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Mike Check 

The Congressman talks health care, Afghanistan, broadband and trails

Rep. Mike Thompson stopped by the Journal office last week, the day after his well attended town hall meeting on health care reform at Redwood Acres. He spoke with the Journal staff about matters national, international and local. Here's an extract.

NCJ: We've been looking at all the YouTube clips of all these town hall meetings that seem to have gone very badly, in one way or another. This one didn't seem so bad. How would you rate last night's meeting? Did you get anything out of it?

Thompson: I though it was a good meeting. The fact is that there are a lot of people who have questions about what we're going to do in regard to health care, and a lot of those folks brought their questions to the hall. Obviously you had people on both sides of the issue -- some who didn't want anything, and those who wanted some sort of health care reform. The degree to which they were willing to go varied within the room, but I think most people there recognized there's problems in health care, and they need to be addressed.

NCJ: It's nice to have a big, substantive debate on an issue of very great national significance, but do these things change people's minds? 

Thompson: Well, it's certainly out of the ordinary from the historic town hall trail. I've been having them now for going on 20 years, and usually you have to really work to get 30 or 40 people there. That's why this whole idea of the telephone town hall meeting has been so nice. I've done four or five of them since the technology has been available. The last one I did we had 8,500 people on the line, and we had 10,200 the time before that.

But historically, there's never been a lot of interest. If there's 50 people there, you can generally name 30 of them before the thing starts. So this is a new interest, and people are out -- many of whom have questions, or want to express concerns. Now, the people who show up and start the disruption stuff, and the people who come carrying "No Obamacare" signs or wearing Obama in whiteface stickers -- they're not there for any constructive purpose at all. They want to disrupt. And I don't think we had any of that last night.

Last night was heartening for me, because everybody ... Well, not everybody; there's some people who think that it's a government takeover of their lives, but I think that was a minority of people. Even people who had concerns with the bills that are currently in Congress recognized that there's a need to fix things.

NCJ: A lot of people are disappointed in the level of the debate, at least on the national level. How much do you think the interest in this issue is motivated by actual concerns about health care, and how much of it is partisan politics?

Thompson: Well, I think there's a lot of partisan politics involved. Some of the news guys ginning up an effort to create drama and create news, if you will. You've got the radio talk show folks doing the same thing. I think there's a segment of that population who are doing it because they know if they're able to stop health care reform, it's a real hit on President Obama.

So you've got all that stuff working -- the teabagger people who are out with their sheets of paper saying "disrupt ... don't let them talk ... if they start to answer something, boo." I experienced that first-hand in the first week of the August recess, when I agreed to be on a panel to discuss health care issues. It was at a Methodist church in Napa. They came out with their Obama in whiteface stickers and their No Obamacare signs, and they didn't want to hear anything. They didn't want to discuss anything.

You're right, it's there. And it's despicable. And what really adds to that, that level of despicable, is the fact that they're trying to scare the heck out of people, making up things, talking about death panels and things of that nature -- scaring people about something that's very much needed. The idea that you'd scare an old person into thinking that they're going to lose their Medicare in order to achieve some sort of political end, I think is just disgusting.

But I think we've moved beyond that. At least that was my sense last night, at least in Humboldt County. That was my sense.

NCJ: President Obama has said things that would seem to hint that the public option might be dropped. How integral do you think it is to have that be a part of health care reform?

Thompson: From my perspective, I support the public option, and have from the beginning.

I think it will be politically important to pass a public option out of the House, and I hope that's what we're able to do. Now, the Senate's talking about other things. I don't think there's ever been unanimity among 51 members of the Senate for a public option. They've talked about co-ops, they've talked about other methods by which to get everybody some kind of coverage. As I mentioned last night, I'm going to reserve comment on that because I have no idea what this co-op proposal even looks like.

We'll see. Maybe everybody's pleasantly surprised, and maybe everybody can come together on that. But I think we need to pass a public option out of the House, and I think it's important if we're going to drive the costs of health care coverage down.

NCJ: When was the last time you were in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Thompson: I was in Afghanistan and Pakistan three or four months ago.

NCJ: What would you say our mission is today in Afghanistan?

Thompson: Well, there's a couple of things taking place in Afghanistan. One, and probably most recognizable, is the effort to get after and destroy the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The other is to help stabilize the democratically elected Afghan government and get them on the proper footing so that they can take over this responsibility and get it done on their own.

NCJ: You voted against authorization of the Iraq War. What makes Afghanistan different? How will we know when we've won, or how do we get out?

Thompson: Well, if I had the answer to that, I wouldn't be doing this interview. I'd be doing a lot more than that!

I think we needed to go into Afghanistan. That's where the attack on America came from. That's where the training camps were. The Taliban was providing safe harbor to Osama Bin Laden, to Al Qaeda. That was the problem area. Now, the problem was that we didn't do it. We went right past Afghanistan and went to Iraq, which was foolish. There was no threat from Iraq. They weren't involved in the 9/11 attack on our country. There was no Al Qaeda presence in Iraq. There was just no reason in the world to go over there, and I was pretty outspoken about that.

The difference now in Afghanistan is the Al Qaeda/Taliban presence on the Af-Pak border, and the threat that poses to everybody, because of Pakistan's nuclear ability. So I'm all for getting rid of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and I want to see Afghanistan stabilized and I want to see the people in their country prosper. But at the same time, I don't want to see Al Qaeda or the Taliban gaining a strong foothold in Pakistan, where they would have access to a nuclear arsenal. That would pose great problems not just for America, but for the world.

NCJ: Do you feel that Al Qaeda and the Taliban pose enough of an imminent threat to justify the American troops that are dying over there?

Thompson: I want to see an exit plan from this administration. We need to know the answer to your question: "When is enough enough? When do we need to get out of there, and how are we going to do it?" Those are important things to find out.

NCJ: A couple of local matters. There's a great push these days to bring redundant broadband into the county, and to extend the reach of the broadband that's here. What has the federal government been doing -- what have you been doing -- to make these things happen?

Thompson: Well, I was a big proponent of broadband grant monies in the stimulus bill. And we were able to get that, albeit not enough. Anna Eshoo (from down in San Mateo County) and I have authored and introduced legislation to provide bonding ability, to be able to generate the funds necessary to expand broadband. That's the direction we're going.

NCJ: So that local authorities could issue bonds? Local governments?

Thompson: Correct.

NCJ: Some local people have made an application under the broadband provisions of ARRA. Will you have opportunity to review and comment on that application?

Thompson: Yeah, absolutely.

Liz Murgia [Thompson aide]: He's already done letters of support.

Thompson: And it's not just here. There's a tremendous need to expand broadband across the country, and the little bit of money we got in the stimulus bill doesn't go very far. You could burn that up right here. So it's going to take a big infusion of dollars, and we need to be able to make that commitment.

NCJ: I think a lot of the problem here has been intransigence on the part of the people who have the monopoly.

Thompson: Right.

NCJ: Are you able to talk to AT&T, to ask them to ...

Thompson: ’Til I'm blue in the face.

NCJ: This morning you were up with Bonnie Neely and Jen Rice and some other people at the Hammond Trail. How was that?

Thompson: It was beautiful. It was beautiful and it's exciting, the stuff they're talking about doing. It's good for economic growth, it's good for the local economy, it's good for the environment and it's good for health. We've had a lot of discussion about what's needed in regard to health care, and one thing is making people healthier. Any opportunities we can provide for that certainly go a long way, and this project has it all.

NCJ: Your excitement about the trail project, I know, will encourage a lot of people here. But it kind of makes you wonder about the railroad authority, which has not had a lot of success up here in Humboldt County. It doesn't look like it's going to be moving freight to here anytime soon. Which has people thinking about rail-to-trail options. Do you support those?

Thompson: Oh, absolutely. And I don't think they're in conflict at all. I think the whole rail issue is going to have to play itself out. I think the southern stretch is going to be able to be established and working, and there's a lot of interest in doing a northern stretch, too. If that works and it proves that there's further they can go, then that will prove out over time.

But clearly, irrespective of whatever happens with the railroad, there's certainly an opportunity to do the rail-to-trail. And they can coexist.

NCJ: How would they coexist? With a rail-to-trail project, you generally think about turning a railroad into a trail.

Thompson: No, you can do the trail portion along the railroad right-of-way.

NCJ: The problem, here, being that it would be really expensive, at least between Eureka and Arcata.

Thompson: The problem, here, is that any option with this rail right-of-way is going to be expensive.

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