Mike Thompson has a lot of environmentalist voters in his district. The predominantly Democratic 1st Congressional District of California is mostly rural, covering the northern California coast from the Oregon border to southern Mendocino County, then swinging inland to lap into the suburbs of Sacramento.
As recently as twenty years ago the votes of citizens who worked in the timber industry, as loggers, foresters, and mill workers, were important in this district. But as all the trees were clearcut and the mills closed down, the new people who moved into the district saw it as a place to live amidst natural beauty. They mostly consider themselves environmentalists, whether they are registered to vote Republican, Democrat, Green Party, or independent (called Decline to State in California).
Mike Thompson has a Democratic Party constituency that is much more liberal than he is. During the years of Republican dominance in Congress he prided himself on being a centrist who voted with the Republicans on issues like tax cuts for the rich. In return the Republicans had no problem with doing some things for Congressman Thompson's donors in the timber and wine industries.
The Democratic political party in his district is formidable. Republicans have mostly been relegated to winning county supervisor seats in the most conservative areas. No Republican has provided a serious contest for a seat in Congress or the state assembly or state senate in over a decade. In a recent election in Mendocino County the Green Party candidate came in second after the Democrat. A number of Green Party members have been elected to seats in "minor" offices.
So it is important to the Democratic party machine that they appear to be environmentalists, and serious environmentalists at that. They have to balance that against their traditional financial support from the timber industry, real estate interests, and wine industry. The timber industry is dying, so that is not a problem. The wine industry is the most environmentaly destructive business in the area. Democratic Party politicians and paid staff don't want to talk about that. Mike Thompson was instrumental in creating the Wine Caucus in Congress and is its Democratic Party co-chair.
So the Democrat machine has specialized in being for environmentalist causes, but being unable to actually get enough votes in Congress to hurt their campaign donors.
That is no longer enough now that the Democrats control the state legislature and Congress. The Democrats have gone to great lengths to secure their power; they don't want to endanger it by alienating donors or environmentalists voters. Democrats in the rank-and-file want action on the environment and on Iraq, not empty gestures.
Mike Thompson illustrates traits of a consumate politician. He has found two magic keys that make it unlikely a Green Party candidate will ever threaten to take his seat based on his environmental record.
One is throwing tiny bits of federal money at conservation projects. These typically take farm or timberland and convert it to a park or conservancy district. Often most of the money is raised by private donors. The work is done by environmental groups, but they must beg a Congressman, in this case Mike Thompson, to grease the skids. In return they are expected to praise Mr. Thompson's somewhat sketchy environmental record when he runs for office.
The second method is not always available, but the Klamath River and its related irrigation projects have provided the perfect opportunity for Mr. Thomspon, who seized it with gusto. In 2002 large number of salmon died in the Klamath River due to low water flows. Mike Thompson earned his environmentalist Red Badge of Courage by piling up some 500 pounds of dead fish in front of the Interior Department. It was a great photo shoot. To this day ask most people in this district what they know about Congressman Thompson, and they will say "he's the guy who was mad about the dead salmon."
Lately Democrats in Congress have revived the issue. They believe they can link Vice-President Dick Cheney to the salmon kill. It was politics: the water the salmon needed was diverted to farmers in Oregon, likely Republican voters. Actually, they just took their regular amounts of irrigation water, but it was a low-water year, so the salmon suffered.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat said: "Thompson said the reduced river flow "wasn't about salmon or water, it was about electoral votes in Oregon."" The important political lesson to note here is that these farmers (and voters) were not in Mike Thompson's district.
A real test of Mr. Thompson's environmental credendials would be: is he willing to close down his vineyard and winery friends in his own district by no longer allowing them to suck water out of the rivers and aquifers? Ask the environmentalists who live on rivers like the Navarro about how much water is left for the Salmon once vineyards finish taking their sips. Ask environmentalists in Napa County about pesticides in ground water and runnoff.
-- William P. Meyers
Thompson Watch Main Page
Mike Thomspon is the current elected member of the United States House of Representatives for California's 1st Congressional District.