In order to get an idea of how Paul “Pete” McCloskey came to be at odds with
much of the rest of the Republican Party, one needs to go back more than two
decades before his quixotic primary run against President Richard Nixon to a
boat carrying Marines to combat in Korea. Another young Marine named Pat
Robertson bragged that his dad was a Senator and he wasn’t going to see
combat, McCloskey said.
“I’ll be darned if he didn’t get himself taken off that ship,” McCloskey
said. “He became a liquor officer. He never heard a shot fired in anger.”
Robertson has denied the charge, saying instead he spent his tour in Japan
helping wounded soldiers. But McCloskey said it was an important moment for
him–and helped lead to an obsession with stamping out the preferential
treatment that comes with power.
McCloskey’s description of Robertson, meanwhile, reads like a valentine
compared to his characterization of Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, who
McCloskey is challenging in a Republican primary for the seat Pombo has held
for 15 years.
“Mr. Pombo stands for everything that’s evil, in my mind,” McCloskey told
Much of the media coverage of McCloskey’s run has centered on Pombo’s
efforts to revise the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which McCloskey helped
write while serving in Congress from 1967 to 1983. While Pombo has claimed
the act doesn’t work, environmental groups and McCloskey have both claimed
he is trying to destroy the ESA. One draft of Pombo’s ESA overhaul built in
a 2015 sunset clause for the act. Debating Pombo in a high-school auditorium
in Tracy last month, McCloskey launched right in on this charge.
“His purpose, and he said so in a book 10 years ago, is to destroy the
Endangered Species Act,” McCloskey said, referring to Pombo’s 1996 book This
Land Is Our Land: How to End the War on Private Property.
However, McCloskey said Pombo’s ESA efforts constitute “10 percent” of the
reason for his run. In Tracy, he spent far more time hammering away at
Pombo’s vote against prosthetic research for Iraqi War veterans. While Pombo
has defended this vote, saying it was about base-closing legislation he
opposed, McCloskey supporters like to point out Pombo’s zero rating from the
group Disabled American Veterans.
Much of the rest has to do with what McCloskey said is a pattern of
corruption by Pombo: not returning money from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his
clients, voting to protect Speaker Tom DeLay and paying his wife for
campaign work. McCloskey said he is one of the most corrupt members of a
Republican party that has lost its way. After all, McCloskey said, he saw
congressional corruption up close in the 1980s when Democrats had the
power–and therefore the opportunity to abuse it.
“The ethics in Washington are as bad as they have ever been,” McCloskey told
the crowd in Tracy, eliciting equal parts boos and cheers.
For a primary debate, McCloskey, Pombo and their supporters used the kind of
language usually reserved for the other party. Pombo could barely open his
mouth without someone in the crowd yelling “liar.” “That ain’t no man,” said
someone else when McCloskey entered the room. Pombo, for his part, has said
McCloskey lied about his record. He also characterized McCloskey as a
carpetbagger who has spent “three months learning the district.”
Others have dismissed McCloskey as “not a Republican.” But McCloskey insists
he still has a place in the Republican Party–even as it has moved to the
right, followed by a Democratic Party that had spent the 1960s and ’70s
moving left. In recent years, the Democrats increasingly have opened their
doors to pro-business and even more socially conservative candidates.
Meanwhile, some in the GOP have tried to expel secular, pro-choice
“Republicans in Name Only.”
“I’ve been a Republican since 1948, before Pombo was born,” McCloskey said.
Later, he added, “They would call Barry Goldwater a RINO today.”
Periodically, McCloskey said, he has seen hope for his party–such as in 2000
when Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, mounted a serious early challenge to
George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination. However, he said,
McCain has wasted that momentum in an effort to get back in the party’s good
“It made me sick to see Jerry Falwell standing next to John McCain,” he
After two decades in retirement, McCloskey said, he couldn’t take it any
more. He gave money to Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004. Last year, he
began looking for someone to run against Pombo. His top choices included
both Republicans, like Tracy’s young sprawl-fighting lawyer Mark Connolly,
and several Democrats. Like many others, his favorite was Sen. Mike Machado,
D-Linden, a moderate Democratic with San Joaquin County roots.
When Machado begged off, citing family, fatigue and fund-raising issues,
McCloskey moved into the district to run himself. He admits that he doesn’t
know if he has a chance to win in a heavily gerrymandered district, which
meanders across “four counties and three mountain ranges.” But given that it
also cuts out the Democratic heart of Stockton, he said, an upstart
Republican may have a better chance than any of the three Democrats
challenging Pombo (Steve Filson, Jerry McNerney and Stevan Thomas).
“I’m not sure any of the three can beat him, with all the money he has,”
McCloskey said. “I think the best chance of beating him is in the Republican