Mayors take bid for cash to D.C.

WASHINGTON -- Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour has become an old hand at lobbying Congress, a skill he now must practice in an unsettled new political environment.

This week, Ridenour joined Turlock Mayor John Lazar and hundreds of other city leaders from across the country in an annual pilgrimage to power. Bearing wish lists and talking points, the nation's mayors asked Congress for help.

"What's really changed back here is trying to figure out what to do and where to go for funding," Ridenour said Wednesday morning. "It's all been reduced, and we have to fight hard every year."

Ridenour spoke near the marbled entrance of the Rayburn House Office Building, where he was on his way to meet with Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. Thursday, Ridenour and interim City Manager Jim Niskanen met with the other lawmaker whose district covers part of Modesto, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

The message remained roughly the same, regardless of the recipient's partisan affiliation. So did the general approach, which Ridenour honed over his past four U.S. Conference of Mayors trips. Now he knows the keys to good lobbying: be concise, be targeted and be prepared.

"I learned the hard way, Ridenour said ruefully, recalling an early visit when a stern California senator asked him for budget information that he didn't have at hand.

Modesto officials are hoping this year for federal help with the city's new transit center, which is being designed. They want improved law enforcement communications so the region's police and emergency agencies can speak easily with one another. Officials call this, awkwardly, "interoperability." Officials also hope for money to improve the Tuolumne River Regional Park system.

"As long as we're talking to them, I think it's possible we'll get something," Ridenour said.

Some 250 mayors participated in this week's three-day conference, although Ridenour and Lazar were the only two from the area between Stockton and Bakersfield.

Some of the mayors already have a national profile, such as San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Newsom talked up his city's new health coverage program, which is being challenged in federal court. When asked, Newsom also was happy to dismiss any prospect that the Bush administration will pursue a short-lived proposal to drain Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

"It would be a monumental mistake," Newsom said.

Last year, through a budget-making process that Radanovich said he never could untangle, the Bush administration proposed spending $7 million to study restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. The administration immediately dropped the idea in the face of implacable congressional opposition from, among others, California lawmakers unwilling to sacrifice San Francisco's water supply.

But mayors listen as well as talk during lobbying conversations, and they heard this week a reminder that money might be particularly tight.

"For the most part, local governments want earmarks," noted Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, "and this is a very tough time to be seeking out earmarks."

Typically, earmarks are considered a specific spending item spelled out in an appropriations bill, even though it hadn't been requested by the president.

Some earmarks become notorious, such as Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere," linking sparsely populated areas at a cost of several hundred million dollars. Most are far more modest, such as $200,000 included last year at Cardoza's request for studying ways to stop flooding of Orestimba Creek in western Stanislaus County.

By some counts, the Democratic- controlled Congress approved bills loaded with some 11,000 earmarks last year, despite lawmakers' periodic pledges to wean themselves of the habit. Lawmakers this year face competing pressures on this front: They might fear further embarrassment, but they also will want to show they can bring home the bacon in an election year.

Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com or 202-383-0006.