Politics & Government

Thompson running against Brownback, Trump as much as Estes

Democrat James Thompson speaks at the Wichita Crime Commission debate Thursday. Thompson is running against Republican Ron Estes and Libertarian Chris Rockhold to replace Mike Pompeo in Congress. (March 23, 2017)
Democrat James Thompson speaks at the Wichita Crime Commission debate Thursday. Thompson is running against Republican Ron Estes and Libertarian Chris Rockhold to replace Mike Pompeo in Congress. (March 23, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

As much as he’s running against Republican Ron Estes, Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson is running against Gov. Sam Brownback and President Trump.

Thompson rarely misses a chance to assert that as state treasurer, Estes supported Brownback as the governor ran the state budget into deficits and tapped highway funds to pay other bills.

In fact, Thompson campaign news releases routinely refer to his opponent as “Brownbacker Ron Estes.”

It’s an issue that surged to the forefront when Thompson and Estes met during their first face-to-face debate Wednesday at a Wichita Crime Commission luncheon.

We need somebody who’s going to be able to stand up to Donald Trump. ... I haven’t seen you stand up to Sam Brownback. So if you can’t stand up to him, I can’t see you standing up to Donald Trump.

Democrat James Thompson, running for Congress, to opponent Ron Estes, a Republican

“At the end of the day we need somebody who’s going to be able to stand up to Donald Trump,” Thompson told Estes. “From my perspective, I haven’t seen you stand up to Sam Brownback. So if you can’t stand up to him, I can’t see you standing up to Donald Trump.”

Thompson regularly points out that Estes voted to nominate Trump as president when he was a Kansas delegate to the Republican National Convention.

James Thompson was selected by a group of delegates to be the standard-bearer for Democratic Party in the upcoming special election for Mike Pompeo's vacated congressional seat. (Feb. 11, 2017)

And since Trump has taken office, “We saw a ban that was essentially a ban on religion; that is unacceptable,” Thompson said. “We see attacks on people based on the color of their skin or attacks against people because they’re Mexican and statements made against their heritage, and that’s unacceptable.”

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Thompson and Estes are facing off against each other and Libertarian Chris Rockhold in a special election to fill the seat in Congress vacated when Rep. Mike Pompeo resigned to accept the position of CIA director in the Trump administration.

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The election is April 11. Early voting starts Monday at the the Sedgwick County Election Office, in the historic courthouse at 510 N. Main in downtown Wichita.

An unusual path

Thompson says that he’s better able to relate to people across the economic spectrum because his life followed an unusual path, from homeless teen to soldier to lawyer to congressional candidate.

Thompson grew up in poverty in Oklahoma City. At one point, he dropped out of high school to work to feed his brothers, who lived with him and his unemployed stepfather in a van.

He kept working, but went back to school, caught up, and graduated with his class.

Then he joined the Army and, from 1990 to 1994, served in the Presidential Honor Guard that performs ceremonial duties for the White House and funerals at Arlington National Cemetery.

After the Army, he went to Wichita State University, graduating with a degree in political science. He then went on to earn his law degree at Washburn University in Topeka.

He married shortly after graduation. He and his wife, Lisa, have an 11-year-old daughter, Liberty.

As a law student, Thompson organized Washburn’s Veterans Legal Association to provide legal assistance to former soldiers who were having trouble reintegrating into the civilian world.

Veteran services is one of the top issues for the Thompson campaign. And it is more than a professional interest to the candidate.

About a year ago his former brother-in-law, a veteran who had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide. He left behind a young daughter.

“As a result I was one of the people who sat down with her that night, just me and her mother, who sat her down and explained to her what happened,” Thompson said. “And I don’t ever want a family to go through that, and I’m hoping we can stop our veterans from feeling … lost to the point that they do something like that to themselves. If we’ve got the money to go to war, we need to make sure that we have the money to take care of our veterans when they come back.”

Views on public education

Public education is also a personal cause for Thompson, because, he said, support from teachers and free school lunches were a big part of his climb out of childhood poverty.

He is highly critical of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire heir to the Amway fortune and staunch advocate of privatizing education.

Thompson said his priority would be “maintaining our public education system and protecting it from the attacks we’re seeing” and “making sure higher education is affordable and accessible for people.”

He said he’s acutely aware of the problems of student loan debt because he’ll be paying off his own loans until 2034, when he’s 64 years old.

Thompson said he also supports “opportunities for people who don’t want to go to college,” such as trade schools and union apprenticeships.

On police, partisan gridlock

As an attorney, Thompson has sued police for excessive use of force. But he is quick to say he likes and respects police officers – just not those who abuse their authority.

“People think I did that (sued) because I hate police officers – and I don’t,” he said. “Police officers to me are knights in shining armor. But because of that, we need to hold them accountable as well. No one should be above the law.”

And he said his background in law gives him a leg up in trying to break the partisan gridlock in Washington.

“As an attorney, we have to work to resolve cases,” he said. “Ninety-six percent of all civil cases settle. The reason why is because once you get your evidence together, you sit down and you know your weaknesses and you know your strengths and you sit down with the other side and you negotiate out a deal.”

But in Congress, “Somewhere along the way we’ve lost the ability to compromise,” Thompson said.

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