By Charles Case - 03/26/07 06:25 PM EDT
In ritualized performances, congressmen express acute interest — fascination, even — as they visit parking ramps and cattle sheds in the name of constituent outreach. Their game faces say, “Yes, I know this is a pencil factory, but baby, I’m smiling like it’s the Taj Mahal.”
On a recent evening in Morgan Hill, Calif., just south of San Jose, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D), the newly elected congressman for California’s 11th district, was trying out his glad-handing moves at a Safeway. The supermarket chain’s corporate offices are in the freshman lawmaker’s district, and its executives turned out to give McNerney an in-depth tour of the meat and dairy aisles, staff and press in tow. While no groceries were bagged — the man wasn’t campaigning — there was a tasting in the produce department.
Congressman, the pineapple. Pineapple, the congressman.
McNerney’s election last year was something of an historical upset. He bucked the conventional wisdom about an outsider’s chances to win a House race in California, beating Rep. Richard Pombo (R). Still, the area’s Republican slant means McNerney has to work his district hard, hitting meeting after meeting. Before his refreshing fruit interlude, he already had parlayed with unions, conferred with a veterans’ support group and talked natural resources at the Morgan Creek town hall. A congressman’s life isn’t around the world in 80 days, but around the day in 80 worlds, he’s learning.
McNerney has launched “Congress at Your Corner,” a series of meet-and-greets at shopping malls and grocery stores at which he makes himself available to constituents — hence his presence at the Safeway. But sometimes the best-laid plans go awry.
The store suffered a power outage when McNerney and his team arrived, so staffers huddled on the sidewalk, joking about the predicament. When the lights went up, everyone cheered and streamed inside.
McNerney was perched by a small, balloon-festooned table positioned near the cashiers, greeting shoppers when it all went dark again. For the next half-hour, the lights flashed on and off. A few voters approached, but most patrons seemed more focused on getting their ice cream home before it melted. Finally McNerney staffers were dispatched, somewhat reluctantly, to spread the word that the congressman was in the building.
People gathered ’round, and the conversation tipped to schools and the war in Iraq, with many congratulating McNerney on his victory over Pombo. Pictures were taken, baristas wandered over from Starbucks bearing samples and a cashier shyly asked for McNerney’s autograph. The political science student-cum-checkout-girl said she wanted it for her teacher.
“I feel like I really connect with people,” McNerney said. “It’s kind of fun to listen to people talk about things they care so much about.”
McNerney’s not into Clintonesque, leading-man flamboyance. He’s a listener, rather than an entertainer, with no Beltway ego in sight. Friendly, quiet and unprepossessing, McNerney’s body slips into a slouch until it’s his turn to speak. McNerney often seems to float through meetings, subdued to the point of sleepiness. Yet when called upon, he intervenes with sharp responses to his constituents’ concerns, whether involving veterans’ benefits or the minutiae of water resource management.
His level of calm is all the more remarkable because before Congress, McNerney had never held a single elected position in his life. There were no high school class presidencies, no city council or assembly races to season him for Washington. In fact, there was no indicator of political aspiration at all until three years ago, when McNerney was 52.
“I had no political ambition early on,” McNerney said coolly. “I had no ambition even as an adult.”
It was McNerney’s son Michael who guilt-talked his father into running for office. Michael joined the military in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Receiving his absentee ballot for the 2004 primary, the younger McNerney realized that Pombo was running unopposed. So Michael rang his father and pushed him to compete on the Democratic slate.
“He said, ‘Dad, now it’s your turn. Go get in there,’” the new lawmaker explained. “I kind of took it as a joke or something. He called me several days later and said, ‘Dad, have you filed papers yet? Time’s running out.’”
With the ballot already printed, McNerney had to run as a write-in candidate. “I had two weeks to convince 1,740 people to write my name down on the ballot,” McNerney said. He lost in 2004, 61 to 39 percent. In 2006, McNerney beat Pombo by six points, the first committee chairman to be unseated in a decade.
Before McNerney went to the Hill, and before he wrote novels and developed wind-turbine technology, he earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of New Mexico. He’s the only mathematician in the House.
Ultimately, McNerney decided that academia was too rarified an atmosphere for his taste. “It came to me at one point: Maybe I’m not a genius, and I should do something a little more concrete,” McNerney said. “There are just so many math professors out there, and I respect them. They do scholarly articles, and that’s good and beautiful, but it’s not for me.”
Approaching San Francisco from the east, travelers who descend through the Altamont Pass must travel through a forest of skyscraping white windmills. In this unforgettable panorama, among other places, Jerry McNerney made a career as a wind engineer and energy consultant.
McNerney, whose features resemble those of a rugged outdoorsman, recalled his fieldwork on windmills with fondness. “I loved climbing windmills. The workers were fun and eccentric. You could see the coyotes and the hawks.” McNerney created HAWT Power, a start-up in wind-turbine technology. (Upon his election to Congress, McNerney closed the company books.)
McNerney has claimed that his work in renewable energy helped contribute to conserving the equivalent of about 30 million barrels of oil, or 8.3 million tons of carbon dioxide.
While clearly excited by his new stature, McNerney can’t help expressing an engineer’s perplexity with the untidiness of legislating. “It’s so chaotic, the congressional process,” he said. “Voting, committees — nobody’s ever there for committee hearings. How do we get things done around here? I’m sure there’s an underlying order I don’t quite comprehend.”
McNerney hustled hard to get elected, but there’s still a sense that his victory was something of a Christmas miracle. So he’s being groomed and promoted by leadership with an eye to holding his swing seat. A prime appointment to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, an opportunity to deliver the Democrats’ weekly radio address blasting President Bush on Iraq and mentoring from leading members of the California delegation are all testaments to the Democrats’ desire to keep the 11th district.
Asked which word he feels best describes Bush, McNerney uttered two: “Maliciously irresponsible,” adding, “This president is a very bad president.”
But should the perilous demographics of his district upset his plans to remain on the Hill, McNerney has a fallback career: He’s a writer. A fan of Dostoevsky and Cervantes — he cites Don Quixote as a particular favorite, an unsurprising choice given his connection to windmills — McNerney became most expansive when talking books, especially his own. He has penned a Cold War-era thriller about nuclear weapons à la Tom Clancy, a roman à clef dramatizing his experiences as corporate whistleblower and a supernatural shocker.
“I wrote a horror story, which I think was a really excellent story,” McNerney said with gusto, describing Eternity Club. “It’s about a cult that feels the way to eternal life is to become a ghost or a haunter. So they develop a theology about how to do that, and start practicing on each other. They have a big massacre. And that was just the first few chapters.”
Though he has only self-published his work, McNerney remains hopeful that his oeuvre will reach a wider audience. This seems especially true of a satirical diet book that McNerney compiled with his daughter, Windy — whom he named after The Association’s pop song of 1967.
“It just dawned on me when I was in a restaurant once, if something’s greasy, and you wouldn’t want to put it on your face, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. That’s the basis of the diet book — the ‘On Your Face Diet.’”
“It gets some laughs,” he said. “It was fun to write. Maybe after I’m more secure in Congress I can release that one, too.”