Sonoma’s Congressman on:
Trump, the wall, immigration reform, affordable housing, cannabis, Delta tunnels, high-speed rail, water projects, Highway 37, gun control.
Mike Thompson is a member of Congress from California’s Fifth District, which encompasses the Sonoma Valley, Santa Rosa and parts of Lake County, Napa County, Solano County and Contra Costa County. A Democrat, he was first elected to Congress in 1998 and has consistently won re-election by margins of more than 60 percent. Prior to his Congressional service he represented California’s 2nd State Senate district.
He serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, chairs the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and is co-chair of the bipartisan Military Veterans Caucus.
He is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, during which he served as a staff sergeant and platoon leader with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He was wounded in combat and received a Purple Heart.
Thompson owns a small vineyard near St. Helena and is co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Wine Caucus.
He spoke with Valley of the Moon magazine in late August on subjects ranging from Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed Delta tunnels water transmission project to California’s high-speed rail project, legislation that would give priority to agriculture over fisheries and watershed protection, legalization of cannabis, gun control, affordable housing, widening Highway 37, immigration reform, Afghanistan and governance in the age of Trump.
A $15 billion plan, promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown and Central Valley agricultural water districts, would build two 35-mile long, 40-foot-high tunnels to move Sacramento River water beneath the Delta to existing pumping plants near Tracy for transmission to Central Valley farmers.
Thompson: Well, I don’t think there’s any secret that I’m against it. I think it would create devastation in the Delta, north of the Delta, and I think it’s harmful to the North Coast as well. You just can’t take that much water out of the Delta and not expect to have problems, and you’ve got agricultural interests in the Delta that would be harmed, you’ve got north of Delta agricultural interests that would be harmed. The fisheries on the Pacific Coast would be harmed. You have homes that depend upon the Delta for their daily water use. Two towns in our district, in particular Benicia and Martinez, both draw drinking water from the Delta.
And if you de-water north of Delta agriculture, you’re truncating the Pacific Flyway, and that would be devastating to water fowl, shore birds, anything that uses that flyway. You think of the wildlife refuges and the Pacific Flyway as a corridor for ducks and geese to migrate, but the fact is there’s all kinds of other animals there—it’s a whole food chain.
The big motivation for this, from an agricultural perspective, is that farming practices in the Central Valley have changed. In the old days, if you were farming in the valley, you had a mix of crops, and a large part of that mix were row crops. If there was a short water year, you just left the land fallow, you didn’t plant. But there has been a big shift from row crops to trees and vines that changed the whole dynamic, because you can’t just let trees and vines go without water. They die.
I don’t see any way that it’s going to play out without court intervention. I think there’ll be lawsuits, and I guess I’m not 100 percent convinced that all the stakeholders will go along with their part of the bargain. The water per acre foot cost is going to be pretty high.
The Brown Administration project, now under partial construction but not fully funded, will connect San Francisco with San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles and Anaheim (plus other cities along the way and eventual lines to Sacramento and San Diego) with high-speed rail service that would produce a city-center-to city-center time, from San Francisco to L.A., of two hours and 40 minutes at speeds up to 220 miles per hour.
Thompson: I support high-speed rail. I think we should have done it years ago, and we need to figure out how to more economically move people from Point A to Point B. The one thing we know for sure is that we’re already beyond capacity in everything—in our airports, in our roadways—and it’s going to be just as controversial and just as expensive to figure out how to add lanes to our highways or expand runways. So it seems to me that there needs to be an inclusion of rail in our transportation system.
California Water Policy Issues
Fourth District Rep. Tom McClintock and 23rd District Rep. Kevin McCarthy—the House Majority Leader—want to streamline and accelerate new dam construction while relaxing protections for fish and wildlife, including endangered salmon runs. Both representatives deny the human impact on climate change.
Thompson: This is what I know: Tom McClintock has never found a water project he didn’t like, and he has no patience nor consideration for the environmental concerns that people may express. And I think that’s wrong.
There is some expansion of water storage facilities that we should continue to look at. (The off-stream Sites storage reservoir, possibly raising Shasta Dam.)
But (McClintock, McCarthy and Central Valley water interests) are trying to figure out how to get as much water to the valley as possible, everybody else be damned. That’s what it comes down to. They want to pick winners and losers, and what they’re saying is, “The people that are growing stuff in our district are more important than people who are growing stuff in the Delta, in the north of Delta, people who are catching fish on the North Coast, more important than the Pacific Flyway. We’re number one, we should get the water, you guys have had it for too long, it’s our turn.”
I think (their effort) does have legs. I’m concerned about it. But as dangerous as some of these legislative proposals are, their proponents have the majority in the House, in the Senate, they have the White House, and I can’t imagine this president not signing something like that. What we have are the courts, and case law, and everything that they do is going to be fought to the mat in that regard.
Voters in California have decided that there’s going to be legal recreational cannabis, (but) that doesn’t change the fact that California’s law is in conflict with the federal law. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. There are some things that I’m supporting and working on (including changing), the whole idea of the federal government interceding on what states choose to do in this regard. But even if all those
efforts are successful, there’s still going to be the overriding fact that, in the eyes of the federal government, marijuana is a Class One drug, and it’s illegal.
I’m also concerned about how you make sure that people under the influence of marijuana don’t drive, and how you determine that they are under the influence of marijuana if they do drive. We also have to figure out how to deal with the edible stuff and how that impacts kids. I think that’s a big concern.
Also, I’ve seen first-hand the environmental devastation that illegal marijuana grows create, and I’m not certain legalization changes that. There’s still going to be people who are growing illegally, sneaking onto somebody else’s property…they go in and harvest their marijuana and they just leave everything else…chemicals, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, all that stuff leeches into the waterways, and you have big algae blooms in tributaries that we have spent billions of dollars trying to restore—habitat for steelhead—and these guys are destroying it. They shoot animals, they poison rats, and then the raptors eat the rats, they poison animals, and then the mountain lions eat the animals. It’s just a mess.
We’re still trying to do gun violence prevention, specifically the expanded background checks to make sure that people who are criminals or dangerously mentally ill (don’t get guns). But this year, we’re playing a lot of defense because of two bills that have been introduced. One, they refer to as “Concealed Carry Reciprocity.” What it means is, if you have a concealed (gun) carry permit from one place, you can carry (a gun) any place. So if I’m not fit to get a concealed carry permit in Sonoma County, I can literally call in to one of the counties (that will give me one), get one in the mail and carry in Sonoma County. That’s a bit troubling.
And the other bill is called “The Hearing Protection Act of 2017,” which deregulates the over-the-counter sale of silencers. If it wasn’t so dangerous, it’d be really funny. A silencer lowers the sound a little bit and disperses it. And law enforcement’s worried about this because a lot of times when they respond to a shooting, they detect where the shooter is based on the sound. So if they respond, and the sound is dispersed, how many more lives go down the drain till they figure it out?
I think that affordable housing is one of, if not the most, important issue we face in our region today. Not only do people have difficulty finding appropriate housing, but it’s distorting our entire community because people still have to work in Sonoma, but they can’t afford to live here.
So if people who have a job here can’t afford a house, they have to live somewhere else, and that’s responsible for the traffic congestion that’s driving so many people absolutely crazy. It’s not all tourists, a lot of it is people just coming and going from work.
I don’t think there’s a silver bullet; tax policy can help, but that’s not the total answer. We should look at tax policy and see how we can use that to make it easier to get into a home. But I also think we need to look at all of the regulatory work that drives up the cost of a home. The numbers I’m hearing are that you can add $100,000 to the cost of a home just because of all the permitting.
Somebody (who is an) elected official from this town (Sonoma) said to me, “We’ve got to do something, we’ve got to build a whole bunch of affordable housing.” I said, “I don’t disagree with you.” And then I said, “Matter of fact, you’re pretty new to this area.” And this person said, “Yes, I am, I moved here because it’s beautiful.” And I said, “Exactly. Now how much of that beauty are you willing to whittle off?”
So, I guess the bottom line is, communities really need to roll up their sleeves and figure out how they’re going to deal with this issue, and in a way that is transparent and inclusive. And it can’t be, “How do we deal with this by not allowing anything else to be built, and continue to experience the exacerbated traffic issues that we’re dealing with?”
Highway 37 Congestion
I think that that’s clearly a corridor that demands both state and federal financial help. And I think that whatever is done is going to be done through some sort of public, private partnership. Including a toll. And then I think once they do that, once that’s accepted, then it’s a matter of how much runway do you need to figure it out.
And then once the toll pays some of the freight, then I think they would do (a raised two-lane roadway in both directions), because the existing road is scheduled to go under water with the increase in sea level. Plus, it’s a terrible road, and environmentally it should be blown out of there because it closes off a very important part of the estuary.
I think this guy is the wrong guy for the job. I don’t think he has the temperament for the job. I don’t think he has the experience for the job. And I think he has some not so flattering attributes that are a real distraction to the job.
But notwithstanding all that, from day one I said, “I will work with him on issues that are important to our district and to our state and country.” And I still hold that position. Sadly, he hasn’t done anything that’s of benefit to our district, or our state or our country.
Everything that he’s done has been 180 degrees from that. So it’s constant embarrassment, it’s constant turmoil and it’s a constant loss of opportunities. On infrastructure; he promised to do all this great infrastructure stuff, and I don’t think there’s anybody in Congress that’s not waiting for that to happen. Not only is it needed, but it is also appreciated by the constituencies that you represent.
He also has a chance to do tax reform, and that’s something that members on both sides agree we need to do, (although) we don’t agree that it needs to be done in a way that helps him and his rich buddies at the expense of everybody else. But the turmoil that’s been created has prevented anything from happening in that area.
And then we all want to do better healthcare, and that was his promise. On day one, he said, “You’re going to have better healthcare, it’s going to be cheaper.”
Well, it’s seven months now, and all we’ve done is create greater divisions across the country and in Congress, and healthcare is weaker today than it was when he was elected. So it’s terribly disappointing, and embarrassing. I think that we, as Americans, are in trouble with this person in the White House.
The war in Afghanistan: I didn’t see anything or hear anything that varies greatly from the George Bush presidency or the Barack Obama presidency. I don’t think anybody believes that you can add 5,000 more troops and change the hearts and the minds of the people in the terrorist camp.
There’s still incredible dysfunction in the Afghan military, and I don’t think stepping up troop numbers is going to change that. (We’re fighting) a philosophy. It’s not like dropping a bomb and convincing everybody that the war’s over. This is a philosophy and these guys are going to keep fighting until every one of them is gone.
I think we need to work closely with our allies in that part of the world, and we need to expand the number of Islamic countries that fall into the ally category. I don’t think we do it alone; we don’t do it with just the Brits and the Canadians.
We’ve got to change minds, and the Islamic community needs to come out and stand up, and say, “This is wrong, and we’re going to change our approach.”
The other thing we need to do is stop thinking that we’re going to turn this part of the world into believing as we do, because that’s not going to happen. It’s a different culture, it is deeply ingrained, and these guys are not going to change just because we think it’s the American way to do things.
The president is talking about shutting down the government in order to get the wall. That’s ridiculous. Anybody with an ounce of historical perspective, or knowledge, or concern for the future, knows that it’s not a good practice to shut down the government.
And there’s not the support to build this wall. Now, there are probably some areas where some sort of barrier works, but that’s not how you manage the border situation. Landowners down there are against it, commerce is against it, the local governments are against it.
It’s really a shame. Immigration reform is important, (but) I don’t see any interest on the part of the administration to pursue it. And you still have impediments to (reform) in the House and Senate. In the House, the chairman of the committee thinks immigration reform literally means, “Send every person who is undocumented back to where they came from, and let them apply to come here.”
I hear from people who write in and say, “If we just get rid of all these people, there’d be all these jobs that would be opening.” Number one, we’re at full employment. Number two, you couldn’t do the jobs that some of these folks do.