In many congressional swing districts, seniority is falling by wayside

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Today, Tracy - like Stockton and other nearby cities - is a national symbol of the foreclosure crisis. The housing market collapse has ravaged San Joaquin County. Nice new subdivisions have become untended foreclosure farms, big-box stores stand shuttered and the unemployment rate is a staggering 17.4 percent.

"I'm a Democrat, but I want a new congressman, somebody that will help us out," Angela Singleton, 28, a Starbucks barista, said as she nursed a cafe latte during her break.

Singleton said she and her Army-veteran husband recently moved with their two children into a rental home after defaulting on their mortgage. "If they were listening to us in Washington, we'd have good jobs, we'd be in our house, we'd have a mortgage," she said. "We had a mortgage that was $1,600 a month. But it skyrocketed to $1,900, and now we're in foreclosure. They're not listening."

Never mind that it's not the government's fault that Singleton received an adjustable-rate mortgage she could ill afford. Never mind that McNerney controls only one of 435 votes in the House, and that even the senior-most lawmakers can do little to reverse fundamental trends in the global economy. Never mind that McNerney secured a new veterans hospital 12 miles up the road that will bring 900 jobs here.

And never mind that McNerney says he is listening and feels the hurt, that he has made the 2,500-mile trek home nearly every weekend for dozens of town hall meetings, that he brought House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) here to survey the wreckage.

Come Nov. 2, it may all be for naught.

"It's very much an impossible sale," said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's hard to represent an area that's undergone so much distress so quickly and not bear the brunt of that blame. Could he have done anything differently? No."

Cain added: "The same forces that swept him into power might sweep him out of power, and it will have very little to do with what he's done in office. He's really kind of blowing in the winds of national politics."

Of this, McNerney is keenly aware.

"Of course I'm worried about that - absolutely," the congressman said in an interview. "No question about it. It's a tough year, a tough environment."

McNerney is one of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's "frontline" members - House incumbents who are deemed most vulnerable. The national party is spending $879,000 in television ads in his district to attack Harmer. Meanwhile, Republican opponent David Harmer, who is making his third run for Congress, is one of his party's "young guns" - GOP House challengers who are considered most promising - and the contest is deemed a tossup.

Reliable public surveys in this race have been scarce, although a Survey USA poll this week showed Harmer leading McNerney among registered voters, 48 percent to 42 percent.

Among those complicating McNerney's path to reelection is John Depiro, 23, who during a smoke break at work the other day neatly laid bare the reason why he will vote against the incumbent.

"I used to work at New United Motor in Fremont," Depiro said. "I made $27.36 an hour, full time, certified on the forklift and on a Fuchs, which is a mini-crane. But there aren't any other jobs like that open, so now I'm here, at Wal-Mart, making $9.40 an hour."

McNerney said he sympathizes with those who say Congress has not done enough to bring jobs here.

"I'm frustrated because of how hard it has been to get things done," he said, adding that he considers it a mistake for Democrats to have taken up the issues of health-care reform and climate change with the economy in tatters. "I've been frustrated because my district is so hard hit. Other districts, like maybe San Francisco and some of these other areas, aren't as hard hit and so they didn't see the pain that our folks here are seeing."

Yet in the final throes of a close campaign, McNerney has seemed at times exhausted. He strolled into a community center in Stockton this week to greet veterans supporting his campaign, a few of them Republicans. A few dozen listened to his three-minute speech touting the new veterans hospital and legislation to research post-traumatic brain disorder.

In other years, his message of tangible results probably would pay dividends. But this year, it is being drowned out by voter anger about the economy.

"I'm not even sure anger is a strong enough word for it," Harmer said in an interview. "Fury might be better. Voters are livid, and it's been building."

Harmer, a lawyer and son of former California lieutenant governor John L. Harmer,is trying to win in his third bid for Congress. He ran unsuccessfully in 1996 in Utah, and lost a special election last year in a neighboring California district.Harmer said he knows that a wave may carry him to office, but that once he is there he would not be any safer than McNerney.

"In 2006, it wasn't so much that [McNerney] got hired," he said. "It's that the incumbent got fired. And I think the very same dynamic is playing out now. And I may be facing the same thing if my side doesn't perform."

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