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Novelist Trying to Write Pombo’s Final Chapter

Some say Congress already has its share of windbags.

But if Democrat Jerry McNerney winds up upsetting House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) in November, the institution will get its first expert in wind energy engineering. Not to mention what is likely to be the first Member whose daughter calls herself Windy — which is her middle name. [IMGCAP(1)]

That may be fitting for California’s 11th district, which includes the rich agricultural land of the San Joaquin Valley, where the landscape is dotted with windmills. Whether it’s enough to propel the 53-year-old political neophyte to victory over the formidable Pombo is an entirely different matter.

The self-described “problem-solver” was late to the Congressional race. He got in as a write-in candidate in the March Democratic primary at the urging of his son.

Michael McNerney was inspired to join the Air Force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. Filling out his absentee primary ballot earlier this year while stationed at Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico, the younger McNerney noticed that there was no Democrat running for Congress in the 11th district and encouraged his father to get into the race.

“He challenged me to do it,” Jerry McNerney recalled the other day. “He told me it was my duty, just as it was his duty to join the Air Force after 9/11. And it was my duty. I was so outraged by what was happening in Washington.”

That the Democrats would give Pombo a free ride was somewhat surprising. After redistricting added swing suburban voters from the East Bay into the 11th district, Democrats initially entertained some thought that the conservative Pombo might be vulnerable.

Even after Elaine Shaw (D), a politically moderate and well-to-do lawyer finished 20 points behind Pombo in 2002, some Democrats and environmental groups hoped that the Congressman’s new prominence as Resources chairman, where his political views would be more widely aired, would hurt him in his district.

But the absence of a Democratic candidate spelled opportunity for McNerney, who laid aside a venture capital business for renewable energy projects to jump into the race two weeks before the primary.

“I never thought I’d be in politics before, that’s for sure,” McNerney said. “The transition was drastic and sudden and terrifying, but exhilarating at the same time.”

To get on the November ballot, McNerney needed 1,740 Democrats in the 11th district to write in his name in the March primary. After an initial count, he was 70 votes short. But he forced a recount despite the reluctance of local elections officials, and wound up with 1,742 votes — not the most auspicious beginning for a race against an entrenched committee chairman like Pombo.

Still, McNerney pressed on, preaching his liberal message to anyone who would listen. Just as his son talked him into making the race, McNerney feels he is picking up the political mantle from his father, a labor organizer in San Francisco in the 1930s.

“I’m interested in standing up for the working people because in my opinion, when the working people do good, America does good,” Jerry McNerney said. “I call it bubble-up economics.

Despite his long-shot status, McNerney’s candidacy caught the attention of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), who offered his endorsement — and the resources of his political organization — in late August. McNerney saw his contributions and volunteer base spike immediately.

“That really opened up the spigot,” he said.

Through June 30, McNerney had raised $43,000 and had $15,000 in the bank. But now, he says he has just surpassed the $100,000 figure for fundraising (Pombo, it must be pointed out, spent almost $1.5 million on his 2002 re-election, though he is unlikely to lay out so much this time). He has 300 steady volunteers who have already knocked on 50,000 voters’ doors and plan to knock on 100,000 more between now and Election Day.

But if ideology is not enough to swing the electorate his way in a district that would have given President Bush 53 percent of the vote in 2000, McNerney also offers his own life story for voters to consider. Just as Pombo has a distinct persona as a fourth-generation farmer and rancher who wears black cowboy hats even in Washington, D.C., McNerney has his own noteworthy accomplishments.

He has a Ph.D in mathematics. He is a skilled handball player. He has written four books — three novels and, with his daughter, a satire on diet books. He has, by his own estimate, helped prevent at least 8 million tons of carbon dioxide from being poured in to the atmosphere through his work as a renewable energy consultant (his campaign slogan is “A new energy for Congress”).

And, there is his daughter — named in part for the cheesy old Association song “Windy” (McNerney says he and his wife liked the lyrics better than the tune).

But the most important thing McNerney thinks he has going for himself?

“I’m a citizen-politician,” he said. “I don’t owe anything to anybody.”

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