Fight for 19th District stirs tension, national attention

The reliably Republican 19th Congressional District -- which has been in a political slumber for well over a decade -- has awoken with a bang this year as four ambitious members of the GOP scramble for a rare open seat.

Two are trying for a comeback. Two are seeking a promotion. Their four-way fight has gotten nasty, and it's attracting money and attention nationwide.

"This is really an issue of rare political opportunity," said Tom Holyoke, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno. "Whichever one captures the 19th CD is probably going to be able to keep it for perpetuity."

The unexpected retirement of Mariposa Republican George Radanovich gave the San Joaquin Valley its first open congressional seat since 2004, when Jim Costa was elected to Congress in place of the retiring Cal Dooley.

For 14 years, Radano-vich has represented the conservative district, easily dispatching Democratic opponents. But in December, he announced he was stepping down to spend time with his wife, Ethie, who was ill with cancer. She died a short time later.

The Republican primary in this district -- which stretches from Fresno north through Madera, Mariposa and Tuolumne counties to parts of Modesto -- is really the whole ballgame. Republicans enjoy a solid 43 percent to 37 percent voter-registration advantage. Whoever wins June 8 is almost certain to be sworn in as the district's new congressman in January.

Former Tracy area Rep. Richard Pombo, 49, is trying to find his way back to Congress after being defeated in a 2006 re-election bid in the neighboring 11th Congressional District. State Sen. Jeff Denham of Atwater quickly jumped into the race with the backing of Radanovich.

Like Pombo, Denham, 42, does not live in the district.

Jim Patterson, 62, who served two terms as Fresno's mayor but has been out of office for a decade, is looking to make his political comeback. Fresno City Council President Larry Westerlund, 43, is also seeking the Republican nomination. Both live in Fresno, though Patterson is the only one of the four to reside in the district.

In the meantime, Madera resident Dr. Loraine Goodwin and Les Marsden, who lives in Mariposa, are toiling in relative obscurity on the Democratic Party side.

From the start, the race split the state's Republican congressional delegation. In some cases, it has exacerbated existing tensions. Notably, while Radanovich backs Denham, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, is pulling out all the stops on Pombo's behalf.

On policy, the candidates sound similar.

They are focusing on issues perennially important to Republican voters. There is talk about job creation and opposition to recently approved health care reform legislation, as well as taxes and government regulations.

Denham, for instance, said that "locally, our economy has been devastated," but he feels the single biggest issue is the national debt.

Of more immediate local concern, his opponents say, is the need for an increased water supply for the region's farmers, though they emphasize different priorities.

Patterson is focused on altering an agreement to restore water flows and salmon on a 150-mile stretch of the San Joaquin River between Friant Dam and the Merced River. Pombo has talked of his wish to continue efforts to reform the federal Endangered Species Act, which has resulted in reduced pumping to the Westlands Water District from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Pombo says his experience in the nation's capital will serve him well on such issues, while his opponents would have to take time learning Washington's intricacies.

But Patterson said he, too, could be successful, despite being a congressional neophyte.

"If you are prepared and persistent, rookies can succeed," he said.

Pombo's presence in the race is a major reason it has attracted national attention.

His efforts to reform the Endangered Species Act while chairman of what's now called the House Natural Resources Committee raised the ire of environmental groups, which spent more than $1 million to help unseat Pombo in 2006.

This year, Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington D.C.-based environmental organization, has run a radio ad on Fresno-based KMJ attacking Pombo in his comeback bid. The Wall Street Journal entered the fray with an opinion column that suggested Denham could be in league with the environmental groups.

Denham blamed Pombo for the suggestion. Pombo said he had nothing to do with it.

Pombo started his House career as a 32-year-old former rancher and quintessential outsider.

In time, he drew liberal criticism for his Washington ways that included collecting contributions from tribal gaming interests and paying his wife and brother more than $250,000 for campaign work.

Pombo consistently has said he plays by the rules, and he said most of the criticism is a concerted effort by environmental organizations to smear his name.

While Pombo and Denham clash -- and Pombo fends off attacks from environmental groups -- Patterson has worked on a low budget to highlight what he says are his conservative principles. Patterson signs have proliferated in the Fresno area. Westerlund has quietly worked the district as well, portraying himself as the outsider.

"I don't want power brokers in Sacramento and Washington picking who is going to be our congressperson, and that is what they're trying to do," Westerlund said. "The power brokers who pick this are part of the problem."

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at or 202-383-0006.