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by Dan Walters

Photo of Mike ThompsonIt's been nearly a decade since a young Democratic legislative aide invited me to lunch to talk about his political future. Mike Thompson had an audacious and ambitious plan: challenge a Republican state senator in a district that had been tailored to his specifications in the previous round of reapportionment, one that he had carried twice with little effort.

I was skeptical. Here was a guy who had been an aide to two state Assembly members from the San Francisco peninsula for scarcely five years, who was still a few years shy of 40 and who wanted to take on
a seemingly strong Republican incumbent in a conservative-voting district that stretched from Santa Rosa to Redding.

But Thompson had it all mapped out, or so he said. The Republican senator, one-time agricultural chemical salesman Jim Nielsen, was well connected to the upper end of the 4th District, he said, but had ignored and alienated the southern end Napa and Sonoma counties which was Thompson's home territory.

As it turned out, of course, Thompson was absolutely correct about Nielsen's situation. Thompson had di vined what others had missed: Nielsen's neglect of the southern region, plus his pers onal conversion into a born-again Christian, had made him vulnerable. One example: The thrice-married Nielsen told a radio talk show that AIDS "may be God's way" of punishing "mankind (for) what kind of promiscuous society we've become."

Thompson campaigned night and day, especially in the southern end of the district, cultivating the wine industry and other important segments of the region's economy. Nielsen spent nearly three times as much money but on election night, Thompson eked out a paper-thin win. And what made it even more impressive was that it occurred in a year (1990) when Republicans were winning the governorship and doing well in other congressional and legislative elections.

Thompson knew that his time in the 40-member Senate could be brief. Another round of reapportionment was coming up and the district would likely be changed again in ways that might make re-election difficult in 1994. But the fickle finger of fate interceded. Barry Keene, the Democratic incumbent in the adjacent, North Coast-oriented and more liberal district, resigned, burned out after 20 years in the Legislature. And Thompson quickly claimed Keene's seat in a special 1992 election, knowing it would be a safer haven for a Democrat.

With a safe base, Thompson could turn his attention to expanding his power within the clubby Senate. The Senate's leadership position, president pro tem, would be occupied by three different men in the following six years, but Thompson always backed the right guy at the right time, moving into successively more potent positions and claiming chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee in 1993.

Since then, Thompson has played a major role in shaping five state budgets and used that powerful position to pursue personal causes and deliver the goodies to the North Coast.

One example of the former: His odd, years-long crusade to force some homeowners along the Sacramento River in Sacramento to take down fences that block him and other joggers from access to river levees. Thompson tried everything browbeating bureaucrats, legislation and budget bill language but has been rebuffed repeatedly.

The final examples of the latter: A whopping, last-minute appropriation to buy the Headwaters Forest from Pacific Lumber Co. and money to shore up ailing railroad service to the North Coast.

Thompson has carried political water for the wine industry, which is popular in the southern segment of the district. But he has tripped lightly through the political minefield of North Coast politics, avoiding strong identification with any of the factions that wage ceaseless war over the region's trees, scenery, water and other natural resources.

The region has chewed up other politicians Keene, Congressman Frank Riggs and former Congressmen Doug Bosco and Dan Hamburg for instance but Thompson has been smart enough and facile enough to prosper. He has anointed himself the Democratic boss of North Coast politics and wields vast influence on who runs for positions ranging from party central committee member to state legislator.

Thompson probably could have gone to Congress in 1996. National congressional leaders begged him to take on Republican Riggs. But Thompson wasn't ready to make that move. Although he was scheduled to lose his Senate seat due to term limits in 1998, Thompson clearly hoped that term limits would be overturned in the courts and allow him to become president pro tem of the Senate, one of the most powerful positions in state government.

It didn't turn out that way. Term limits were upheld by federal courts and Thompson decided to run for Congress in 1998. Riggs knew that Thompson would be a formidable, perhaps unbeatable, challenger and opted out.

Thompson will go to Congress, which doesn't have term limits, but he will go to a House that likely will still be controlled by Republicans. It could take years, even decades, for Thompson to develop the same kind of clout in Congress that he enjoyed in Sacramento. And it may never happen.

But if it can be done, Thompson can do it. He is cunning, occasionally devious, sometimes ruthless and energetic the perfect political animal to prowl the jungles of Washington.

Dan Walters is a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee and a once-a-month contributor to the North Coast Journal.

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