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Earlier this year, Bilbray, who’s spent a quarter century as an elected official in local and federal government, emerged from a field of 18 Republicans to beat Democrat Francine Busby and claim the seat for the six months remaining in Cunningham’s term.
Today, Bilbray, 55, is once again an incumbent and facing Busby again in the Nov. 7 election. If Bilbray, considered to be the frontrunner, wins, he’ll solidify a new foothold in the heavily Republican district. It wouldn’t be a bad second act for a professional and perpetual politician who, despite small town roots and no college diploma, has parlayed his image as an environmentally conscious, moderate Republican into a lifetime of political successes.
Although Bilbray frequently plays-up his background as a surfer with strong ties to water quality issues, his critics in the environmental community say his voting record hasn’t always kept pace with his rhetoric. Bilbray defends his record as the inevitable result of career spent more focused on getting the job done than seeking pats on the back, but he said some things have changed.
“I’ve gone from the radical beach kid to being the elder statesman,” Bilbray said. “That’s what happens in 30 years.”
Born at North Island, where his father was a Navy officer, Bilbray was raised in Imperial Beach. Although an uncle was an elected official in Las Vegas, he wasn’t exposed to politics until his father died of lung cancer when Bilbray was still in the 10th grade.
Bilbray got his mother involved with a local citizens group that was launching a recall campaign in Imperial Beach as a way of keeping her occupied. He spent a lot of time at her side listening and became well versed in the strategies of small city politics.
Bilbray attended community college after high school, but later dropped out. He spent a year tooling around the United States on a motorcycle before returning to Imperial Beach to resume a seasonal job as a lifeguard.
It was at his post on the beach that Bilbray encountered two issues – pollution from the Tijuana River and drugs – that would eventually compel the 24-year-old with shoulder-length, razor-cut hair and a beard to run for public office.
Ignoring the objections of his mother’s political group, Bilbray ran for the City Council in 1976 and managed to unseat an incumbent. Two years later he became mayor at 27.
As mayor, Bilbray risked running afoul of environmental laws and used a bulldozer to dam up the mouth of the Tijuana River, which fouled Imperial Beach’s shoreline with millions of gallons of Mexican sewage.
The event was part of “a bureaucratic trap” set for various government agencies that refused to take action, Bilbray said. When officials arrived to stop him, he calculated that they would have to arrest the mayor and explain why they weren’t preventing sewage from spilling into the ocean.
The officials arrived before Bilbray could complete the dam and, in the end, promised to address the problem if he would give them a 24-hour reprieve. He agreed, and they took action within days.
Over the years, Bilbray has built his political legacy on the incident and continues to tout it as representative of his style of governance.
“The big difference that you’ll find when Brian Bilbray works on an issue is I’m a hands-on guy,” Bilbray said. “I’m that lifeguard that says all of these laws don’t matter if I’m rescuing kids swimming in sewage.”
But not everyone remembers the incident so fondly.
“When Brian was mayor, he was a thug,” said Serge Dedina, the cofounder of the conservation group Wildcoast, who was 16 when Bilbray tried to dam the river.
Afraid the dammed sewage would flood into the nearby estuary, Dedina and several other Imperial Beach residents tried to block Bilbray’s bulldozer with their bodies. Punches were thrown between the protestors and Bilbray supporters and Bilbray eventually used the machine to dump putrid water and dirt on Dedina and others.
“I was probably a lot more brash then I should have been,” Bilbray said. “I think a lot of people may say the same thing now.”
After a failed attempt for state Assembly in 1982, Bilbray married Karen Palmer, an accountant, and became a stepfather to three children. The couple went on to have three children of their own, including a son who died as an infant of crib death while Bilbray was campaigning for county supervisor.
Bilbray’s willingness to take extreme measures to improve water quality in Imperial Beach helped him unseat Tom Hamilton, the incumbent county supervisor in the primary election.
“He has changed so little,” said Jack Orr, a Republican political consultant who ran Bilbray’s campaigns for the Assembly and county supervisor. “He’s still the exuberant throw-the-board-in-the-water, grab-the-bull-by-the-horns, go-for-it guy.”
Bilbray spent nearly a decade safely ensconced on the county Board of Supervisors. During that time, he helped implement a pilot program for welfare reform, co-founded the Council on Literacy, opened a county emergency shelter for abused and neglected kids, and authored a regional growth management plan passed by voters, he said.
“I found he was very conscientious and supportive and his district and his county as a whole,” said George F. Bailey, who served on the Board of Supervisors with Bilbray for eight years. “He didn’t bulldoze his way through the board at all.”
Motivated by a desire to reform the federal budget process and immigration and welfare policy, Bilbray ran for California’s 49th Congressional seat in 1994. He managed to squeak out a two-point victory against Democratic incumbent Lynn Schenk and held onto the seat for the next six years.
Serving a district nearly evenly split among Republicans and Democrats, Bilbray established himself as a moderate and a maverick. Outspoken about illegal immigration and willing to buck Newt Gingrich’s Republican leadership on issues of gun control, abortion and finances, he often found himself marginalized by his own party.
Looking back on his six years in Congress, Bilbray touts legislation he sponsored that established the Otay Mountain Wilderness Area, cracked down on polluting vehicles at border crossings, brought cruise ships to San Diego Bay and funded North County sand replenishment. He also authored failed legislation that would have prevented the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the United States from automatically becoming citizens.
Working in conjunction with Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, Bilbray laid the legislative framework for Bajagua, a controversial proposed sewage treatment facility in Mexico. Bilbray also sponsored the Beach Act, which created national water quality standards for beach closures in 2000.
Gary Sirota, an environmental attorney, worked with Bilbray on both the Bajagua projects and the Beach Act. A former president of the Surfrider Foundation, a national environmental group, Sirota credits Bilbray for taking a genuine interest in those initiatives. However, Sirota said Bilbray uses the bulldozer incident to promote himself as being willing “to do whatever it takes to clean up the ocean, but in reality, when politics have come into play, he’s done some things that are counterintuitive to that.”
For example, Sirota points to an attempt by Bilbray early in his congressional career to permanently exempt the city of San Diego from having to comply with the Clean Water Act.
That effort and Bilbray’s vote in favor of legislation that would have gutted the Clean Water Act were two factors that drove Donna Frye to become a clean water activist. Frye, who went on to become a San Diego city councilwoman, famously mocked Bilbray by placing a papier-mâché bust of the congressman in a toilet inside her Pacific Beach surf shop.
“It was shocking that he would run on a platform of clean water and as soon as he gets elected he sticks it to the surfing community,” Frye said. “He just lied.”
Bilbray defends his votes and said Frye has always attacked him because he’s a Republican.
“Donna just politically sees stuff based on Republicans don’t know anything about the environment,” he said.
After a close call in a 1998 race against Christine Kehoe, Bilbray faced a new challenge in 2000 from Susan Davis, a state assemblywoman. With control of the House up for grabs, it was a hard-fought battle. The Republican and Democratic parties spent millions on behalf of their candidates and, in the end, Davis emerged the winner.
Bilbray said he thinks his vote to impeach President Clinton cost him the election.
“I made the decision that it was more important that my children could explain my vote to my grandchildren than to win another election,” he said.
Bilbray went on to become a lobbyist, working on behalf of Los Angeles County, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, Bajagua and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration organization, among other groups.
But with Washington still reeling from influence-pedaling scandals involving Cunningham and Jack Abramoff, Bilbray’s lobbying activities became a liability as he jockeyed for Cunningham’s seat earlier this year.
Bilbray became an early frontrunner and easy target amongst the field of Republicans in the April primary election and the June runoff against Busby. Millions were spent attacking him while millions more went to attacking others on his behalf.
Campaigning in a largely conservative district, Bilbray has pushed immigration reform as his main issue throughout both elections and he continues to do so today.
But shortly after returning to Congress in June, Bilbray again drew the ire of the environmental community when he voted to lift a 25-year-old federal ban on oil drilling and natural gas exploration in U.S coastal waters.
Bilbray contends his vote actually allows states to establish more restrictive bans on oil drilling and that the legislation was designed to ease restrictions in the Gulf Coast.
“I think he’s a faux environmentalist,” Frye said. “That’s not to say his entire record is horrible but more often than not and when it really comes to the hard decisions, he won’t make them.”
Sirota said he thinks Bilbray’s vote was part of a larger effort to establish himself as part of the Republican Party rather than an outsider.
“Recently, I think that Brian is holding the party line and not doing necessarily his best work for the environment,” Sirota said. “Is he doing politics as usual in the beltway to the detriment to his constituents? I’d like to ask him what he is thinking.”
But after 30 years in the business, Bilbray’s not backing away his vote.
“I’ve always felt that one of the greatest sins that elected officials commit in our system is spending too much time worried about always looking good and not enough time getting the job done,” Bilbray said.
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