May the 2016 CA-5 Congressional Election Be a Learning Experience for Us All: Why Mike Thompson’s Victory is Your Loss, and How We Can Do Better Next Time
In 2016, an electoral tragedy happened. And I’m not talking about Donald Trump.
In the summer primary, the people of California’s 5th Congressional District had an opportunity to elect a true people’s representative -- someone to stand up for the real needs and common visions of the of the diverse and conscious working-class population here -- someone to stand up for our families, our communities, and our planet. Instead, re-elected (to a tenth term) a politician who very much represents the status quo of putting corporations first, placing profit over people, and leaving the rest of us behind to struggle year after year.
With the many crises we face in community, we are approaching a real turning point, and most of us know intuitively that we’ve got to make some real changes if we want to survive, let alone thrive in the coming era. We are aware that our world and our country are in crisis -- social, racial, economic and environmental -- and that to really do something about it would constitute and require, as Bernie Sanders so often suggested, a true “political revolution.”
My hope in writing this is merely to begin to raise the critical awareness that will be necessary for the people of this district to one day elect to Congress someone who will actually stand up for our people and planet in these most urgent of times. If we’re lucky, come the 2018 Midterm Election (with the primary coming right up on June 5th), voters here will understand that the status quo is not serving us, and that we can do much better than what we’ve got.
Why I Ran for Congress, and How I Lost
In 2015, I was living in rural Lake County, serving as a community organizer to build local resilience, hosting the weekly program Wake Up & Thrive on Lake County’s community radio station, KPFZ, and working to complete my teaching credential while educating high school students in U.S. and world history. I was also raising my young daughter, Satya Rose.
Becoming a father in 2012 had a powerful effect on me. I had always been an activist -- in high school in Pacifica, after being censored, I founded an underground newspaper and went on to lead a walk-out when the Iraq War began -- and by the end of my time at New York University, having travelled the world and deeply studied our turbulent history, I had come to identify as a “peaceful revolutionary.” Becoming a dad only intensified the imperative for creating meaningful political change in this lifetime. When you’re aware of global warming and what’s happening to our planet, when you’re aware of the widespread inequality endemic to our economic system, when you’re aware of the ongoing legacies of racism and colonization that persist in our society today, having a conscience mandates transformative action. But when you become a parent, the responsibility we have to the next generation -- to give them a world better than the one we were given -- becomes infinitely more real, more embodied.
To do my part to effect the needed change, I knew I had to step up my service beyond the realms of local community-organizing and teaching high school. Somehow, we would have to scale up this movement and find a way to build a bridge from activism to real political change. After all, we live in a representative democratic republic. Right? Our government is (at least theoretically) of, by, and for the people. Thanks to the long lineage of courageous freedom fighters like Dr. King, Cesar Chavez and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we achieved universal suffrage -- one person, one vote -- and we now have the power to effect a bloodless revolution overnight, through the ballot box. Surely the reign of unlimited corporate power at the expense of our families’ health and happiness could only last so long in a real democracy such as ours. Right?
During the 2014 Midterm Election, I interviewed on my radio program a man named James Hinton, who was challenging Thompson, then in his 8th term. Hinton was able to garner nearly a quarter of the vote that November -- and he did so while presenting himself as a somewhat “fringe” candidate, emphasizing marijuana legalization, abolishing the Federal Reserve, and questioning the official account of the September 11th attacks. If Hinton could do this well with a platform like that, how much better would my chances be if I were to run in 2016 -- college-educated, relatively clean-cut, committed to social, environmental and economic justice, and significantly less conspiracy-theory-oriented? I could still champion legalizing medicine, and would remain aware of the murky nature of the Federal Reserve… but I would not lead with these topics. My politic would be much more in the lineage of Bill McKibben, Cornel West, Nina Turner, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky.
I didn’t begin grooming myself to become a politician; I just tucked it away as a possibility and continued to do my work, as a father, teacher, and community organizer. Then, in the summer of 2015, as the next election began to draw nearer, I gave it deeper consideration. The times continued to increase in urgency. As global warming was intensifying, Naomi Klein helped to make a crucial link between environmental and economic issues in her This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate. We were seeing escalated police brutality and state violence, along with an upsurge in the people’s resistance through the growing Black Lives Matter movement. And all the while, Congressional approval ratings continued to hover around 11%. Perhaps now was the time.
I was taught that, when considering a job, the “interview” process should be a two-way street. The employee must interview the employer, to see if she even wants the job to begin with. And so, with that in mind, I booked a trip to Washington, D.C. -- to interview the House of Representatives. On the way out, as I travelled through my old hometown of New York City, Senator Bernie Sanders announced his (then-obscure) bid for the Presidency. It was the a fitting keynote for my testing of the waters.
In D.C., I walked for days. I sat with the masters -- JFK, MLK, Lincoln, Jefferson -- and they reminded me of the ongoing need for peaceful, democratic revolution. They reminded me of my sacred duty, my deepest values. And when, sitting alone at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial at 2 a.m. and meditating on the legacy of Dr. King, I spotted the mythical “Fox of Capitol Hill” jogging across the plaza, I knew I had to go for it. I had to run for Congress.
The next day, before returning home, I met Mike Thompson. His aides led me through the labyrinthine maze of tunnels beneath the capitol, to a dimly lit chamber where the Representative was coming out of a committee hearing on gun violence. He had a band-aid on his right thumb. He didn’t seem to understand why I was there. I was there to express the unease of my generation. I told him, as a millennial, I was deeply concerned about climate change, student debt, racial injustice, our broken healthcare system, economic inequality, and the rot of it all: corporate influence on our political system. What would he do, I asked him, to get money out of politics?
“You’ll never get money out of politics,” he told me.
In that moment, I knew I’d be challenging him on the ballot in 2016.
Upon my return to Lake County, I continued to test the waters. I began to organize “Lake County for Bernie Sanders,” I turned 30, and I started to psychologically prepare myself for the campaign. Then everything changed.
On September 12, 2015, I was displaced from my home in the now-legendary Valley Fire, the second most-destructive wildfire in California’s history. All political ambition went out the window, as I evacuated my home and spent the next several weeks in the trenches of the community response. I rushed to the radio station and led its widely recognized 24/7 coverage of the fire, I helped to organize resources and information for my frightened neighbors, and I volunteered at several relief sites for the duration of the disaster. Maybe I would run for office and maybe I wouldn’t. I was just glad my family was safe, and I was busy doing what I could to support my devastated community.
Months passed in shock and trauma. Thompson rode in once or twice, toured around, and made a bland statement or two -- but he was not there. Many of my friends lost everything. Somehow, my home was spared. The flames kissed the house I was renting, but my little hamlet of Loch Lomond mostly survived the blaze.
Come February, the filing deadlines for the 2016 Election were approaching. If I was going to run for any kind of political office, it was time to declare and file the paperwork. I was seriously considering staying local, running for County Board of Supervisors. Then, late one night, I went to the Federal Election Commission website, which tracks the funding sources of political campaigns, and discovered the millions of dollars in contributions Thompson has received from some of the world’s worst corporations, including big banks, the fossil-fuel industry, insurance and telecom giants, weapons manufacturers, big pharma, big ag, and other goliaths of industry.
How can a politician claim to represent the people when he accepts such huge sums of money from so many corporations?
If you were to visit the FEC website and do a search on Mike Thompson, you’d likely be astonished: over a million dollars in this election cycle alone (2015-16), with more than half of that coming from PACs, including lobbyists representing too many familiar (and unrecognizable) entities to list. I later printed a spreadsheet that I carried with me to events throughout the primary season.
The list included Aetna, Aflac, the American Bankers Association, AT&T, Bank of America, Comcast, Credit Suisse Securities, weapons giants Honeywell, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, Farm Credit PAC, General Electric, Google, accounting behemoth Grant Thornton, the Investment Company Institute PAC, pharmaceutical companies Mednax and Merck, Morgan Stanley, Mortgage Bankers Association PAC, National Association of Convenience Stores, New York Life Insurance Company, Pacific Life Insurance Company, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Quicken Loans,, Realtors Political Action Committee, Safeway, State Farm, Target, Tesoro Petroleum Corporation, TIAA-CREF, Verizon, Wal-Mart, and the Zurich Holding Co. of America.
These are the companies that block meaningful changes to our economic system, our healthcare system, our educational system. They are the companies that benefit from war and empire, poverty and disease, the status quo. Many of these financial institutions are also on the list of companies funding the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The day I turned in my signatures to get on the ballot, February 25th, I received notice from my landlord that the home I was renting would be sold, due to property value concerns in the wake of the Valley Fire. The natural disaster that had displaced thousands of my friends and neighbors would now, months later, be displacing me as well.
But the campaign, to paraphrase the old adage, must go on.
Inspired by the campaign of Bernie Sanders, I focused on my values and vision, and the needs of our people and planet -- not begging for money from big donors. Over the course of the election season, I raised less than $10,000, which in the world of national electoral politics is a rather paltry amount. I spent almost half of it on an accountant to ensure compliance with the complex filing laws. I spent the rest on yard signs, flyers and a few sponsored posts on Facebook. I home-produced a few basic videos, I participated in a few public “candidate forum” events where the incumbent was nowhere in sight, and I beat the pavement -- knocking on doors, shaking hands at farmers’ markets, and doing all I could to spread the word about what was essentially a guerilla campaign for Congress. When I drove down the highway, though, I noticed Thompson’s huge signs predominating on the roadsides, mostly on the properties of wineries and other wealthy interests.
I was elected to be a delegate for Bernie Sanders at the district-wide caucus in May, earning the second highest number of votes. Meanwhile, Mike Thompson, a Superdelegate, was vocally supporting Hillary Clinton. I met the most voters at Bernie rallies, where I arrived early and worked the lines. These were my people: those who cheered for social, racial, environmental and economic justice for all. If only every Bernie voter knew about me and knew where Thompson’s true allegiance was, I had a real chance of winning.
As the election approached, there was an episode that I later came to refer to as the “Showdown in Vallejo,” in which I pulled an epic little upset: a talk that I gave at an endorsement meeting prompted the United Democrats of Southern Solano County to refrain from endorsing Thompson. The vote was split, and for the first time in decades, the club issued no endorsement in the congressional race.
When all the votes were counted in the top-two primary, I came in third place, with 23,639 votes 12.5% of the electorate. Second place went to Republican Carlos Santa Maria, with 36,430, 19.2%. Santamaria had no campaign website, had issued no statements, had run no campaign at all. But he had the ‘R’ next to his name, and I believe most of his votes came from people who just wanted to vote for a Republican. The trouble was that not enough Democrats knew the truth about Thompson’s deeply disturbing corporate funding… or that they had a real progressive alternative on the ballot. Too many people still have this mythical image of Thompson as a good guy, when the truth is that he has done very little to materially change our circumstances. He has mostly voted with the Democrats… but that means very little. Almost twenty years into his reign, and what has he really done? Are your needs being met? Are your yearnings for change being represented in the halls of Congress?
Sonoma County is a very politically aware and active place. Since I’ve moved to Santa Rosa (after a good six months of placelessness in the midst of the current housing crisis, I might add), I’ve been struck by the intensity of public discourse over local elections. In November, everyone was talking about whether they’d be voting for Lynda or Noreen for County Supervisor, or which City Council candidates to support and why -- and these are all essential questions to ask, important battles to fight, because we need local leaders who will be responsive to the needs of our communities.
But what really galls me is that, as we cast our ballots, Thompson gets this automatic pass, gets to sit back with a guaranteed win despite his overwhelmingly questionable, even shady, ties to such a troubling litany of corporate offenders.
In 2016, I ran for office to posit the question: what happens when a standing warrior challenges a sitting congressman? And the answer I got was, unless the voters are informed, not much.
We can have universal, single-payer health care and tuition-free higher education. We can have a fair economic system with thriving wages for all. We can meaningfully address the climate crisis. We can heal the racial division and violence that has plagued our nation from the beginning. We can overcome patriarchy and create a more perfect union for all -- but we need to stop re-electing the same do-nothing politicians who have catered for decades to the ruling elite.
Perhaps most troubling was the role of the press in the primary season. As the Sonoma Index-Tribune editors wrote in their endorsement editorial, “for Thompson to lose, something extraordinary would have to happen, like he were revealed to be the never-captured Zodiac Killer from the 1970s.” And that really sucks. It means that, until establishment politicians and corporate servants like Mike Thompson go on literal killing sprees, they will not only continue to be reelected; they’ll also have the support of the corporate-owned press.
Some day, I hope we citizens of the 5th District are able to elect a representative to Congress who will actually represent us -- our families, our communities, our real needs and our common visions. I regret deeply that it didn’t happen in 2016 -- but we’ve got a brand new chance this year.
Between now and the 2018 Midterm Election -- with the Primary coming up on June 5th -- people all over the country will be working to nominate and support the campaigns of candidates who will actually represent our planet and people, on a unified platform reminiscent of a Bernie Sanders speech, in virtually every congressional district in the United States. In this 2018 election, I’m challenging Thompson -- challenging the entire political establishment -- again. I am offering myself up, offering to go to Washington and stand for our families and ocmmunities, not for huge corporate lobbyists and the wealthiest 1/10 of 1%. I sincerely hope that, come this June, we’re ready to make the change we all so desperately need. The future of the next seven generations depends on it.