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Unlike Mike 

Congressman Mike Thompson is unbeatable. But that doesn't stop people from trying.

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Unlike Mike
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Unlike Mike

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“How happy it would make us to see Bush and Cheney behind bars!”

So said Mitch Clogg, Democratic candidate for Congress, on KMUD radio on Sunday. And if anyone within distance of the radio signal objected to the notion, they did not bother to make their objection heard.

Clogg was one of three candidates who plan to run against— and beat— longtime First District Congressman Mike Thompson this year. The three participated in a forum aired on KMUD public radio in Redway. The forum was organized by Southern Humboldt activist Paul Encimer, publisher of the Greenfuse newspaper, who along with KMUD host Bud Rogers and the North Coast Journal asked the candidates about their platforms and their campaigns. Originally, the forum was to take place live at the Mateel Community Center, but the weekend storms made the plan unfeasible.

The candidates participating were Clogg and Carol Wolman, both of Mendocino, and Andy Caffrey of Garberville. (See sidebars.) All of them are left activists, and all of them were principally motivated by the turn that national politics have taken since 2000, when George W. Bush became president.

Each of the candidates’ deep, heartfelt dismay over the national state of affairs dominated the discussion. The themes, as well as the stances taken by the candidates, were familiar to anyone who follows left politics in Humboldt County: impeachment, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, universal health care, the Patriot Act. One candidate— Wolman— spoke in favor of the 9/11 Truth movement. (“There are so many indications that it was an inside job,” she said.)

Perhaps because of their overwhelming preoccupation with great affairs of state, it was perhaps notable that there was little or no talk about issues and institutions specific to the North Coast. The principal proposal agreed upon by all candidates present was that Congress— and Thompson specifically— has shirked its duty to the Constitution by not pushing for the impeachment and trial of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Right now,” said Caffrey, “Congress is full of traitors.”

Reached at his Napa Valley home Friday, before the forum had taken place, Rep. Thompson defended his record on the impeachment issue. He noted that he had, in fact, voted to support House Resolution 799, Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s resolution to impeach Cheney. When the resolution came up on the House floor on Nov. 6, Thompson voted along with the Democratic majority to prevent the measure from being tabled completely. He also joined a smaller majority to refer the measure to the House Judiciary Committee for study.

In fact, the move to push the resolution to the Judiciary Committee was a convenient way for the Democratic leadership to kill the matter without being seen to kill it. But Thompson is undaunted: His principal rebuff to those who push impeachment as the nation’s first priority is that such a move would bring the work of Congress to a halt.

“This is a fight that the Republicans want,” he said. “They would love to move this to impeachment, because it would embolden their supporters and would have no chance of passing.”

Though his actions may not be sufficient to satisfy his opponents in the coming election, Thompson minces no words when speaking about the Bush administration. He paints the last seven years of the presidency as an unmitigated national disaster. But he maintained that the practical matters of governance were too important to be sacrificed to what he seems sure would be a losing battle.

“My staff and I work on some incredibly important issues to people of America and our district— everything from health care to alternative energy to getting us out of Iraq,” Thompson said. “It’s frustrating. I realize that. But there’s a certain reality that we have to understand exists.”

Of course, it’s exactly that reality that people like the candidates in the KMUD forum are trying to change. Wolman and Clogg are allied with the “New Broom Coalition,” a group of candidates nationwide who are running to replace Representatives who they deem to be too soft on the Bush administration. (Former Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and peace activist Cindy Sheehan are perhaps the most prominent New Broomers.) With his “Virtual Candidate” project, Caffrey is attempting to build an Internet-based movement that can share resources among future candidates for Congress.

But how can any of them realistically expect to defeat Thompson, who in his five consecutive campaigns for Congress has never taken less than 60 percent of the vote? For Clogg, the answer was simple. All it takes is hard work, a steadfast belief in your message and faith in the voters.

“I was crying the blues to a supporter the other night about what a daunting prospect this is,” Clogg said, “and he said ‘You just gotta get the message out there, Mitch.’ I thought to myself, ‘That’s true! All I have to do is get my message out there.’

“If I possibly can, I want to meet every single solitary voter in the district and talk to them. That’s all I can do. I can’t beat Thompson’s organization or his money or any of that stuff, but I’m a lot better than he is and all I gotta do is let people know that.”

Clogg, Wohlman and Caffrey— and the thousands of people across the First District whose views they represent— are counting on the idea that once you factor out the money, they are the true majority. But even the most diehard of idealists will sometimes acknowledge that practical, ground-level politics aren’t without their upsides.

After the KMUD forum was over, Paul Encimer gave the devil his due. Yes, he had been protesting at Thompson’s office over the last few months, pressing the issue of impeachment. Yes, he would be working on behalf of the three alternative candidates he had just interviewed on the air. But Encimer said that his wife, fellow activist Kathy Epling, will never let him forget that Thompson has been instrumental in finding federal funding to keep the Redwoods Rural Health Center afloat. (The clinic has received around $3.7 million in federal funding since 2002.)

It wouldn’t sway Encimer’s vote. But it was something to be acknowledged.

The Impossible Dream

Want to know how tough it is to beat Mike Thompson? Ask someone who’s tried and failed— and who, nevertheless, may be preparing to give it another go.

John W. Jones, a retired police officer who lives in Davis, was the only Republican candidate to step forward to challenge Thompson in the 2006 election. Jones was a political unknown, at least outside the far southeast corner of the First Congressional District. Apart from his tenure as president of the UC Davis police officers’ union, he had never held elective office. But he was active in the Yolo County Republican Party, and held a master’s degree in public administration from Davis. He was an Eagle Scout, which has to count for something.

Though Jones didn’t have much of an on-the-ground organization, he was an active campaigner, coming to Humboldt County several times in the space of a few months. He spoke at the Humboldt County Republican Party and participated in the League of Women Voters’ debate broadcast on KEET-TV. He met with constituents and potential supporters. He talked with newspaper editorial boards. And he presumably did much the same in Del Norte, Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma and Napa counties.

None of it made much difference. Thompson crushed him in the general election, getting 66 percent of the vote to Jones’ 29. It would seem that he got voters who mark the space next to the “R” in every election, no matter what the race or who the candidates are— and those are the only voters he got.

But speaking from his home in Davis last week, Jones maintained that Thompson’s gigantic victory in 2006 had little to do with the congressman’s appeal to voters, or even to the demographics of the overwhelmingly liberal First District. The real challenge, he said, was its unwieldy geography.

“For any candidate it’s a challenge,” Jones said. ‘It’s roughly 400 miles from one end to the other, and all of the communities are basically very small.”

The vastness of the district’s territory give the incumbent a big head start, Jones said. Thompson’s name is already known; his was not. Jones said that he tried to combat that, first of all, by meeting with absolutely everyone he could meet with. He launched a website that detailed his platform, hoping to spread his message through the grassroots and the Internet. He hoped that his values— which he believes are majority values, despite party registration— would win him a base.

“Primarily what I tried to do with my campaign was to provide a clearly stated and solid platform of conservative positions, and to see where that took me,” Jones said. “Mike Thompson presents himself as being a ‘conservative Democrat,’ but his voting record is in no way, shape or form consistent with that claim. This is one of the things that I found frustrating. He has a persona that people find agreeable, but I strongly believe they would disagree with his votes— being an extremely liberal voter in Congress.”

What did Jones learn from his campaign? He says that the main lesson is that the grassroots have to be strong. He believes that candidates are more likely to be successful if voters are already organized around ideas that candidates can represent. Since 2006, he said, he’s mostly been working on that front.

“Probably the biggest thing that I’ve been trying to work with is working with the Republican organizations in each of the counties to broaden their outreach into the communities— to get a broader, more pervasive message to the community and to the interest groups,” he said.

Meet the candidates

Though the three alternative Congressional candidates that participated in Sunday’s KMUD forum share a similar outlook, they come from different backgrounds, have slightly different priorities and are running against Thompson from three different angles.

The following are capsule sketches of each of the candidates, supplemented with a photo when available. In addition, the candidates were asked to address one of the major federal issues particular to the North Coast, which is also one of Thompson’s major areas of work— the health of the Klamath River salmon fishery.

The KMUD forum aired on that station’s “Sunday Afternoon Talk” show on Jan. 6. The entire forum can be downloaded from the “Audio Archive” section on the station’s web site— kmud.org.

Mitch Clogg

Hometown: Mendocino

Party: Democrat

Background: Newspaperman, activist, former county and federal employee. Anti-offshore oil organizer. Active in the 1990 “Redwood Summer” anti-corporate logging campaign. Recently worked on homeless issues in Mendocino County.

Signature issue: Impeachment, peace, social justice

Pitch:

“I’m in a position of defending the Democratic party, which is a tough sell because they’ve disgraced themselves. This institution that we call the United States of America is in extraordinary peril. On a scale of one to 10— democracy to a fascist state— we’re at about seven.”

“I’m not asking you to send me to Congress. I’m asking you to come with me to Congress. If any elected official can demonstrate that they have enormous support, then that elected official has a bunch of power, whether they’re a junior Congressman or a freshman Congressman or whatever the situation. What can I do about repealing the Patriot Act? I can write legislation for it, I can advocate it, but the chances are it would never come to the floor unless I have right there, clamoring behind me, the 650,000 people who live between Oregon and Sacramento. If I have that, then I can make some noise and get something done.”

Klamath:

“I’ve been reading about that, anticipating this question, and I haven’t been reading enough. ... The Klamath River right now is the focal point, and it’s very, very involved. You have different opponents, both of whom have some legitimate claims in their arguments.

“I’m not there. I haven’t read enough, and I’m not prepared to give you the kind of answer that I would like to. But I promise you that it’s on my list. And when I show up in that neck of the woods to meet people, I will give you a definitive answer. In the meantime, I have to beg off.”

Carol Wolman

Hometown: Mendocino/Oakland

Party: Green

Background: Psychiatrist, activist, writer. Graduated from Harvard Medical School. Student member of the Committee for Sane Nuclear Policy. Longtime member of Physicians of Social Responsibility, first president of its Northern California chapter. Co-founder of Mendocino Peace and Justice Center.

Signature issue: Impeachment, peace, social justice

Pitch:

“I believe that impeachment is the umbrella issue for all the policies that we are objecting to coming out of the White House. If we get rid of them, we can get out of Iraq and prioritize the budget properly ... If it doesn’t happen before this Congress ends its term, there are still two weeks when the new Congress comes in when Bush and Cheney haven’t left the White House yet.”

“I’ve always been a peace activist, so one of my main goals is to, of course, get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and then reorder the federal budget so we defund the military except for essentials, get out of foreign adventures altogether and use the money that is gathered from taxpayers to deal with things that need to be done in this country ... We have to get universal health care, we have to reform our education system so that it’s really about learning and not about preparing people to work in corporations like robots, which is kind of what’s happening now.”

Klamath:

“I’m afraid I’m not very familiar with the situation on the Klamath, so I also have to defer my answer on the question. ... I do know that in general the problem of the fisheries is partly a logging question, it’s partly a water usage question and it’s partly a fisheries question, in the sense of who else is fishing off our shore and what kind of regulations they face.

“It’s extremely complicated. But I haven’t studied it enough to give an answer.”

Andy Caffrey

Hometown: Garberville

Party: “Virtual”

Background: Longtime Earth First! activist. Protested early against genetically modified organisms. Eagle Scout.

Signature issue: Global warming, impeachment, social justice.

Pitch:

“I would like Mike Thompson to resign because I think he’s disqualified himself by not recognizing that Bush is not our president. He was imposed on us by the Supreme Court, and just because the Supreme Court issued a ruling it doesn’t make it so ... I think— seriously— we have to get rid of Mike Thompson as soon as possible, and I’m here in solidarity with both Carol and Mitch.”

“The issue that brings me to this point is the climate crisis. I’ve been studying the climate crisis and been an activist on it for 20 years. We are now at a point where because the United States government, going all the way back to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have done absolutely nothing on this ... Our only chance is to take over Congress.

Klamath:

“First and foremost, we have to restore all of our native, natural systems. What we have here is a perfect example of how capitalism has brought two competing subcultures into conflict. They’ve milked so much water out of the natural systems that the natural systems are on the verge of collapse if any more water is diverted.

“Yet now we’ve brought on a climate crisis that is going to bring on more and more drought. The farmers who are now totally invested in a certain level of water aren’t going to be able to get any more. What has to happen is those farmers are going to have to get together in their own conversion conferences and figure out how to make a sustainable economy based on the resources in their region.”

Money and the First District

In the last few years, Mike Thompson has become one of the better fundraisers in Congress. In the 2006 campaign, members of the House of Representatives raised an average of around $1.25 million to fund their reelection campaigns. Thompson raised $1.75 million, despite the fact that he had no credible opposition. (Republican competitor John W. Jones raised only $100,000.)

Thompson could easily have won the race with half the amount he raised, or even less. Which raises the question: What do you do with such a large surplus of funds? A look around the indispensable website Opensecrets.org tells the tale: In Thompson’s case, the answer seems to be threefold.

In the first place, you sock it away for a rainy day. Thompson’s campaign had a $220,000 surplus going into the 2006 campaign, meaning that he could have outspent his principal opponent 2-to-1 without raising a dime in that cycle. After 2006, he added another $365,000 to that surplus, leaving his campaign committee with $585,000 cash in hand going into 2008.

Second: You spread the love by spending freely in your district. Thompson’s 2006 disclosure forms list myriad expenditures— $1,000 here, $2,000 there— on caterers, bakeries, graphic artists and the like. Superstar Napa County chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry got $3,375 from Thompson’s campaign committee for providing appetizers, cookbooks and bread to the campaign. Arcata artist Duane Flatmo got $3,500 for providing the campaign with some art work. The City of Eureka took in $3,866 in rental fees for several events at the Adorni Center.

Third: You give freely to congressional colleagues who are less fortunate, or who are in tighter races. In the 2006 cycle, Thompson’s campaign donated a total of $307,000 to other Democrats running for election or reelection to the House of Representatives. Of this total, the great bulk— $207,000— went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign, an umbrella fund supporting Democrats in numerous races throughout the United States. But Thompson’s campaign also donated directly to 36 other campaign committees everywhere in the country, from Nevada to Iowa to Florida to Connecticut.

“I support like-minded folks, yes,” said Thompson from his home in St. Helena on Friday. “I think it’s important we have people in Congress who share our values. Those are the types of candidates we try to support. I think that’s important for our country and important for our district.”

Democrats scored big victories in the 2006 elections, regaining control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It’s unknown whether Thompson’s donations to his colleagues had any direct role in bringing about the Democrats’ victory. But they couldn’t have hurt.

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