Politics & Government

California race draws vacationing volunteers from Washington

WASHINGTON — Political junkies are gravitating toward the Northern San Joaquin Valley, seeking action and maybe a career boost in one of California's few competitive congressional campaigns.

As incumbent Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, battles Republican challenger Dean Andal, congressional staffers from both parties are arriving for a busman's holiday. They're taking vacation time but devoting it to politics, a common practice upon which many campaigns rely.

"There are going to be Republicans from all over the country working on that race," noted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia. "Most of our people will be taking time off to work on campaigns."

From the other side of the Capitol Hill aisle, Democratic press secretary Bret Rumbeck agreed that "as we get closer to November 4th, this place empties out more and more." Increasingly, the destination de jour is the 11th Congressional District that stretches from Ripon to Morgan Hill.

The temporary migration reveals a bit about how Congress works.

Few House incumbents face serious challenges. Even in 2006, when McNerney first won election and Democrats regained congressional control, 94 percent of House incumbents won re-election. The overall House re-election rate hasn't fallen below 85 percent in the past 40 years.

Consequently, congressional staffers with a hankering for politics and ambition to burn gravitate to the handful of races where the outcome is actually in doubt. McNerney's seat fits that category. He had $1 million available in the campaign bank as of Sept. 30 compared to Andal's $849,747. On the other hand, Republicans enjoy a 41 percent to 38 percent voter registration advantage over Democrats.

"It's a district that should be in Republican hands," Nunes said.

Four or five of Nunes' staffers, including chief of staff Johnny Amaral, will be aiding Andal. Spencer Pederson, press secretary for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, added that "we'll definitely have a presence" as well, with a "couple of people" volunteering.

McNerney's campaign, in turn, will be boosted by volunteers like Fresno native Monica Carmean, an Edison High School and Northwestern University graduate who works alongside Rumbeck in the office of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

"This is the most pivotal year I've seen in my lifetime," Carmean declared Monday.

The outside staffers are taking vacation time to campaign. So are some of McNerney's own employees, including congressional press secretary Andy Stone. They must keep a bright line separating their legislative and their political work, including using separate phones and e-mail addresses.

"A couple of other (McNerney) staffers will also be taking time off, here and there," Stone said.

The political work, of course, can serve multiple purposes. It enhances a resume. It breeds contacts. And some staffers just like the adrenalin rush of campaigning or the thought of making a difference.

"From the nuts and bolts perspective, I always emphasize to our staff the value of learning what you can't learn at a hearing or in a textbook," Amaral said Monday.

Nor are quasi-vacationing congressional staffers the only outside players in the 11th Congressional District race. Outside funding, which helped McNerney defeat incumbent Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy two years, is again pouring in. In 2006, McNerney benefited from big spending by national environmental organizations.

This year, a Washington-based anti-tax group called Club for Growth is weighing in big-time on the Republican's behalf. The organization and its allies account for about one in every 10 dollars contributed to Andal's campaign, federal election records show.