Interview with

Dan Hamburg

Summer 2007

In 1992, you won the 1st District election for U.S. House of Representatives, and Bill Clinton had won the Presidency. What was the scene like when you went to Washington? Universal health care was a big issue, wasn’t it?

A year before Clinton’s election (and mine), JFK’s Peace Corps Director, Harris Wofford, won an impressive victory in a Pennsylvania senatorial campaign. His number one issue was the lack of affordable health care in that state. His win catapulted the issue of national health care onto center stage.

When I went to Washington in 1993, there was a lot of grassroots support for single-payer national health care. Bill Clinton had talked about the “deficit” in health care during his campaign and there were broad hints that he was determined to provide health insurance for all.

Who was with you on the health care issue?

The two people I remember best as leaders were Jim McDermott, a Washington congressman and physician, and Joe Kennedy, (a Kennedy and a personal friend of the Clintons). Early in my term, I was invited to be part of a group of single-payer advocates meeting with the First Lady at the Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House.

I’ll never forget Joe looking across the meeting table saying, “Hillary, the only way to do this is single payer. It’s the most cost-effective, leaves the most choice in the hands of the patients, and is a tested model.” The First Lady smiled: “Joe, you’re right. But it’s not what’s happening. We’d get killed politically.”

Interesting. The Democrats, the party to which I’d sworn some measure of fealty, held an 85 seat majority in the House, a 10 seat majority in the Senate, and the White House, and still it wasn’t politically feasible to do the right thing for the American people.

Hillary (and presumably Bill) had “decided” that the best way to expand access to health care was to give it to the big insurance companies and HMOs in an option they dubbed “managed care.” That was the Clinton’s deal with the Devil. They had the support of big business—the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Businesses—and so “national health care” became “feasible.”

The Clinton plan was wildly complex. I held town hall meetings around the district trying to explain to people how it would work. I barely understood it myself and to the extent I did understand it, wasn’t that sure it was an improvement.

And then a funny thing happened. The big boys pulled the plug. Big business, big Pharma, the HMOs, the insurance companies, all withdrew their support. (Remember the “Harry and Louise” TV spots? “The government wants to tell us what doctor we can go to! Say no to socialized medicine!”)

So here we are a decade and a half later: National health care, first proposed by Harry Truman in 1948, is still a dream. And Hillary Clinton ranks number two among 100 senators in contributions from the very industry that beat her to a pulp! That shows that she’s been to the woodshed, just like her husband.

What do you mean “been to the woodshed?”

Bill Clinton won the election in ’92 with populist rhetoric. He said the budget wasn’t the only thing in deficit in the U.S. The education system was in deficit. Public infrastructure was in deficit. Access to jobs, housing, transportation, and health care was in deficit. But as soon as the election returns were in, he began singing from a different hymnal. I saw this up close during my first week as a member of Congress. The president had invited the entire freshman Democratic “class” (all 63 of us, a record number) to hear him lay out his administration’s priorities. After a few minutes of hearing the speech (masterfully delivered and oozing Clintonian charm), I thought maybe I had mistakenly caucused with the freshman Republicans.

There was little talk of education, health care, and jobs. Nothing about decrepit roads, sewers, and bridges and the employment programs that would lead to their repair. Instead it was all about “instability in the markets due to federal budgets deficits.” The US economy could not move forward—and all those progressive things we’d all campaigned for couldn’t happen—until we’d balanced the budget and calmed the markets.

When I asked a colleague to explain the discrepancy between candidate and President Clinton, he replied “Bob Rubin took him to the woodshed.” The story was that Bob Rubin—Goldman Sachs chair and later Clinton’s Treasury Secretary--had met with the president in Little Rock just after his election. Rubin had “explained” that things were jittery with Wall Street. Bondholders were nervous. Something had to be done to calm them.

And thus was born The Deficit Reduction Act of 1993, the major achievement of Clinton’s first year in office. (NAFTA was the major achievement of his second year in office. These “achievements” led directly to the Newt Gingrich-led ascendance of the Republican Party in 1995.)

So universal health care was off the agenda. What else was going on?

By the time ‘94 came around--a quick two years--the health care plan was in the toilet. One of the big promises they had made in ‘92, “we’re going to bring health care,” had failed. And the big success that Clinton/Gore could point to for those first two years was NAFTA. The grassroots of the Democratic Party—organized labor, progressives, environmentalists—all hated NAFTA. So not only did the Clintons not give us what we wanted, they gave us what we DIDN’T want.

You had to run again in 1994 against Frank Riggs, the same man you had beaten in 1992. But this time you lost. How come?

The Democratic Party “faithful”—in the First Congressional District (my district) and really across the country—were demoralized in 1994. They showed it not by voting Republican but by not voting. I won the ’92 election largely because Democratic turnout was huge. I lost in ’94 because turnout was abysmal.

There were other factors of course. Doug Bosco hurt me. Employed by Pacific Lumber at $15,000 per month, he challenged me in the ’94 Democratic primary. Doug was a well-known entity in Democratic Party circles, having been both a state assemblyman and a congressman, and was especially liked by the timber industry. I was their worst nightmare. I won that election, but Bosco spent me into oblivion and damaged me with an unrelenting barrage of attack ads on TV and radio.

The prudent thing would have been for me to stay away from the Headwaters Forest/Pacific Lumber issue until I’d managed to be re-elected, but prudence wasn’t my watchword. We went headlong into trying to save the forest and the company from Charles Hurwitz and we paid the price, even though the bill I authored passed the House by a vote of 288-133! In the Senate, I didn’t expect much from Dianne Feinstein, but was very disappointed that Barbara Boxer (herself then a freshman senator) did little to help move the bill when it had a chance actually to become law.

I was portrayed in the general election as “the nut who wants to spend millions to save a seabird while hundreds of hard-working men and women get pink slips.” Of course, now Pacific Lumber is bankrupt and largely in shutdown mode.

Tell us more about what it’s like to be new in Congress.

Before you’re actually sworn in, they send you to JFK School at Harvard for a week. We called it “Camp Congress.” It’s mostly listening to “experts” in a range of fields give you the inside dope. For example, Condi Rice (yes, this was an event organized by Democrats!) took us through the world order. Robert Reich (later Secretary of Labor for Clinton) extemporized on the labor market.

But perhaps more interesting than who was there to address us was who wasn’t. Here we were at Harvard, home base of Physicians for a National Health Program, and a group of us had to petition just to get a PNHP rep. on a panel.

The highlight of Camp Congress for me was a dinner during which every freshman took a minute or two to introduce themselves. It was amazing to hear how many had fought for civil rights in the south, resisted the draft and the Vietnam war, and spent time in jail for protesting the myriad injustices of America. It was just incredibly energizing.

How often were you actually able to express your views?

One of the biggest frustrations of Congress for me was realizing how difficult it is to bring about serious discussion of serious problems. Single-payer health insurance is one example. Another is that in the two years I served, very little environmental legislation moved (including Kyoto, reauthorization of the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts), defense spending remained intact (despite the end of the Cold War there was no “peace dividend”), and much Republican Party-inspired legislation (deficit reduction, NAFTA) sailed through.

What committees were you on as a freshman?

Public Works and Transportation and Merchant Marine & Fisheries. Public Works was a disappointment because much of the money promised by candidate Clinton went the way of deficit reduction. I joined Fisheries because of the dire straits of our north coast fisheries but in trying to negotiate a settlement between tribes and fishermen, I got roasted. Former Mendocino County supervisor John Cimolino took it on himself to organize a group of angry fishermen and bring them to Washington to protest my actions. That was a low point for me. Cimolino treated me as if I was stealing food from the mouths of children. I did take solace in the fact that the tribes appreciated my attempt to be even-handed.

Committee assignments are a big deal. When you’re elected, you get a call from leadership (then Speaker Tom Foley and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt) and try to work out assignments that best fit your district and needs to be re-elected. Most members want seats on the committees that lead to the most power and thus the biggest campaign contributions. If you stay in long enough, you can work for a seat on prestigious committees—such as Ways & Means (taxation), Appropriations, and Energy & Commerce.

Well who were your friends in all this?

I met some great people in DC, both in and out of Congress. I could never say enough about the dedication of the people who worked in my offices in DC and throughout the district. In fact, the hardest part of losing re-election is taking apart the staff and ending a lot of good work. Here in Ukiah, Lynda McClure, Ruth Hunter, and Dave Nelson did great work. Dave, now a Superior Court judge, was District Director, a huge job that he did with his usual intelligence and grace. I’m still friends with many of the people who worked in our congressional office in Washington like Kate Anderton and Denis Edeline. I had a great staff.

I’ve had occasion to contact members I worked with. When Carrie and I were camping out in the Mojave Desert trying to stop the Ward Valley nuclear waste dump, we got help from Bob Filner, an old congressional colleague from San Diego. When we went to Ohio after the ’04 election debacle, I called on Sherrod Brown (now an Ohio senator) for help. I still consider Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Maurice Hinchey of New York and Mel Watt of North Carolina friends, even though a lot of time goes by between communications. I met a lot of great people in Congress. Unfortunately, they’re not the majority.

What would you say you accomplished while you were in Washington?

I think the Headwaters Forest Act, even though it stalled in the Senate, was a big achievement.

Also, giving support to progressives and progressive causes in the district. Progressives are accustomed to pleading their cases before reluctant congressional staff members and often can’t get through the door. I was often pushing progressives to push harder!

I do think, however, that once I got elected my presence in Congress was quickly taken for granted. Progressives and environmentalists believed I would be easily re-elected and concentrated on their own causes, rather than on making sure that happened. My good friend Cecilia Lanman (then director of EPIC, the Environmental Protection Information Center in Garberville) put it, “We forgot to work to keep you in office, and Headwaters lost its champion in Washington, DC.”

Do you have any thoughts about the MEC (Mendocino Environmental Center) with its new board and a viable radio station?

Organizations thrive with steady, open-handed leadership. Gary and Betty Ball supplied this for years at the MEC. David and Ellen Drell have long been the heart and soul of the Willits Environmental Center. Up in Arcata, it’s been Tim McKay, who passed away after decades of great work, and was replaced by long-time north coast activist Greg King.

I don’t know what the potential of a new MEC with a radio station component is but the possibilities are exciting.

Do you really think that finding another Betty and Gary is the way to go? Is that sustainable?

The MEC needs to re-establish its reputation for inclusiveness and relevance. I’m not sure that’s been the case for a while. It’s strange because a town like Ukiah, no less than say Willits and Arcata, should be able to maintain a strong environmental center.

What do you think the MEC should be doing now?

Groups like Smart Growth and GULP have usurped the MEC’s role in land-use issues like the proposed mega-mall at the old Masonite site and the huge housing development proposed just north of Lover’s Lane. In the days of Betty and Gary, the MEC was able to initiate major challenges to the Board of Supervisors and be heard.

For example, Gary and Betty got me involved as plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Gil Ashoff’s development east of Ukiah (Vichy Springs). Ashoff freaked, but we sued the Board and stopped the process, forcing the county to pay attention to its own laws.

There is so much that needs to be done in city and county politics. But the first thing is to be able to count to three. You can’t do much without majorities, and the current Board of Supervisors lacks the vision necessary to move this county forward. We saw that with the recent 3-2 vote catering to developers on the north end of Ukiah. We saw it when the Board refused to seriously consider a citizen-backed resolution calling for the impeachment of Cheney.

In my opinion, there’s nothing more important locally than replacing Jim Wattenburger with a progressive voice representing Ukiah on the Board of Supervisors.

Let’s return to the subject of Health Care. What did you think of “Sicko?”

I thought “Sicko” was outstanding. It made me laugh, it made me cry. Sometimes it made me turn my head from the screen. Great documentary footage. Great music. Moore is a polemical genius. On the other hand, “Sicko” can’t overcome the multi-million (billion?) dollar advertising budgets of Big Pharma and the rest of the health-industrial complex. Their lobby is just too strong, another mega-lobby of Congress.

I was glad to see Ukiah activist Rich Lehman campaigning for Sen. Sheila Kuehl’s SB 840, a single-payer approach to insuring all Californians. Her biggest opposition is from groups like the Chamber of Commerce and NFIB, which is paying for ads that warn Californians of massive job loss if universal health care becomes law.

What are the chances that Senate Bill 840 (SB840) will become law??

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the state Senate pass Kuehl’s bill. But it will die in the Assembly due to the opposition of the “mod Dems.”

The “Mod Dems?” What’s that?

That term is analogous to the “Blue Dogs” in the US House, a large group of conservative Democrats of which Mike Thompson is a member. You can blame the Republicans all you want, but it’s the so-called “pro-business” Democrats who make it impossible to do anything very progressive or environmental, in Sacramento and in Washington.

What organizations do you spend most time with?

I’ve been director of a small nonprofit, Voice of the Environment. (vote@pacific.com) We’ve taken on many issues over the past decade including Ward Valley, Headwaters, a ban on the logging of old growth, GMOs, Wal-Mart, toxic chemicals in fertilizer (and everywhere else!), and recently, autism and other childhood neuro-developmental problems.

This fall, we published an ad in the New York Times, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the Santa Monica Mirror calling for imprisonment of Bush and Cheney. A couple of local attorneys—Janie Sheppard and Gail Jonas—helped me put it together. The basic idea is that we need to impeach now to stop the Bush administration from starting another war in the Middle East. Then, after Bush and Cheney leave office, we can indict them. Anyone wanting information on this should read Elizabeth de la Vega’s excellent book, United States v. George W. Bush et al. The author, a former assistant US attorney, describes the process for a grand jury indictment against the key figures of the Bush administration. These guys (and Condi too!) shouldn’t be allowed to slink out of town to comfortable retirements.

Given the theft of the last two national elections, I put nothing past these people. I wouldn’t even assume there will be an election in 2008.

I’m also on the boards of Ukiah Natural Foods and Forests Forever. I try to keep my organizational affiliations to a minimum since I overdosed on meetings during all those years as a politician.

Which local organizations do you think are most important at this moment?

Smart Growth is a group of politically-savvy and industrious activists. I shudder to think how the Ukiah Valley Area Plan (UVAP) and the General Plan re-write would proceed without them.

And the groups trying to envision and prepare for a post-peak oil society including WELL in Willits and GULP in Ukiah. They are out ahead of most of the rest of the country.

My vision of the future is devolution. I think the US is finished as a power—its moral legitimacy has been squandered, its economy is riddled with contradiction and overall weakness. It’s going to be up to us—community by community—to ensure a survivable planet for our children and grandchildren.

Do you have hope in the new media. Hasn’t it begun to generate a counter dialog.

I don’t know whether the “new media” has the capability to save us. The drumbeat of mainstream media is purposefully corrosive to the public’s understanding of what’s really happening. We live in a bubble here in Mendocino County, but it’s a big mistake to think the rest of the country is much like us in terms of political consciousness.

On the other hand, even if we can’t save the country, we can save ourselves, family by family, community by community. And to do that, we need alternative media. First, we need to be aware of the horrors that are being committed in our name. It’s important to live in the real world, not in the fantasyland of consumer culture.

Local alternative media can help us to communally arrive at survival strategies as the dominant political and economic institutions of our society come unglued.

* * *