City Paper is not for tourists
Harry L. Thomas Sr., the 72-year-old D.C. councilmember from Ward 5, is standing in the middle of a vault-size freezer at a Northeast outlet store. He is searching for sausages.
The freezer is a carnivore’s dreamland: Its shelves are crowded with turkey, ham, beef, bacon, porkevery kind of meat, it seems, except the kind Thomas is looking for.
“Where are those long sausages?” asks Thomas in his customary drawl. He sounds like a variable-speed tape recorder stuck on slow.
Tomorrow his office is hosting a breakfast for council staffers, and Thomas is determined to have them chewing on sausages, long ones. He checks the shelf where he expects to find the long sausages. No long sausages. Confused but undeterred, Thomas begins sorting through the meat piles: Frozen steaks, frozen chops, frozen roasts, frozen ribsbut still no long sausages. His staffer proffers an alternative sausage. “Those aren’t the long ones,” Thomas deadpans. He keeps digging, casting aside package after package of small link sausagesimpostors all.
Finally, after five minutes in the arctic, Thomas hits the jackpot. “See, these are the long ones,” he announces, grabbing six packages of horseshoe-shaped kielbasa. They are indeed long. He plops them on an industrial-size flatbed shopping cartwhich is big enough to carry breakfast for the entire federal bureaucracyand heads for the checkout, nabbing a case of papaya juice, some aluminum pans, and a package of plastic forks along the way.
The shopping trip isn’t some staged PR event, some choreographed outing to prove that the distinguished councilmember is a regular guy. He is a regular guy. Thomas visited the store in October to buy candy and hot dogs for his Ward 5 Halloween party. A week after the sausage outing, he returns to the shopping circuit, rounding up rice, greens, sweet potatoes, and turkeys for his traditional Thanksgiving giveaway. That event is itself merely a warm-up for the big event in Harry Thomas’ year: his annual Christmas toy party, where the councilmember plays Santa for the kids of his ward.
Turkeys, hot dogs, candies, and toysthese are the hallmarks of Thomas’ nine-year tenure on the council. Other councilmembers earn their $72,000 salaries by caucusing the halls of the Wilson Building, red-inking draft bills, negotiating with the mayor, nudging colleagues to support precious initiativesin short, by practicing legislative politics.
Thomas earns his keep by taking to the street. When it comes to getting things done for constituentsespecially the little thingsno councilmember can match Thomas. If he’s not gathering party supplies, Thomas is roaming Ward 5 alleys in search of homes without supercans, visiting the families of murder victims, and alerting city authorities to potholes, backed-up sewers, busted stoplights, and anything else amiss in his jurisdiction. “There is no problem too large or small for Harry Thomas,” says Lisa Shaw, the mayor’s Ward 5 ombudsman. This constituent activism, coupled with Thomas’ warmth and generosity, have made him the best-loved politician in the District.
But Thomas is also a councilmember whose time and place have passed. He is a throwback to the ward bosses of a century ago, who exploited their command of municipal resources to nurture a doggedly loyal popular following. Like the ward bosses, Thomas totes all the baggagegood and badof the patronage politician. Along with the kisses, smiles, and hugs comes a councilmember who has yet to introducelet alone passa major piece of legislation in nearly a decade of service. Along with the turkeys and toys comes a politician fiercely opposed to fresh ideas for fixing a dying city. And along with the painstaking attention to his constituents’ picayune concerns comes a man whose only answers to poverty and unemployment are a fatter city payroll and higher taxes.
It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday in early November, and Thomas heads to Weschler’s, a flea market a few blocks east of the Wilson building. The market is a playground for bargain-hunters like Thomas, who earlier in the day boasted of buying 10 business suits for $350 at an auction.
Another shopper, an acquaintance, spots Thomas and greets him as he enters the store. Thomas quickly spies a few treasuresa washing machine, an old radio, and a pile of jazz LPs for his son-in-lawthen collars the owner to discuss his purchases. In the midst of the chat, the owner hands Thomas a small, blank manila envelope. Thomas plows through the envelope’s seal with his index finger. He pulls out its contents, a business card wrapped in a clean $100 bill. The owner explains that the cash is a gift from the shopper who said hello to Thomas. Later, the councilmember instructs a staffer to deposit the money in his constituent services fund.
The contribution, Thomas says, will support Ward 5 community events and may even pay next month’s rent for a poor resident.
Thomas is an Everyman for black Washington. His history is the history of thousands of D.C.’s African-Americans: He’s a poor Southerner who moved north to the city, found a job with the federal government, and gradually rose to middle-class prosperity.
Born in 1923 in Richmond, Va., Thomas remembers vividly the privations of the Great Depression. “I’ve been as poor as one could be,” says Thomas, who recalls that the defining moment of each week was scrounging up enough food to feed the family. The Thomases scraped along on welfare payments until Harry Thomas’ father found a railroad job. As a youngster, Thomas worked with the National Youth Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), New Deal programs introduced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Richmond CCC camp paid Thomas $22 a month, “which was good money in those days,” he says.
The Depression instilled a bedrock political principle in Thomas: A just society begins and ends with an activist government, a cradle-to-grave guardian that offers either a handout or a steady job at every turn.
Thomas never finished high schoolhe dropped out in “11th or 12th grade,” he saysand at the outbreak of World War II, he enlisted in the army. Like most black soldiers, Thomas was assigned to menial duties far from the glory of the battlefield. He was posted to Bermuda. “I drove the general around and worked on an ambulance,” he recalls.
After demobilization, Thomas headed up to Washington, D.C., part of the great migration of Southern blacks. He snagged a janitorial post with the General Services Administration (GSA). Before the war, Thomasan unskilled black man in a segregated white man’s worldwould have stood little chance of landing such a job. During the Depression, dislocated white workers had elbowed blacks from low-level government positions that they had shunned in prosperous times; in 1938, only 8 percent of the federal work force was black.
The turning point came in June 1941, when Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination against blacks by federal agencies and contractors. By 1945, the percentage of blacks on the federal payroll had jumped to 19 percent, and African-Americans had established an economic toehold in D.C. Eventually, the rise in black federal employment spawned something that Washington had not yet seenprosperous middle-class black neighborhoods.
“African-Americans entered federal service at low levelssome of them unskilled or semiskilled,” observes local historian Keith Melder. “But they were able to keep these jobs for years and years, and they could build up savings, buy houses, and so on.”
Thomas didn’t keep his job: He kept finding better ones. He quickly traded in his GSA mop and broom for a job as an Interior Department messenger. He rose to chief messenger, then to clerical positions in the mailroom, his blue collar whitening with each step up the ladder. He ascended all the way to Interior’s office of public affairs, where he answered press inquiries and prepared briefings for the secretary. Thomas retired in 1983 after 37 years of federal service.
Thomas had married in 1953, and he, his wife Romaine Thomas, and their two kids climbed the economic ladder thanks to Thomas’ diligence. When he finished his 40 hours with the feds, Thomas “worked the floor” of Congress, serving steaks and whiskeys as a part-time congressional waiter. “I just felt that we needed a little more,” explains Thomas. In the early ’50s, the Thomases bought a house in the Woodridge neighborhood off Rhode Island Avenue. They still live there today.
In the early ’70s, Thomas dropped his waitering career for community work in Northeast. He started a family support network for his son Harry Jr.’s Little League team. That catapulted him to a series of local offices: advisory neighborhood commissioner, Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) board commissioner, and president of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee.
By 1986, when incumbent Ward 5 Councilmember William Spaulding announced plans to run for a fourth term, Thomas was ready for the big time (or what passes for it in D.C.). He assembled a campaign staff of local activists and recruited a cadre of the ex-Little Leaguers he had nurtured in the early ’70s. “Word spread that ‘Uncle Tommy’ was running for office, and they came to help,” recalls Thomas.
In the Democratic primary, Thomas won 4,800 votes, enough for an 800-vote victory over Spaulding. Thomas won the general election in a walk.
The election was a preview of Thomas’ future. His campaign stressed his history of community service and capitalized on Spaulding’s shoddy record on delivering basic servicespothole repairs, garbage collection, etc. Spaulding had neglected “all those little mundane things,” a Ward 5 resident told the Washington Times after the election. “You get the feeling that Mr. Thomas would climb up and fix your window himself, if he had to.”
It’s a weekday morning, and Thomas is driving back from a benefit when his car phone rings. Over the speaker phone, his secretary says that Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson wants to speak to him about an issue facing the council. “I just spoke with her this morning, and I told her I’d support her,” snaps Thomas. But the secretary insists: Patterson needs to speak with him again. Thomas demurs and tells the secretary to refer Patterson to a staffer.
With high politics thus shunted aside, Thomas is now free to do what he enjoys mostpatrolling the avenues of Ward 5. He turns his jet-black Ford Thunderbird LX onto a quiet, residential street. “Right up ahead at the next intersection there was an accident a couple of weeks ago,” Thomas drawls, settling into his role as patrol narrator. “The car went right up onto the lawn and left two tracks.”
Thomas drives even more slowly than he speaks. The frustrated driver behind him is riding the horn, but the honking doesn’t faze Thomas, who is now in a zone. Thomas eyeballs every single house on the block in search of something out of placea troublemaker, a pothole, a broken window, a fallen tree limb, anything he can get fixed. The car has slowed to a stately crawl5 mph, tops. The guy following is really pissed. The honking intensifies, but Thomas still pays it no heed. At this point, nothing short of a roaring Humvee with Colin Powell perched on the bumper singing “My Way” could distract him.
Thomas stops at the intersection and points to the far right corner, where two tire tracks on a small patch of grass bear testimony to his account. “See, he hit that stop sign, too,” says Thomas, pointing to a mangled signpost. Thomas turns left, finally allowing the annoyed driver to zoom ahead.
No one knows Ward 5, an amalgam of middle-class neighborhoods, industrial zones, and blight, better than Thomas. The ward, which occupies most of Northeast, is home to two major commercial corridorsNew York and Rhode Island Avenuesand to 75,000 residents. Commuters who ply these avenues see a forbidding cityscape of empty warehouses, run-down motels, and liquor stores. This curtain of urban decay, however, shields from view the other, pleasant reality of Ward 5: tree-lined streets, single-family homes festooned with fecund flower boxes and plastic awnings, neatly manicured lawns. Woe betide the rogue homeowner who poisons the street with an unkempt lawn or messy porch.
Make no mistake about it: Ward 5 is the backbone of the District’s black middle class, which pundits and politicians alike cite as the (crumbling) bedrock of the city’s (crumbling) socioeconomic stability. Like Thomas, this middle class took root in Ward 5 during the postwar boom. And, like Thomas, many of the new residents had found jobs in the federal government and amassed enough savings to buy a home. The ward’s prewar white population moved north and west to the suburbs. By 1960, African-Americans accounted for 54 percent of the ward’s population, up from 10 percent in 1950. Today, the ward is 90-percent African-American.
Thomas remembers all too well the strife that accompanied the racial turnover. “They said, ‘Niggers, get out!’ ” says Thomas, recalling how young white thugs heaved bricks through his window and beat up black children in the street. “One night it got so hot out there that I had to shoot my gun in the air. After that we didn’t have many more problems.”
Those who call the District a transient city have clearly never paused to consider Ward 5, where many homes are passed on religiously from one generation to the next. “This is a very stable community,” says Jean Mason of her Arboretum neighborhood, which borders New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road. Mason’s one-story brick house has been in the family since 1950. A tour of Mason’s neighborhood turns up scores of shiny, tightly packed brick and wood homes, but not a single “For Sale” sign.
But this scene is more than a touch misleading: Over the past 15 years, urban flight has accelerated again, only this time it is the ward’s middle-class black homeowners who are leaving for outlying suburbs. Census data vividly illustrate the abandonment: Ward 5 lost more than 7,500 residents between 1980 and 1990, nearly 10 percent of its population (only Wards 7 and 8 experienced larger drops).
The exodus is hacking away at communities like Mason’s. “What you’re losing are the folks who could be leaders in pushing to revitalize declining community institutions like schools, churches, community self-help programs, and so on,” says Jeffrey Henig, director of George Washington University’s Center for Washington Area Studies.
As the population has declined, urban blight has spread through the ward. Dilapidated public housing projects pock the area. The crack trade and its affiliated violence thrive in neighborhoods like Carver Terrace, Montana Terrace, Edgewood Terrace, and Trinidad. Crime control perennially tops the agenda in Ward 5 campaigns. The 1989 conviction of Rayful Edmond, the District cocaine kingpin who operated extensively in Ward 5, encouraged ward residents briefly, but the drug trade has proved more resilient than enforcement.
“My daughter doesn’t like to come here to visit because it’s dangerous,” complains Doris Long, a 71-year-old resident of Trinidad. “She still wants me to move, but where can I go?”
It’s a Wednesday morning in mid-November, and Thomas has just attended the wake for a constituent, Howard University student Derrick Wynn, who was gunned down a week earlier on Michigan Avenue NE. Thomas is dressed in a dark suit with overcoat and matching derby hat. He looks tired, but he isn’t. Even when he’s wide awake, Thomas’ eyes are raccoonlike, ringed by dark shadows.
The wake took place at the 18th Street NE home of the victim’s grandmother, just a few blocks from Thomas’ own home. Thomas, as always, was a welcome guest, gently comforting relatives. Now he stands outside the house, chatting with a pair of staffers. Thomas spots a boy dashing toward his parents’ car. “Come here, man,” yells Thomas, stopping the boy dead in his tracks. The boy’s face lights up as he sprints toward Thomas, who pulls him in close with his right arm and kisses him on the forehead. “I wanna know how you’re doing in school,” says the councilmember. As if prepared for the encounter, the boy reaches into his right pocket and, voilà, pulls out his most recent report card. Silent, the boy lets the paper do the talking: three A’s and a B.
The good news prompts a reciprocal reflex response from Thomas, whose right hand immediately plunges into his pants pocket. “That’s good work; I’m gonna give you five dollars,” he says, pulling out a plump wad of bills that would make any street hoodlum salivate. He sifts through the bills with all the dexterity of a bank clerk but can’t find anything smaller than a $10 bill, which he hands to the boy. His payoff doubled, the boy thanks Thomas and runs back to his mother, still smiling.
A fistful of cash is the perfect symbol for Thomas’ brand of politics. Patronage has a long and sometimes honorable history in American urban politics. It stretches back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the ward bosses of Chicago, New York, Boston, and other cities built their political machines. They learned that handouts and personal attention to constituents speak louder than elegantly phrased political platforms. A century before it became a cliché, the bosses understood that all politics is localand local means your flooded basement, your broken fan, and your unemployed grandson. They cleaned the basement, bought a new fan, and found a city job for the relative. All you had to do was pull the lever in November.
Harry Thomas has mastered the same principles. His three council victories1986, 1990, and 1994were not endorsements of his planks on crime reduction, economic development, or school reform. He has no such planks. The victories, rather, measured how effectively Thomas roves his ward and showers his constituents with favors and assistance.
“Our office tries to cover all the community meetings to find out what the issues are,” says a staffer for another councilmember. “But Harry just shows up at these meetings for a few minutes, offers them somethingsome handoutand then moves on to the next one.”
It’s a political style that’s won Thomas more friends than any other councilmember. Take Eddie Bryant, a resident of the ward’s North Michigan Park neighborhood. “Harry Thomas is the most effective councilmember you have here in Washington, D.C.,” gushes Bryant. “He’s not a politician, he’s a man who delivers goods and services to the people he represents.”
Bryant is brimming with stories of Thomas’ good works. In the summer of 1994, for example, Bryant and a group of neighborhood leaders planned to throw a block party on Faraday Place NE, but were short a few bucks for refreshments and entertainment. So they called Thomas. The result? “Two hundred hot dogs, hamburgers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, kegs of drinks and sodas, and the problem was solved,” recalls Bryant.
A few weeks later, Bryant reported to Thomas’ office that the North Michigan Park recreation center had been robbed of its chairs. The next morning, Thomas and a staffer showed up at Bryant’s front door bearing 28 new chairs. “People were just so gratified,” says Bryant. “If you want something done, you call Harry Thomas.”
Or Harry Thomas calls you. The councilmember is ubiquitous, turning up at receptions, community meetings, political events, impromptu gatherings, and just about anywhere he can make his presence felt. In keeping his hectic schedule, which routinely calls for 12- to 14-hour workdays, Thomas draws on the same well of energy that enabled him to juggle two jobs, community work, and a family in earlier times. “He really doesn’t view his job as work,” his wife Romaine says. “He loves his job.”
“Dial 9-3-9-8-0-9-0,” Thomas instructs his staffer, Rodney Stewart, as he steers the Thunderbird off New York Avenue into a small industrial hive. Thomas is headed for a cash-and-carry on Okie Street but has just noticed that the street sign is missing. Stewart grabs the car phone, dials the number, and passes the handset along to Thomas.
“Is Karen in?” asks Thomas. He exchanges small talk with his interlocutor, punctuated by chuckles, and just before he pulls up to the store, mentions the business at hand. “Hey, listen, we’re missing the street sign at the 1100 block of Okie Street. We need to get that taken care of.” He says thanks, hangs up, and heads into the store.
The store doesn’t stock the aluminum pans Thomas needs, but on his way out, he mentions to the owner that he’ll get a new sign installed so that customers know how to find Okie Street. The owner says that his numerous attempts to get city authorities to replace the sign had failed. “We’ll get it straight,” pledges Thomas as he exits the market. One week later, the promise is fulfilled, as a shiny new “Okie Street” sign hangs from the New York Avenue streetpost.
In 1991, Thomas made the savviest move of his political career. He snagged the chairmanship of the council’s Committee on Public Works. Like the top spot on the House Agriculture or Ways and Means Committees, the chairmanship of the public works committee is a superb perch for delivering constituent services. The committee oversees the Department of Public Works (DPW). With a $161-million budget and a 1,900-strong work force, DPW holds jurisdiction over a portfolio of services that can make or break your day: drivers licenses, vehicle registration, parking enforcement, garbage and bulk trash collection, street repair and maintenance, tree trimming and removal, and so on.
Thomas fights hard for DPW’s budget on the council, and he calls in his chits with department employees. DPW middle managers have become familiar with Thomas’ frequent pleas for quick service on behalf of Ward 5 residents and businesses. “He’s always leaning on us, trying to get us to send cleaning crews up there,” notes a DPW official who asked not to be identified.
“I’ll tell you right nowyou’ll be hard pressed to find a Ward 5 resident without a supercan,” adds a council staffer.
But Thomas’ role as Ward 5 public works ombudsman works at cross purposes with his mission as DPW chairman. As chairman he is supposed to improve the delivery of basic municipal services for all. As councilmember, however, he helps out individual voters in a bind. Service requestsfor tree trimming, pothole filling, etc.often go unheeded for weeks and months, suggesting deep bureaucratic malfunctions that Thomas should try to fix. In fact, he prospers by such delays: Each uncut branch and unfilled pothole increases his value as the on-the-spot problem solver. A constituent complains; then Thomas prods DPW into quick action. He wins the loyalty of a voterand further delays service for everyone else. He makes a living off of an unresponsive bureaucracy.
Even other councilmembers recognize Thomas as the go-to guy for quick turnaround on public works projects. “We’ve had good luck going through Harry to get problems in Ward 2 addressed,” says that ward’s councilmember, Jack Evans.
When Thomas can’t fix the problem by calling DPW, he draws down his constituent services fund. Through October of this year this fund had gathered $20,000the fourth highest total of the 13 councilmembers. (This patronage is limited: Councilmembers can collect and spend no more than $40,000 per year.) According to Elise Chichester, Thomas’ constituent services coordinator, decisions on allocating the funds are complicated by the 100-plus requests for help that the office receives each day. Why so many calls? “Because Mr. Thomas tells all these people to call, and they do,” she says.
The quarterly constituent expenditures reports submitted by Thomas’ office to the Office of Campaign Finance read like a how-to manual for good community relations: $139 to buy chairs for the Edgewood Tenants Association; $100 for a King and Queen contest at Shaw Junior High; $40 for a Fort Lincoln prayer breakfast; $57.42 to pay the water bill for M. Bell; and an outlay for a “peer appreciation day.”
Not all of the expenditures go to unimpeachable causes. In October 1995, for example, Thomas used constituent services funds to pay a DPW-issued sanitation fine against two Ward 5 businessmen. The fine was levied on Sam Choi and Sam Wang, the co-owners of the Florida Market, for leaving exposed trash around their properties.
Everyone has a favorite lunch spot. For Thomas, it’s the Saint’s Paradise Cafeteria, a redoubt of old-fashioned soul food at 6th and M Streets NW in Ward 2. Thomas’ reserved parking space by the front door speaks to his standing as the joint’s most eminent regular. The cafeteria is a stronghold of Thomas partisans.
As we stand in line, Thomas introduces me to a middle-aged man whom he calls a “good friend.” That turns out to be an understatement, as the man puts a viselike grip on my forearm. “Mr. Thomas is a great man,” he says, his stare vibrating with intensity. “Don’t you dare write anything negative about this man,” he warns with a nervous laugh. “What can you say negative about him?” he continues, maintaining his forearm grip. I mutter a lame response and he releases me, restoring circulation in my hand.
Thomas orders a couple of pieces of turkey and asks the server sheepishly, “Could I have some pig’s feet?” “No, you can’t,” responds the server, whose pleasant smile radiates the goodwill you’d expect to find in a church cafeteria. “Why can’t Mr. Thomas have any pig’s feet?” I ask the server. “Because I love him very much, and I want him to be around for a long time,” she explains.
The server is not alone: Everyone loves Harry. He’s the type of guy you’d want as your grandfather, your drinking buddy, your traveling partner, and your dinner guest.
“Even if you don’t like his policies, you have to like him as a person,” says Virgil Thompson, a Ward 5 activist who doesn’t like his policies.
Most people, of course, don’t remember Thomas’ policies. They remember the time Thomas made them feel special. They remember the time he gave them a turkey or a wink and a hug at a reception. They remember the time he explainedslowly and with undeniably heartfelt sincerityhow much he valued their support.
“Hey, girl,” he blurts out to Madelyn Andrews at a celebration for National Adoption Month at a Northwest church. Andrews, a promoter of adoption services, smiles and greets Thomas with a warm embrace. “She’s the most beautiful person in the city,” Thomas tells me, his arm on Andrews’ shoulder. “Oh, that’s so nice,” says Andrews, shrinking with delight.
It’s the same all over town. At a crowded reception for D.C. hospitals, he spots a pair of nuns from a Ward 5 hospital. He gives them each a hug and a smile. “Whenever I get sick they give me special treatment, so I give them special treatment,” Thomas says to a cluster of activists mingling with the nuns. Everybody laughs.
But Thomas’ stint as a D.C. councilmember proves that you can’t befriend every voter, replace every street sign, clean every alley, choose your own long sausages, and, at the same time, serve as an effective legislator.
Thomas’ official record as a councilmember looks a lot like Enid Waldholtz’s record on spousal supervision: a blank. In online searches through local newspaper databases, Thomas’ name pops up in routine election articles and in coverage of occasional curious events (e.g., his 1994 toy giveaway, when he cold-cocked a poorly behaved staffer before a crowd of constituents; or his outburst last month, when he declared that Councilmember Patterson “does not give a damn about the city” because she is originally from California).
Absent is any mention of bills that Thomas has introduced to address the ills that plague his own ward and the whole city: crime, joblessness, economic underdevelopment, poverty, and government mismanagement. There is an obvious reason for this empty slate: No such bills exist. Councilmember Thomas has never shown any interest in council legislation, and he seems to have no new ideas for reviving the fading District. The principles that Thomas clings to are rooted in the 1930s; he has sleepwalked through the six decades of politics since Franklin Roosevelt.
While Thomas seldom introduces legislation, his archaic politics do surface in council deliberationsto the detriment of good management, efficiency, and deficit reduction.
Consider the D.C. budget crisis. By late 1994, the crisis was as clear as the chalk outline of a corpse. The city’s deficit had ballooned to more than $700 million by some estimates. Congress was demanding massive cuts and vigorous political oversight. Thomas’ council colleagues began debating how to slash redundant or nonessential services and trim a colossal city payroll.
But from the start, Thomas made clear that his political calculator couldn’t subtract. “I have fought all those initiatives and will continue to do so,” says Thomas in reference to the budget-cutting bills that the council has approved to ease the crisis.
Thomas justifies his position with vintage New Deal rhetoric: “I truthfully believe that it is the responsibility of the government to take care of the people. I from the bottom of my heart believe that.”
At a time when others blast city employees as lazy and useless, D.C.’s workers have no truer champion than the ex-bureaucrat. “I think cutting out jobsyou look at what’s happening because of that backlash. Look at the homelessness. Look at the crime that’s going up because of it. I don’t think you can continue to not provide jobs for people and those types of things. You have to continue to find some type of employment for people. I am a perfect example of this.”
(Unable to impose his New Deal vision on the whole District, Thomas brings it to life each summer in his own office, when he hires around 25 internsa mini-CCC to help out with constituent services. “That’s 25 families that’ll vote for Harry when he runs again,” says a council staffer.)
And Thomas is more of a union man than the unions themselves. “The workers were the first ones who supported me,” he recalls. “Every time I needed something, they helped me out.” Thomas has reciprocated by refusing to cast a vote that poses even the remotest threat to unionseven when the competing interests are as compelling as public education.
At an Oct. 23 meeting of the council’s education committee, for example, Thomas blasted an initiative sponsored by Councilmembers Bill Lightfoot (At Large) and Patterson to enable District schools to “charter” themselves in a specified academic or artistic field. Charter schools, argued the sponsors, would add a much-needed dose of competition and innovation to the city’s troubled school system.
Thomas’ opposition to the bill was not based on evaluations of how charter schools would serve local children or how public education funds could be more effectively spent. No, Thomas worried that the proposal would threaten the jobs of teachers and administrators. “I’m not gonna vote for charter schools; I’m not gonna vote to take away the salaries….I’m not gonna cut out nobody’s salary,” he said. He then accused Patterson of trying to “take over the damn school system.”
“We[‘ve] got a good school system,” he announced, ignoring the fact that the public schools’ dropout rate tops 40 percent and that their students consistently post some of the lowest test scores in the nation.
Thomas rebuffs the oft-repeated allegation that he’s an ineffective legislator. “Look at the record. Look at all of the legislation that I have gotten through on the council,” he says. A highlight of his legislative record, he adds, is a pending initiative to hand over the city-run Blue Plains water treatment plant to an independent authority.
Given his devotion to the city payroll, it’s no surprise that Thomas cites saving the 1995 DPW budget as another great legislative triumph. A cost-cutting proposal issued by Mayor Barry in spring 1995 would have eliminated or emasculated several of DPW’s most effective programs: mechanized street cleaning, sanitation enforcement, and garbage collection. Aided by an impeccably organized citywide petition movement, Thomas defeated the package and eventually won more money for key DPW functions. When the control board reviewed the entire city budget in September, only the funding package proposed by Thomas’ committee passed unscathed. Not even the control board can resist clean streets.
Thomas’ uncompromising support of a government that provides employment first and services second has undercut one of his most coveted political tenets: home rule for the District of Columbia. The fiscal recklessness practiced by Thomas and his council allies, after all, prompted Congress to appoint the financial control board.
Where would the city be if Thomas’ position had prevailed in the fiscal crisis? “My guess is that we would probably have a receiver rather than a control board,” says Patterson.
Thomas takes pains to distinguish his backyard politics from the approach of his colleagues, several of whom he accuses of using the council as a stepping stone for higher office. “We have too many people running for mayor in the District of Columbia,” he says, offering Evans and Ward 6 Councilmember Harold Brazil as examples. These mayoral aspirants, Thomas says, would be well-advised to pay more attention to the day-to-day concerns of their constituents, as he does. “I’m doing the same thing I did before I got elected,” says Thomas. “The only difference is now I’m getting paid for it.”
But for the good of Ward 5 and the city, perhaps Thomas should return to his old job as unpaid altruist. In the end, Thomas’ politicsso warm, so personal, so directdon’t well serve a city and ward that are struggling to survive. His patronage patrols have plugged a lot of potholes and warmed a lot of hearts, but in the end they’ve done nothing to solve the ward’s intertwined illseconomic underdevelopment, crime, and urban flight. Thomas keeps offering his helping hand to constituents, but every week there are fewer and fewer of them to take it.
Thomas’ own ward could be D.C.’s jobs engine. Ward 5 has more industrial acreage than any other, which makes it a logical starting point for a citywide economic revitalization program. But for Thomas, economic revitalization means raising taxes and creating more government jobs. Meanwhile, the dilapidated warehouses and fallow tracts of commercial property in Ward 5 await a leader who can negotiate the tax breaks and relocation packages to get them humming again.
Last year, Thomas and the citizens of the Arboretum neighborhood battled over the placement of a Salvation Army drug rehabilitation center on New York Avenue, in the heart of what could be a vital commercial strip. Jean Mason, president of the Arboretum civic association, led the opposition to the center, contending it would attract riffraff to their middle-class, homeowning community, create few jobs, and plop yet another tax-exempt entity on prime city real estate. But Thomas stood defiantly in support of the center, which is now awaiting construction.
“There’s one question I want answered,” says Mason. “How does putting a facility like this fit in with the renovation of New York Avenue?”
“Harry’s great when you need some hot dogs or when the grass in your park needs cutting, but when it comes to life and limb, forget it,” she sighs.
“And he can keep his hot dogs.”CP