Article Last Updated: Thursday, January 19, 2006 - 8:30:07 AM PST

Congressman Thompson has many answers, not all of them popular

By FRANK HARTZELL Of the Advocate,1413,95~3977~3207672,00.html

When Mike Thompson's mom first brought him to the Little River Inn, it was to soothe the allergies of the future congressman. The family stayed in a rustic cabin and walked on the beach until young Mike's allergies got better.

On Thursday night, a much more robust Thompson held a town hall meeting at a much more glamorous Little River Inn. Thompson rejected political advice that he not tell people he was once an allergic little boy because that made him sound like a "sissy," Thursday's standing room-only crowd of about 150 people heard.

Soldier straight in his blue suit for two solid hours, Thompson literally stood out in a crowd that leaned further to the left and further toward the casual than their representative.

While nobody was likely to think of the decorated Vietnam veteran as a sissy, he managed a politician's finesse while not always saying what the crowd wanted to hear.

"He did a good job of addressing some of the tougher questions from some of the radicals," said Fort Bragg High student Jasper Henderson after the meeting. Henderson is an intern in Thompson's office. "He isn't exactly a radical congressman but doesn't make them angry either," he added.

Thursday's was a true town hall meeting, with the constituents doing most of the talking. Thompson answered "questions" that sometimes bordered on preaching.

"I was impressed with his knowledge and the way he answered questions," said Carolyn Zeitler, who is a campaign manager for former Assemblywoman Patricia Wiggins, who plans to be a candidate for the local State Senate seat now held by Wes Chesbro. "People would present these monologues, and he just focused in on the important aspects of it and got to the point," Zeitler said.

With two people waving "Impeach Bush" signs, Thompson said there wasn't sufficient evidence or votes to support impeachment. The Democrat also said Republicans had won the 2004 election (but not the 2000 election) "fair and square." He chided the crowd when political stereotypes and common assumptions were thrust at him.

Although he opposed CAFTA because of environmental and labor issues, Thompson said he was a "free trader." He even rebuffed a slam at the practice of "pork-barelling."

"What is a pork barrel in one place may be filet mignon in the 1st Congressional district," Thompson said. "I'm sure Fort Bragg was very happy to get that $750,000."

He was referring to federal funding for trails at the old Georgia-Pacific millsite. Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner had started the meeting by praising Thompson and giving him a plaque for bringing the money to the city.

"Whoever said you can't solve problems by throwing money at them was talking about somebody else's problems," he said.

Zeitler said the defense of pork barrels was Thompson's way of educating constituents about the realities of Congress.

"He's in Washington, and we are not. It's a constant power struggle where compromise and negotiation are needed every day. I have a strong feeling he's very good at it."

Thompson talked in depth about subjects ranging from African politics to the baffling complexity of the new federal prescription drug plan, which has stressed out many constituents.

"People who are computer literate, who can navigate through every imaginable program, are telling me they are ready to throw up their hands when it comes to dealing with the prescription drug measure," Thompson said.

His office provides tracts that explain the new Medicare reform, the creation of which Thompson called a dark moment in history.

When Peter Warner asked Thompson about overwhelming corporate influence on the political process, the congressman said undue influences get a hold when the public isn't paying attention.

"More people have to learn to care about the runaway deficit and less about the runaway bride," he said. He mentioned the Michael Jackson trial as the type of ridiculous distraction that inhibits intelligent discourse, and thus a functioning representative democracy.

"We need to refocus the priorities of the American people," he said. Thompson presented his plan for Iraqi withdrawal, saying Congress should pledge never to build military bases and promise publicly that Iraqi oil will be the property of the Iraqi people.

Thompson believes those actions would slow the number of volunteers coming from around the Middle East to help the Iraq insurgency and allow an aggressive troop exit to begin this summer, when the Iraqi constitution amendment process is complete.

Tom Cahill of Fort Bragg, a member of the Veterans for Peace, presented Thompson a copy of a film called "Beyond Treason" by the Gulf War Veterans Association.

He challenged Thompson to investigate whether the deaths of 10,000 to 15,000 Gulf War (1991) veterans was related to the military's use of depleted uranium.

Thompson said he has co-sponsored a bill related to the depleted uranium investigation. Cahill spotted a tiny pin on Thompson's lapel and interrupted the congressman saying, "Is that a combat infantryman's pin?"

"Never leave home without it," retorted a smiling Thompson.

Thompson served in combat with the U.S. Army as a staff sergeant/platoon leader with the 173rd Airborne Brigade where he was wounded and received a Purple Heart.

Nothing ever enraged Thompson as much as when right wing talk show hosts and the Republican National Committee called him a "traitor" for his pre-war investigatory trip to Iraq.

At a time when many Democrats were backing the president and when television networks were boosting the war, Thompson found no imminent threat to the United States from Iraq and no tie between Iraq and Al Qaida. Thompson's controversial position was mostly proven true later.

"I went to war, I know how tragic war really is. I came back from Vietnam fairly shot up. I have a keen interest in making sure my kids and your kids don't have to go through that. It is going to be the last possible alternative as long as I have a vote," he said.

Thompson was first elected to Congress in 1998. The district includes all of Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties, as well as portions of Yolo and Sonoma counties. Prior to serving in Congress, Thompson was a state senator. His quick wit has grown to include more humor over the years.

When the St. Helenan was teased about his famous support for the wine industry, he responded that was OK "as long as you spell that w-i-n-e."

Thompson said interest on the national debt is now $1 billion per day. The war is expected to cost $1 to $2 trillion, he said, adding, "Nobody uses the word trillion but government. Scientists don't use it. Trillion is truly an incomprehensible number."

He favors bolstering border patrols but opposed a recent immigration reform measure because it failed to include a guest-worker provision and because it created 11 million new felons in the United States with no funding to pay to prosecute, arrest or defend them in court.

When one woman asked him about weather experiments and the infamous jet cloud trails in the Mendocino County sky, Thompson said he has investigated the often-raised issue and will continue to do so.

Unlike other politicians, Thompson didn't roll his eyes or ignore the question. He recalled how one constituent complaint led to the revelation that the military had used trace nerve gas and other toxins in aerial spraying of barges transporting animals off the coast of San Diego.

"I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I will also tell you that since going to Congress, nothing would surprise me."

Thompson, who seemed capable of answering questions on every issue, was caught short by an inquiry on a bill that would create instant runoff voting (IRV), which has been touted locally and around the world by groups advocating more representative Democracy and the creation of a genuine third party in America.

Instant runoff voting asks the voter to rank the candidates in order of preference. Benefits including giving voters a wider range of choices, eliminating the "spoiler" factor with third-party candidates, saving taxpayer money, and decreasing negative campaigning.

Thompson said he was able to be in Little River because Republicans had adjourned Congress until early February to give indicted majority leader Tom DeLay more time to fight felony charges. He said there "had never been a majority leader as influential" and doubted whether DeLay could ever return to the rank and file in Congress as has been discussed.

Thompson refused to attack lobbyists as an institution, saying there are good and bad, "short, tall, fat and skinny" people of all professions. He said the recent scandals, including the guilty plea of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, illustrate the need for full disclosure and public scrutiny for all such transactions. While all of Abramoff 's personal contributions went to Republicans, several Democrats, including Thompson got contributions from groups Abramoff did work for.

Thompson is donating $1,500 he received in campaign contributions from the Agua Caliente Band of Cuahilla Indians to a scholarship fund to avoid any possible connection to Abramoff, the Eureka Times-Standard reported recently.

Thompson received the $1,500 from the tribe in 2000 and 2002, and at that time had not heard of Abramoff, who recently pleaded guilty to offering money and other treats for political favors. Thompson said he always dealt with another tribal representative. But because there was overlap Abramoff worked for the tribe when Thompson received his contributions Thompson has decided to donate $1,500, the newspaper reported.

Thursday's packed house included more than a dozen Fort Bragg High students, who earn school credit from civics teacher George Arlie for attending such real life civics lessons.

A videotape of the event will air on local public access television, MCCET Channel 3, at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.