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Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas has a lot in common with America’s legendary labor bosses. He’s a crusty, crotchety, cigarette-smoking septuagenarian who speaks longingly of the New Deal. He started out in D.C. as a janitor for the federal government and has become a yard boss of D.C. politics who demands loyaltyor else.
For several weeks, Thomas has feuded publicly with Ward 5 resident and American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) member John Frye over trash. The councilmember, chair of the public works committee, wants to set aside a recent council action imposing a 500-foot buffer zone around trash transfer stations. Frye, who serves on advisory neighborhood commission 5B, contends Thomas is trying to accommodate Dickie Carter, of Urban Service Systems Corp., who wants to open a transfer station near New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE.
Before the rubbish dust-up, Frye was a Thomas ally. Since then, Thomas has refused to sit in the same room with the Ward 5 activist. When Thomas showed up for an endorsement meeting with AFGE officials two weeks ago, he demanded that Frye be tossed out of the meeting. AFGE leaders refused, and Thomas stalked out.
Now that’s a novel way to court endorsements. This year, office-seekers are trying all the old ploys to gain labor’s allegiancefrom revising labor voting records to promising job protections to hammering the control board. Thomas is the only one to resort to the snub.
“John Frye is trying to stir up a lot of stuff,” the councilmember claims. “He wants to run against me as an independent. Why should I sit down there and talk to [labor leaders] with John Frye in the room? He’s just a pain in my butt.”
Then again, maybe Thomas knows something other politicos don’t. After he stomped out of the endorsement meeting, AFGE endorsed him for a fourth council term.
The councilmember’s haughtiness served him so well with AFGE that he tried it again at the June 29 endorsement meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council. Thomas demanded that Frye be banned from the meeting before he would consent to sit with union leaders and answer their questions. Metropolitan Labor Council head Joslyn Williams told Thomas no way, and the councilmember took a hike. The Labor Council responded with a unanimous endorsement of Thomas.
Labor Council activists apparently knew how Thomas would answer their questions. “The man has a 100 percent voting record for labor,” notes a D.C. labor leader. “There was no way labor was not going to support him.”
There are whispers that the 76-year-old Thomas’ outbursts may be connected to health problems. Thomas reportedly suffered a stroke in January, which his council staff managed to conceal until recently. That stroke is now being blamed for the councilmember’s mercurial behavior, including a clash with aide Adam Maier around Easter that led to the exit of one of the council’s most respected and knowledgeable staffers.
Thomas denies that he had a stroke.
Whatever the root cause, Thomas’ political acumen seems to be out sick. The Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler of Plymouth Congregational Church says Thomas recently pressured him to end his opposition to a liquor license being sought by one of the councilmember’s campaign contributors.
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In a year when D.C. voters appear ready to turn their backs on long-term incumbents and rally around fresh faces, it seems as if Thomas should be headed for an overdue retirement. However, the councilmember’s detractors aren’t upset enough to coalesce behind a single opponenta failure that could ensure the incumbent’s survival for another term.
Former D.C. employee Vincent Orange, who has waged unsuccessful campaigns for the Ward 5 seat and council chair, is trying again to unseat Thomas. Orange may be the most widely known of Thomas’ opponents, but many Ward 5 voters view his candidacy as merely an effort to land full-time employment.
Virgil Thompson, constituent services director under former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, also hopes to end Thomas’ tenure. His support appears to be scattered, and he has not yet shown he can match the incumbent in turning out voters on Election Day. Newcomer William Boston is trying to make waves, but his candidacy has not yet caught fire.
If Thomas’ opponents plan to make an issue of the incumbents’ mental agility and fitness for office, they’d better fashion a new plan of attack. After all, six-term octogenarian Councilmember Hilda Mason has been fending off those charges for almost a decade.
THE BULLHORN FACTOR
In 1995, Ward 1 Councilmember Frank Smith cast a seemingly inconsequential vote about bullhorns at the D.C. Council that may end up costing him a few thousand votes in the Sept. 15 Democratic primary. At issue was a bill barring the use of bullhorns on picket lines. In his 1994 campaign, Smith vowed to oppose the bill; once elected, however, he changed sides, supporting a diluted version.
Last week, the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council sought to keep Smith from ever again flip-flopping on a labor matter. The group withheld its endorsement of Smith and came four votes short of backing Smith’s leading opponent, Whitman-Walker Clinic executive director Jim Graham. Undaunted, Graham and his allies proclaimed victory in convincing organized labor to snub Smith after endorsing him four years ago.
“Frank Smith is dead,” declared Ron Richardson, international vice president of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. At the June 23 opening of Graham’s campaign headquarters on Georgia Avenue NW, Richardson, a former Smith backer, announced he was “kicking the Smith habit” to go cold turkey for Graham.
Richardson won’t ever forgive the councilmember for his position on the “noise bill.”
“We told him at the time, ‘Frank, if you do this, don’t ever count on any union support again,’” Richardson says.
Last week, the Labor Council followed through on that 4-year-old threat. Organized labor’s refusal to endorse Smith leaves individual unions free to make their own decisions. Graham already has picked up an endorsement from AFGE.
Smith’s re-election strategy appears to be centered on bringing long-delayed economic development to his ward prior to the Sept. 15 Democratic primary. He has thrust himself in the middle of a community fight to lure a Fresh Fields store to the long-vacant site of the old Children’s Hospital at 13th and V Streets NW.
This week, he was trying to rush through a request for proposals to develop the 10-acre tract at 14th Street and Park Road NW, site of the old Tivoli Theater, that has been the source of heated community battles for the past two decades. Monday’s council hearing on the proposal, which Smith announced on the evening of July 2 as many of his constituents were headed out of town for the July 4th weekend, caught activists by surprise. The hearing clears the way for council passage of the development package before its summer recess July 31.
“This thing has been dawdling for 21 years, and suddenly we’ve got to have it done overnight,” notes Graham.
The hotly contested Ward 1 race is being waged with all of the cunning of a Karpov-Kasparov chess match. Facing a challenge from one of the city’s prominent gay leaders, Smith countered by recruiting gay activist Chris Long to run his campaign in hopes of whittling away at Graham’s solid support within the gay community. Graham, needing to break Smith’s grip on black voters east of 16th Street, hired African-American Chicago political strategist Jocelyn Woodards to run his campaign.
Smith’s gambit could still succeed, but Graham’s ploy quickly backfired. Woodards quit the campaign after only a few weeks in a dispute with her candidate over her role. Although Graham wanted a black campaign manager, he reportedly refused to relinquish any control, much to Woodards’ frustration. The two have agreed not to discuss their differences publicly.
Smith’s allies also put pressure on Woodards by accusing her of betraying a black incumbent and abetting a plan to gain a white majority on the council. Smith supporters also called officials at the Democratic National Committee, where she had worked previously, to complain about her role in the Graham campaign.
The demanding Graham has given up on finding a black figurehead for his campaign and is bringing back former Dave Clarke staffer Jean Francese, a protégé of the late political strategist Ted Gay, to help steer him through the primary. Francese, now living in San Francisco, has been serving as a consultant to the campaign.
Unlike four years ago, when candidates squared off regularly in public forums, head-to-head clashes among the rivals have been rare so far in this year’s Ward 1 campaign. Smith failed to show for a June 20 forum at Banneker High School, near Howard University. During a subsequent forum at the Reeves Municipal Center, Smith stayed in his satellite office in the building until his turn to speak arrived.
Graham, who is concentrating on meeting voters in their living rooms, has accused Smith of trying to avoid him. Perhaps Smith is avoiding the confrontation for fear that the dreaded bullhorns will come into play.
•When Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous failed to secure a mayoral endorsement from Democrats in neighboring Ward 8 three weeks ago, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans boasted that wouldn’t happen to him on his home turf. Last week, however, Chavous seized the upper hand in the game of one-upmanship, snatching an endorsement in Evans’ neighboring ward.
After Chavous’ victory in the June 30 forum sponsored by Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commission 1A, Evans’ forces complained that the rules of engagement were changed midstream. On the notion that any D.C. registered voter could participate in the forum, the Evans campaign had pulled in some 75 supporters from across the city. But organizers announced during the forum that only Ward 1 voters could cast their ballots in a straw poll.
Chavous prevailed, getting 28 votes to Evans’ 22.
Mayoral contenders Harold Brazil and Anthony Williams did not participate in the forum.
•Evans is still ticked about last week’s labor endorsement of Chavous, when Evans failed to receive one vote of support from the 52-member Metropolitan Labor Council. The Ward 2 councilmember is particularly irked at Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 25 for not standing up for him during the Labor Council’s deliberations after Evans went to bat for the unions on the “bullhorn bill” three years ago.
Instead, Local 25 officials pushed for an endorsement of Williams.
“Given all the heat that Jack has taken on that bill, that’s a sorry way to remember your friend,” commented an Evans council staffer. “We spent hours on that legislation.”
“There was no way to stand up for him,” claims Richardson. “There was not one person in that room who even wanted to consider him.”
Brazil, viewed as staunchly anti-union by
labor leaders, obtained zero support from the Labor Council.
Last week, Brazil unveiled his new campaign posters, complete with his smiling face and name emblazoned in 6-inch-high letters. But the poster lacks what the campaign needs the mosta message.
“Brazil for Mayor” isn’t going to inspire many voters.CP
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