The only real question confronting Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, in his bid for a ninth term in the House of Representatives is whether he will top the 74.5 percent winning margin he had in 2002.
Thompson has never lost an election since he first ran for the California State Senate in 1990, and his lowest winning margin for the House is 61.84 percent.
Some of his success margins are no doubt a result of the registration edge Democrats have had in both Congressional districts in which Thompson has run – the elongated, former 1st District and the recently redrawn 5th District – but his moderate “Blue Dog” version of Democratic politics clearly has appeal across political boundaries, and this year no Republican emerged for even a token challenge.
Instead, two virtually unknown independents – one a former online professional poker player from Napa named James Hinton, the other a Martinez resident named Douglas “Dutch” Van Raam, whose resume includes stints as a stagehand, light rigger and landscaper.
Hinton, who has no political affiliation but says his views often align with the Libertarian party, is focusing his campaign heavily on the legalization of marijuana. He says medical marijuana is responsible for restoring his health, and he supported an unsuccessful effort earlier this year to put a referendum on the Napa city ballot allowing medical marijuana dispensaries in town. The petition drive fell some 2,000 signatures short of the necessary 3,852 valid signatures of Napa residents.
Hinton has cited his online poker success as evidence he can beat the odds which, when it comes to his chances of winning the 5th District Congressional seat, have to be considered long indeed. But, despite the fact that he has raised only $56 at this point in the campaign, Hinton says the odds “are blown out of proportion.
“I think I can win,” he insists. “I’m not asking for people’s money. I’m asking for their votes. I’d put my odds at 10-to-one.”
According to online poker site “Pocket Fives,” Hinton – whose poker playing moniker was once “The Napa Natural” – has lifetime online total cash winnings of $112,356, with a single-largest cash winning of $26,676. But Hinton says he did far better, and longer, playing conventional poker at Bay Area casinos and card rooms.
Hinton lists his top campaign issue as the loss of America’s rights. “I’m fed up with Washington, D.C.,” he said, “When they say you can’t play poker online anymore. … And we’ve turned into a complete spy state, with the Patriot Act and the NSA. They haven’t caught one terrorist in this country yet, but we’ve never been attacked in this country since the NRA has been there.”
Hinton says that while America “is developing into a police state,” there is not enough support for veterans. “Many people have profited off these wars,” he argues, “but we don’t take care of our veterans.”
Hinton supports legalization of marijuana, explaining that his own medical issues that “might have been cancer,” and included psoriatic arthritis, disappeared a year ago after he went on a no-fat, plant-based diet and began moderate use of cannabis. “I also lost about 100 pounds,” he said.
“Our Founding Fathers used it (cannabis) when they founded this country,” Hinton asserted. “But then the government decided to make it illegal. That’s outrageous. It’s never killed anybody. Twenty-thousand people die every year in Mexico because marijuana is illegal, but marijuana doesn’t hurt anybody. Meanwhile Coca Cola is destroying kids every day.”
Hinton also supports “quality, single-payer health care, an end to the war on drugs, taxing Wall Street transactions and nationalizing the Federal Reserve.”
Hinton, who is 39, refers to himself as a retired poker player, and is vague about what kind of work he does now, saying that since his medical recovery, he hasn’t spent a day thinking about poker. And he says he’s not worried about Van Raam edging him out of a top-two runoff against Thompson. “I’m way ahead of him right now. I’ve been to Martinez several times now (campaigning) and I’ve only met one person who’s heard of him. I feel like I’m leading now.”
For his part, Van Raam, who is 44, feels equally confident on a similarly modest campaign budget. He has reported total contributions of $1,826, which, he explained, he donated to himself. “It was my income tax refund,” Van Raam said. “It seemed like a good investment at the time.”
Asked how much he expected to spend on his campaign, he answered, “As little as possible. I’m very low-budget. I hate political signs. I’m not putting any up. But if you like me, and you want to make a nice sign and put it up in your yard, that’s OK with me.”
His campaign is focused, he said, on “removing cannabis sativa from the list of Schedule 1 drugs.” Not he says, to make pot legal – although he supports that too – but to make industrial and agricultural hemp legal.
“Why shouldn’t we be growing industrial hemp in California?” he asks. “We could be making vegetable-based plastic bags out of hemp. We could make paper bags out of hemp. … Given my personal opinion, I wouldn’t put any cannabis plant on a list of Schedule 1 drugs – sativa or indica.”
Van Raam also believes the nation’s railroad infrastructure needs to be expanded and upgraded, perhaps to allow wider and lower train cars to more safely transport products like crude oil. And he believes that water resources are widely wasted. “We’re going to have to have a big water crackdown,” he warns.
Van Raam is running as a member of the Free Soil Party, a reference to the short-lived anti-slavery political party with which former president Martin Van Buren unsuccessfully sought reelection in 1848. The Free Soil Party motto was “Free soil, free speech, free labor and free men,” a sentiment that seems to resonate with Van Raam.
Addressing the issue of his own odds of winning the election, Van Raam agrees, “It’s a very tough battle, but no odds are ever impossible. Mike Thompson has never had Martinez in his district (before). These are the best odds I’ll ever have.”
Asked about Hinton as a challenger, Van Raam, responded, “If you want an online gambler representing you, fine. At least I’ve got my work history. People know what I do.”
Meanwhile, incumbent Mike Thompson is working hard for the reelection of other Democrats and not looking over his shoulder at Hinton and Van Raam. Chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, a position that allows him to walk a cautious line between gun rights and gun control, Thompson is a hunter and Vietnam War combat veteran. He is still seeking passage of H.R. 1565, a bill requiring comprehensive, enforceable background checks on all commercial gun sales, including at gun shows. The bill remains stalled in the house.
As a fiscal conservative, Thompson nevertheless supported the variety of stimulus bills initiated by the Obama Administration, and he co-authored an infrastructure jobs bill he said was fully paid for and would have created more than 177,000 jobs in California alone. It too was stalled.
Thompson has also been a strong supporter of the Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which has successfully been implemented in Sonoma County, and is supporting legislation to expand the program.
With one of the safest districts in the House and a voting record that continues to please a majority of his constituents, Thompson seems assured of an easy reelection.
That is, unless a retired poker player, or a Martinez stagehand, can produce an unprecedented electoral wild card.