TRACY – During a debate Saturday night, Congressman Jerry McNerney got his biggest applause from the crowd during a moment when his opponent was attacking him.
Republican nominee Dean Andal said the group Americans for Democratic Action “recently ranked Jerry as one of the most liberal Congressmen in America.” This set off the single biggest cheer of the night — from scores of people in white McNerney t-shirts who made it clear they were fine with that record.
“Apparently we have some of those liberals here tonight,” Andal said with a smile when the cheers subsided.
The entire scene that night would have been unimaginable a few years ago in what was once one of the more reliably Republican parts of the state. Before the debate, sign-waving McNerney supporters outnumbered Andal backers several times over outside the gymnasium of Monte Vista Middle School. This old farming community turned Bay Area bedroom community sent local ultra-conservative Richard Pombo to Congress seven straight times. In 2004, he crushed McNerney by 22 points.
For the record, Andal’s line was accurate. The liberal group gave McNerney a 95 percent voting score on 20 key bills, trailing 53 members of Congress who got perfect scores. Where Americans for Democratic Action differed with McNerney was on one of the key areas where Andal attacked him—he voted against H.R. 2237, a bill that called of the U.S. to withdraw all troops from Iraq in 180 days. Throughout the nearly two hour debate, Andal ravaged McNerney for two votes where he said the congressman failed to support funding for the troops; McNerney replied that he only voted against bills that continued to allow President George W. Bush open-ended authority to continue the war.
H.R. 2237 isn’t the only vote where McNerney has angered liberals. In July of last year, he was the only Bay Area Congressman to vote against a bill that would have barred federal authorities from interfering with state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries. Not only did McNerney fail to join 153 other Democrats, he riled activists by trying to link pot use to methamphetamines in statements afterwards.
Then there was McNerney’s vote to condemn MoveOn.org—a group Andal noted has repeatedly given money to McNerney—for the ad in which they referred to former US Iraq commander David Petraeus as “General Betray Us.” Not to mention his vote for last year’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
“I’ve been hammered by the Left for that one,” McNerney said in a phone interview the day before the debate. He added, “There’s been some difficult votes, but on many of them, I’ve fallen on what would be considered the more conservative side.”
All of which may help explain why, according to most counts, McNerney seems to hold a small lead in this closely-divided district. This despite a narrow Republican registration lead in the district, which snakes from the East Bay town of Pleasanton, across the Altamont Pass and up to Stockton—though it omits the reliably-Democratic heart of that otherwise conservative city.
Andal has also been criticized for weak fundraising. But his campaign reported a strong third quarter, with $348,000 raised. They’re going into the final days with almost $850,000 in the bank.
Still, McNerney left to cheers and chants from his larger crowd, despite a debate where even some supporters said he didn’t do as well as he could have against a more articulate Andal. Multiple people pointed to McNerney’s failure to pin Andal down on his controversial role advising a developer involved in a new campus for San Joaquin Delta College being built a few miles away at Mountain House. A member of that college’s board, Ted Simas, has said repeatedly that Andal was involved in illegal, behind-the-scenes communications with other board members.
But when McNerney tried to jump an Andal for Brown Act violations, Andal replied “The Brown Act doesn’t deal with confidentiality issues. The Brown Act deals with the education code.”
McNerney dropped the attack at that point, despite the fact that Andal misspoke. The Brown Act is the main state law demanding that state business, including that done by boards and commissions, such as community college boards, should be done in public.
Meanwhile, Andal clearly hammered his opponent from the get-go, saying in his opening statement: “On the big issues of the day, I think he has shown very poor judgment.”
Andal then launched into a set of attacks that have become fairly standard this campaign season. He charged that McNerney voted for raising taxes and against supporting the troops. Some of his biggest applause lines came when he talked about McNerney’s vote for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout bill. McNerney replied that he supported the second bill after new provisions were added, including protections for taxpayers and mortgage-holders, because he wanted to avoid a shut-down of credit markets.
While the financial meltdown has generally played in favor of Democrats this fall, particularly in the presidential race, many Andal supporters present had an alternate view that’s been gaining ground in GOP circles. Wade Holden and Adam Ellison—current and past presidents of the College Republicans at the University of the Pacific in Stockton—repeated an explanation for the mortgage crisis starts when President Carter signed the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. This over-regulation, with banks forced to give loans to people who couldn’t afford them, expanded under Clinton, they said.
But as the debate went on, it seemed to become clear the men were playing to different crowds. One Andal supporter—and middle-aged Asian-American woman wearing a lot of jewelry—gave them thumbs down sign whenever McNerney spoke. Another Andal backer, and older man in Wrangler jeans and a worn flannel shirt, gave a running commentary with lines like “He’s three times the man McNerney is.”
But Andal’s supporters were definitely outnumbered. Whenever he did manage to pin McNerney down on a liberal-sounding position, the majority of the crowd seemed to approve. For instance, late in the debate, he demanded McNerney give a position on Proposition 8, which would repeal the June state Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
McNerney replied, “I’m against Proposition 8 because I’m against limiting the civil rights Americans in this country, period.” The applause from the McNerney side of he room clearly drowned out the boos from Andal supporters.
If there was an unspoken presence in the room, it was that of Pombo. “This is a completely different race,” said John Franklin, who was working the Andal table before the debate, when asked about Pombo.
But the former Congressman, who did not attend, was still relevant to many McNerney supporters. “Jerry has done more for vets in two years than Pombo did in almost 20, said McNerney-backer Michael Kaelin; another, Richard Slezak of Tracy, spoke of how for years the Pombo clan had been treated like they were above the law.
When asked if any of them had ever been Pombo supporters in the past, a group of McNerney backers replied with derisive laughter. When asked how long they had been in the district, several replied they had moved to town in the past three or four years. Others identified themselves as being from Pleasanton and other East Bay towns that we redistricted into the 11th district in 2000.
Some at the debate seemed to feel besieged by a rising tide of liberals in this once-rural area. Ellison, with the Pacific Co
llege Republicans, said that he grew up in the nearby town of Turlock, but moved away for eight years ago. When he returned to attend college, the town had more than doubled in size.
“I think it’s great that the town is growing,” Ellison said. “But I’m not necessarily thrilled that it’s all East Bay commuters.”
The Andal campaign did not return calls seeking comment for this story.