated to the back bench.
But voters here don't seem to mind. When asked, one after another said they are so bent on reshuffling the current order that they aren't willing to consider what that might mean in lost influence.
"People are so dissatisfied that they don't really care," said Dan Bilbrey, a Republican former mayor of Tracy. "It's not whether you're a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. It's not about Jerry McNerney and what he's done or not done. I just think people are going to clean house."
It's easy to see why voters would be restless. Tracy boomed over the past decade as a bedroom community about 50 miles east of the San Francisco Bay, a place with pretty parks and new schools, where working people were able to afford entry to the middle class.