Just thirteen men have represented San Joaquin County in the U.S. House of Representatives over the past century. Gerald “Jerry” McNerney became San Joaquin’s latest congressman in 2007, following his defeat of Rep. Richard W. Pombo (R-Tracy).
- James Carson Needham (R-Modesto, 1899-1913, defeated)
- Charles Curry, Sr. (R-Sacramento, 1913-30, died in office)
- Charles “Forrest” Curry, Jr. (R-Sacramento, 1931-33, defeated)
- Frank H. Buck, Jr. (D-Vacaville, 1933-42, died in office)
- J. Leroy Johnson (R-Stockton, 1943-57, defeated)
- John J. McFall (D-Manteca, 1957-79, defeated)
- Norman Shumway (R-Stockton, 1979-91, retired)
- Richard Lehman (D-Sanger, 1983-95, county moved out of district in ’92)
- John Doolittle (R-Rocklin, 1991-2009, county moved out of district in ’92)
- Gary Condit (D-Ceres, 1989-2003, county moved into district in ’92, defeated)
- Richard Pombo (R-Tracy, 1993-2007, defeated)
- Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater, 2003-present)
- Gerald “Jerry” McNerney (D-Pleasanton, 2007-present)
San Joaquin congressmen tend to serve for many years until death or rejection by voters, usually after a scandal. Rarely do they simply retire. Three issues have been of perennial importance to representatives of a county which now has a farm product larger than 14 states: agriculture, foreign trade, and Asian relations.
A century ago, James Carson Needham (R-Modesto) was San Joaquin’s congressman. Born on an emigrant wagon in Carson City, Nev. in 1864, Needham was founder of the Covered Wagon Babies Club. During his 14 years in Congress (1899-1913), he represented most of the San Joaquin Valley. As the West Coast’s sole appointee to the influential Ways and Means committee, he advocated high tariffs on agricultural imports (such as citrus and olive oil) in order to protect California farmers. “Had he been the least bit wobbly on protection, he would not have been appointed,” one newspaper opined. He also supported “pure wine” bills to undercut dried fruit and molasses wines produced in other states. Irrigation was another policy interest as the Valley aspired to upgrade from dry farming. Needham lost his seat in 1912 after San Joaquin was removed from his district.
Charles Curry, Sr. (R-Sacramento) represented San Joaquin, Sacramento, Solano, Yolo, Napa, and Contra Costa counties from 1913 until his death in 1930. He was California Secretary of State from 1899 to 1910, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor. Curry strongly supported California’s Alien Land Law, which restricted property ownership rights for Asian immigrants. “The Japanese are driving the American farmer out of business in California,” he told Congress. “The idea of marriage between whites and Asiatics is revolting,” he added.
As longtime chairman of the House Territories Committee, Curry exerted great influence over Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, and Alaskan affairs – a community on the Alaska Railroad was named for him. Flood control was another policy interest that was key to the region’s development; the Sacramento and Mississippi rivers were the only waterways covered by the first federal flood control act in 1917. Curry obtained federal support for construction of the Stockton ship channel. He also was an aviation advocate who defended the outspoken General “Billy” Mitchell, regarded as the “father of the U.S. Air Force.”
Curry’s death just before the 1930 election set off a three-way write-in vote campaign to determine his replacement. Charles “Forrest” Curry, Jr., longtime aide to his father in Washington, prevailed against state Sen. J.M. Inman (R-Sacramento) and wealthy fruit grower Frank Buck, Jr. (D-Vacaville), both of whom favored ending prohibition. Obliquely criticizing the Curry family, an Inman ad stated, “[Inman] runs on his Own Record … He stands in his Own Shoes.” The son continued his father’s “Curry Service” tradition as Curry Jr. secured new post offices for Lodi and Tracy.
Whereas Curry Sr. amassed enough seniority to become dean of California’s congressional delegation, Curry Jr.’s political career was much shorter. In 1932, Buck ousted him in a re-match. The Great Depression had eroded voters’ faith in Republicans; the Democrats’ “New Deal” offered a new direction. San Joaquin newspaper readers saw dueling ads: Buck’s “The ‘New Deal’ Demands a New Congressman” versus “Cling to Curry … We Do Not Want Any ‘New Deal’ Here – The Present Deal Is the Best for Us.” Radio audiences heard 15-minute paid programs from each camp.
As a Ways and Means committee member in 1935, Buck moved that the “Economic Security Bill” be re-titled “Social Security Act” and stood behind President Franklin Roosevelt as he signed the landmark legislation. Buck repeatedly led efforts to defeat mandatory joint income tax returns, sparing couples in community property states such as California from increased tax bills. He authored laws that cut excise taxes on wine and enhanced Mare Island Naval Yard in Vallejo. A conservative “Bourbon Democrat,” Buck endured a strong primary challenge from a liberal Democrat in 1942. (In the 21st century, Buck’s legacy lives on through Buck Foundation scholarships awarded to college-bound students from the six counties formerly in his congressional district.)
Buck’s death in 1942 cleared the way for J. Leroy Johnson (R-Stockton) to become the first San Joaquin resident to serve in Congress since the retirement of Rep. Samuel Woods (R-Stockton) in 1903. A major backer of “Forrest” Curry in 1932, Johnson was a Stockton planning commissioner and city attorney before he went to Congress in 1943. His ads touted “A Fighting Man for a War Congress.” A World War I combat pilot, he served on the Military Affairs and Armed Services committees during World War II and the Korean War. Johnson often lauded Warren H. Atherton, a Stockton attorney and National Commander of the American Legion, who became known as the “Father of the G.I. Bill of Rights.”
During World War II, Johnson advocated not only deportation of Japanese aliens but also expatriation of many Japanese American citizens. “I point out that the Japanese are a nonassimilable race,” he explained on the House floor in 1943, “no matter whether they are here for 100 years or 200 years, they will never become assimilated in the way that European races assimilate with the rest of the Americans.”
Making Johnson’s age (68) a campaign issue, Assemblyman John J. McFall (D-Manteca) defeated him in 1956. Newspaper editorials criticized Johnson for his “inaction.” McFall’s ads declared: “Elect A Working Congressman” and “the REAL issue is a COMPETENT Congressman.”
Johnson reminded voters that he authored the Civil Air Patrol Act and claimed responsibility for creation of the Central Intelligence Agency. His ads displayed his photo with the popular President Dwight Eisenhower, then running for re-election. “Vote for a Record Not a Promise,” the ad pleaded, “Keep Roy Johnson on IKE’S Team.”
McFall rose the highest in Congress of all San Joaquin representatives. He was the Majority Whip, the third-highest House officer, from 1973 to 1977. As chairman of the Appropriations transportation subcommittee, he secured funding for the Highway 120 Manteca bypass, among other San Joaquin projects. He backed construction of New Melones and New Hogan dams and supported the Johnson and Nixon Administrations’ funding of the Vietnam Conflict.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Norman Shumway (R-Stockton) defeated McFall in 1978, when all four of the Valley’s then-existing congressional districts turned over. McFall was implicated in the “Koreagate” influence-peddling scandal, leading to persistent articles about his alleged ethical lapses in district newspapers. The House reprimanded him for failing to report a $3,000 campaign contribution from Tongsun Park, a flamboyant South Korean rice broker.
Furthermore, McFall’s series of easy campaigns made him complacent. “John hasn’t had a tough race before, he doesn’t know how to campaign,” former aide Irv Sprague told supporters. McFall’s ads featured endorsements from major national and local political figures with the message, “We NEED John McFall in Congress … he can get the job done!”
An ad of dubious origin from a mysterious “Chinese Committee to Re-Elect Congressman John McFall” run by a “Mr. Wong” appeared in newspapers just before the election. It declared, “It is a proven fact to us that request for aid is given with dispatch and expedience.” McFall narrowly won San Joaquin, but Shumway decisively took the foothill counties added to the district in 1975.
Shumway sat on the Banking, Merchant Marine, and Aging committees during his six terms in Congress. Fluent in Japanese from his service as a Mormon missionary, he led congressional delegations to Japan in the 1980s. Shumway voted against the 1988 legislation that made reparations to Japanese internees during World War II. The only San Joaquin congressman to leave office voluntarily in the 20th century, Shumway retired in 1990.
In the 1980s, San Joaquin was split into two districts that stretched from the Oregon border to Fresno. Assemblyman Richard Lehman (D-Sanger) was elected in 1982 to a district that included the south county and much of Stockton and encompassed foothill counties in order to pick up his residence in Fresno County. Shumway’s district stretched from Stockton-Lodi to the Mount Shasta region. After Shumway retired, ex-state Sen. John Doolittle (R-Rocklin) represented his portion of San Joaquin for one term.
Gary Condit (D-Ceres) represented the Vernalis area in the 1990s. Linked to Chandra Levy, a former congressional intern from Modesto who was found dead in Washington in 2001, Condit was defeated by Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater) in the 2002 primary election. Democrats in the state legislature assured Cardoza’s election by drawing central Stockton into his district. In November 2002, Cardoza lost to state Sen. Dick Monteith (R) in Merced and Stanislaus counties, but squeaked into office on the strength of San Joaquin’s votes.
Richard Pombo vaulted from the Tracy City Council into Congress in 1993, after defeating Sacramento County Supervisor Sandra Smoley, a moderate Republican, and Patti Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), wife of the then-State Insurance Commissioner, in a new 11th Congressional District that covered most of San Joaquin and southern Sacramento counties (Elk Grove). Pombo defeated Smoley by about 5,200 votes (36%-27%) in June 1992 and Garamendi by about 4,000 votes (47.6%-45.6%) that November.
Pombo was among the minority of House Republicans who voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. He rose to the chairmanship of the Resources committee where he advocated reform of environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. In 2002, Sacramento County and central Stockton, French Camp, and Lathrop were dropped and Republican-leaning communities in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties were added to the district.
Jerry McNerney, a renewable energy expert who designed windmills in the Altamont Pass, first challenged Pombo in 2004. After winning the Democratic nomination through a write-in campaign, he lost to Pombo by a wide margin (39%-61%) and ran behind John Kerry (who won 45% of the CD-11 presidential vote). Allegations of ethical violations by Pombo subsequently came to light, linking him to Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who ultimately pled guilty to corruption charges.
In 2006, ex-Rep. Pete McCloskey waged a vigorous primary challenge against Pombo, environmental organizations relentlessly attacked Pombo’s record, and voters’ mailboxes filled with slick booklets. President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, and First Lady Laura Bush appeared for Pombo; former President Bill Clinton campaigned with McNerney. Hundreds of precinct workers registered voters and advocated house-by-house for their candidates.
The “air war” was intense. In recognition of the sprawling district’s political diversity, McNerney’s Valley television ads bluntly declared, “Pombo’s got to go!” where his Bay Area ads emphasized his opposition to the Iraq war. A “Veterans for Pombo” attack ad was pulled in the final days and replaced with one in which Pombo spoke directly to viewers, declaring “I won’t back down when it comes to fighting for the things that I believe in.” The national Republican party spent $1.4 million to aid Pombo, including a television spot which alleged that McNerney would grant billions in public benefits to illegal immigrants. “Americans for Conservation,” an independent expenditure group, ran anti-Pombo T.V. ads. The morning before the election, more than half of all local ads on KXTV concerned the McNerney-Pombo race.
Aided by a countrywide anti-Republican trend, McNerney prevailed in his 2006 re-match, 53% to 47%. It was the only congressional seat to switch parties of the 70 districts in the Pacific Coast states. Pombo spent $4.6 million ($48 per vote) compared to $2.4 million by McNerney ($22 per vote). San Joaquin narrowly favored Pombo, but McNerney dominated the Bay Area counties to become the thirteenth congressman to represent San Joaquin County in the past century.
In 2008, McNerney defeated former Assemblyman Dean Andal of Stockton by a comfortable margin (55%-45%) as Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate in 12 years to win in San Joaquin County. Rising energy prices ($4 per gallon gasoline irked commuters) and plummeting home values (the county’s home foreclosure rate led the nation) were major issues. Andal’s campaign theme was “Energy for America.” McNerney spent $3.0 million ($18 per vote) compared to $1.4 million by Andal ($11 per vote).
In 2009, McNerney was appointed to the Energy and Commerce committee, which is shaping climate change and health care legislation during the Obama Administration. The 11th Congressional District is again destined to be in the national spotlight in 2010.