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Pombo Move Sets Up Bloody Primary Fight

When former Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) confirmed Tuesday on local KMJ talk radio that he will run for the 19th district seat held by retiring Rep. George Radanovich (R-Calif.), it touched off what is expected to be a fiery Republican primary — one that is already dividing party activists.

Pombo, who lost his 2006 re-election in the nearby 11th district, cited his seniority and experience in Washington, D.C., as reasons why Central Valley voters should send him back to Congress after a four-year hiatus.

An aggressive and controversial conservative, the former Congressman has the backing of a number of influential agricultural executives, but he faces a crowded primary that includes state Sen. Jeff Denham — Radanovich’s anointed successor — and former Fresno Mayor Jim Patterson.

Fresno City Council member Larry Westerlund (R) has also told local news outlets that he is exploring a run and observers expect other names to emerge, as well.

Asked by host Ray Appleton what sets him apart from the rest of the field, Pombo said Tuesday that “the biggest difference— is “I’d be the senior Republican on Resources, the senior Republican on the Agriculture Committee,— referring to the two House committees he served on during his 14 years in Congress.

“I actually do something— in Washington, Pombo added. “I was willing to take the fight to them.—

Pombo is receiving support from Bob Smittcamp, president and CEO of Fresno-based foodserve company Lyons Magnus and a member of the Draft Pombo Committee that sprung up in the wake of Radanovich’s retirement announcement last week.

Smittcamp, a longtime Republican donor, had been a vocal critic of Radanovich’s, particularly on his approach to the ag-heavy Central Valley’s water crisis.

“I prefer Richard because he has extensive knowledge on water issues,— said Smittcamp. “He is a farmer, as am I. He understands agriculture.—

“In addition,— Smittcamp said, “he carries into Congress his 16 years of seniority.—

Other signatories to a Jan. 3 Draft Committee letter urging Pombo to run included Stuart Woolf, president at Woolf Enterprises of Fresno; Dan Errotabere, president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau; David Wood, chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co. based in Fresno County; and David Britz, president of Fresno’s Britz Fertilizers. Several of Pombo’s supporters sit on the board of directors of the Westlands Water District, which encompasses more than 600,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno and Kings counties.

Rep. Devin Nunes, who represents California’s 21st district and is a close friend of Pombo’s from their days in the House, is also likely to back his campaign, Nunes’ chief of staff indicated.

Denham, however, has lined up his own long list of heavy-hitter GOP endorsements, largely in the political sphere, including eight of California’s 19 Republican House Members. In addition to Radanovich’s support, Denham has also received the endorsement of Reps. Ed Royce, Kevin McCarthy, David Dreier, Duncan Hunter, Darryl Issa, John Campbell and Wally Herger. A Denham campaign spokesman, Dave Gilliard, noted several of the endorsement came after the news of Pombo’s run leaked, and said the campaign expects to announce more Member endorsements in the near future.

John Harris, owner of Harris Ranch and son of its founder; state Assembly Members Tom Berryhill and Bill Berryhill, who represent 19th district constituents; and a number of city and county officials in the district are also backing Denham. And Gilliard said Radanovich is “actively involved— in reaching out to his donor base and opening doors in Fresno and the southern part of the district, which Denham’s state senate district does not cover. The campaign expects the major figures from Radanovich’s finance committee “to be all on board.—

Denham’s district cuts across the northern half of the 19th district, and like Pombo, he does not actually live in the district.

Given the Republican lean of the district, Democrats are unlikely to mount much of a contest for the seat. One person whose name had been floated, Turlock Mayor John Lazar, said Tuesday that he was not interested in running. “I think it would be an uphill battle for Democrats,— he said, adding that he had not heard of any other Democrats interested in the race in the northern part of the district.

The party, however, might be tempted to go after the seat if Pombo wins the Republican primary, given its success in unseating him in a similar district in 2006. The 19th district had a nearly seven-point Republican registration advantage as of May 2009. The GOP had a just less than a six-point advantage in the 11th district when Pombo lost to Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) in 2006.

Democrats benefited from the ethics cloud swirling around Pombo due to his ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, as well as massive spending from environmental groups, who consider Pombo a sworn enemy due to his efforts to scrap the existing Endangered Species Act.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was already on the attack on Tuesday. “Given his extensive connections to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and indicted former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Richard Pombo defined the type of pay to play politics that voters soundly rejected,— spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement. “Now, Republicans are not only working to return to failed Bush policies, but they’re bringing back the Republican culture of corruption and Pombo’s ethically challenged behavior.—

“If [the GOP nominee] is Pombo, it becomes a major national and very expensive campaign,— Gilliard added.

But Lazar, the Democratic mayor, said he didn’t think Pombo’s past ethics controversies would be a major issue for voters in the race. “I think in the Central Valley it’s going to be bread and butter— issues that dominate, he said. Pombo, he said, has a record of delivering for his constituents, which could be welcome now, given the region’s struggles with drought and unemployment.

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