During his career in politics, Pete McCloskey has gone up against the likes of Shirley Temple Black, Richard Nixon and Pete Wilson.
Now the former environmental lawyer and Republican congressman from the San Francisco peninsula is seriously pondering doing battle in the GOP primary next June against Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy, whom McCloskey regards as an affront to the Republican principles of his day.
McCloskey also is taking aim at a Pombo ally, GOP Rep. John Doolittle of Roseville, by financing acerbic billboard ads and scouting for primary election challengers.
"You've got everything I've spent my life involved in since I was 21 years old - the Marines, the environment, honesty in government, independent judiciary - all of those things are being challenged by a Republican Party of which these are ringleaders in Northern California," McCloskey said during a long conversation last week on his back porch.
Pombo and Doolittle, in office since the early 1990s, remain unconcerned about McCloskey.
McCloskey "was certainly by no means a mainstream Republican in his day," said Wayne Johnson, Pombo's longtime political consultant. "So he is not the one to tell us the way it was any more than he is the person to tell us the way it is today."
Still, McCloskey is sure that he can at least force Pombo to confront some difficult issues.
"I ain't going to get elected," he said. "But somebody's going to know they were in a hell of a fight."
Tough fights in his own party
McCloskey ran for Congress in 1968 as an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. Known as a maverick Republican, he often had a very difficult primary against a conservative Republican before winning easily against his Democratic opponent in the general election.
Campaigns were so tight during the primary elections in the 1960s and '70s that he pleaded with Democrats to register as Republicans so they can help him win the primary battle.
McCloskey says he's not asking Democrats in Pombo's district to change their registration or request a Republican ballot. He wants this battle to be among Republicans about what direction the party should take.
Pete McCloskey: At a glanceFull name: Paul Norton McCloskey Jr.
Born: Sept. 29, 1927, Loma Linda
President: Ran in Republican primary in 1972 against incumbent Richard Nixon
Military: U.S. Navy, 1947; U.S. Marine Corps, 1950-52
A staunch opponent of the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago, McCloskey also opposes the Iraq war, so much that he went against his party and endorsed John Kerry in last year's presidential election. McCloskey maintains that the United States should have focused on capturing terrorrist leader Osama bin Laden instead of sending troops to Iraq.
Paul Norton "Pete" McCloskey Jr. knows something about fights. After graduating from Stanford Law School, 2nd Lt. McCloskey commanded a Marine Corps rifle platoon in the Korean War and led six bayonet charges. He was awarded a Navy Cross, a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.
His political battles have been no less trying. McCloskey defeated Black, a much better-known candidate due to her child acting career, to win a House seat in 1967 representing the southern San Francisco peninsula.
Sought Vietnam War end, Nixon impeachment
He unsuccessfully sought in 1969 to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which had authorized military action in Vietnam, and he ran against Nixon in 1972 for the Republican presidential nomination, earning just one delegate. A year later, he called for Nixon's impeachment.
In 1982, he sought the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate finishing second to Wilson, then San Diego mayor. McCloskey's House term ended soon after.
Since then, McCloskey has been out of the limelight, tending to his Redwood City law practice that specializes in property law, and spending weekends at his organic olive and orange ranch tucked into the far reaches of northwestern Yolo County.
At 78, his thick mane and bushy eyebrows have turned from black to salt and pepper, heavy on the salt.
He has been increasingly irritated with his party's direction on environmental policy, ethics, the Iraq war and other issues, prodding him and nine other former GOP House members to write a series of critical letters to Republican congressional leaders earlier this year.
He also formed Revolt of the Elders, an independent expenditure committee that works against Republicans he and allies consider dubious. The group financed anti-Doolittle ads on a Roseville billboard last summer. He's also been speaking out around the nation as well, even visiting Houston to call for the defeat of Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas.
"I think he - and that includes me - is totally (ticked) off about what has happened to the Republican Party," said Lewis H. Butler, an old McCloskey pal who left the Nixon administration in 1971 over Vietnam policy. "Here's a guy like Pombo just desecrating the environmental laws that we worked on 30 years ago."
Pombo, a longtime foe of the Endangered Species Act, has been pushing a major rewrite of the law, which McCloskey co-sponsored in 1973.
Easy campaigns for Pombo
First elected in 1992, Pombo has experienced few problems winning re-election in a strongly Republican district that stretches west from San Joaquin County to the East Bay community of Danville and Morgan Hill, near San Jose.
At least three Democrats have entered next year's race, while McCloskey and Butler have tried to persuade Tracy attorney Mark Connolly to challenge Pombo in the GOP primary.
Auburn City Councilman Mike Holmes, a Republican, has announced his candidacy against Doolittle. While Connolly said he agrees with McCloskey on a number of issues, including support for the Endangered Species Act, he also voiced an unwillingness to expend the time and effort an arduous campaign would require.
"I have no doubt that in a face-to-face debate, McCloskey would destroy Pombo," Connolly said. "Pombo hasn't been required to confront what he's been doing. A Democrat hasn't been able to make that happen. I think it needs another Republican to make people really listen."
However, Johnson, the campaign consultant, contended that Pombo remains popular among his constituents. He noted that McCloskey lives far from the district and suggested McCloskey's motivation comes down to the desire for a "grudge match" over the Endangered Species Act.
"He doesn't want anybody to touch it," Johnson said of the law. A call requesting comment from Doolittle's spokeswoman was not returned.
Listening to McCloskey muse about Pombo, there is little doubt that the congressman's views on the species law riles him . But McCloskey also points to the support Pombo and Doolittle provided to a measure last year to give Congress the ability to overrule Supreme Court decisions, as well as Pombo's recent proposal to sell off public lands.
McCloskey also frequently returns to ethics, citing the campaign contributions that Pombo and Doolittle accepted from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is under federal investigation for influence peddling.
"To me, it's anger. It's almost rage," McCloskey said about his motivations. "The idea that the Supreme Court should be overruled by a (two-thirds) majority … is infuriating. I mean, that's not democracy."
Matt Wetstein, a political scientist at Delta College in Stockton, said Pombo should take heed about the voter discontent that national polls are finding. There is such a "deep reservoir of mistrust and skepticism about Congress right now that I would feel worried if I were an incumbent," Wetstein said.
Moving to Lodi?
If Connolly decides not to run by late next month and no other like candidate steps up, McCloskey said he will move to Tracy, or possibly Lodi, and challenge Pombo. It may turn out to be, as he acknowledged, the swan song for an old warhorse from a wing of the Republican Party that has been dwindling.
"I know there are still Republicans like me," he said. "We're undoubtedly in the minority. But in my judgment, the majority in the Republican Party - the Pat Robertsons, the Grover Norquists, the Karl Roves - I think they are bad for the country. And I think they have made one of the two political parties bad for the country."
McCloskey put the situation succinctly, "Congressmen are like diapers; they need to be changed, and for the same reason."
News-Sentinel staff writer Ross Farrow contributed to this report.