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Washington, D.C., politicians have always given a lot of lip service to faith. They fawn over religious leaders. They are forever convening prayer breakfasts. Nearly every time Ward 8 Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. begins a speech, he robotically thanks God “for giving us this great day.”
Neophyte Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr., 46, promises much more of the same.
Thomas’ first day as a sworn D.C. councilmember began before dawn, just across the District line in Maryland. He led a group of 18 vehicles in the darkness to Fort Lincoln Cemetery. Thomas was there to pray at the grave site of his father, Harry Thomas Sr., who held the Ward 5 seat and dominated politics in Northeast for 12 years. “Tommy,” as the son is affectionately known, is the first legacy ever to serve on the city’s legislative body.
Before walking up a path to his father’s final resting place, Thomas told about 40 people bundled against a cold morning breeze that his dad is interned in a section of the memorial park called “Garden of the Apostles.” The place “has a lot of symbolic meaning for me,” he said. “There were 12 apostles,” he told the crowd. “And, you know, there are also 12 councilmembers and one chairman. I like that analogy.”
Thomas then recounted how he had visited the cemetery often “to talk to my dad about all kinds of things.” At the ceremony, he gave each of his family members a rose to place on the grave, where he deposited a wreath. “Thank you for being a leader and a friend to this city,” Thomas said during his graveside chat with his father. “All things should be done for the good of the people.”
(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
If any of Thomas’ new political brethren were unclear on the extent of his fondness for religious symbolism, they should examine the inauguration gift he delivered to his colleagues to commemorate their swearings-in: a rectangular glass cube with a ghostly depiction of the Last Supper floating inside. For him, the iconic portrayal of the 12 disciples sharing the most famous Seder with Christ is somehow apt for D.C.’s democratically anointed ones, who occasionally break bread on the council dais.
Before presenting the gift, he was asked whether he planned to explain the 12 disciples/12 councilmembers parallel when delivering his Inauguration Day token. Thomas vowed to steer clear of sermonizing. “I think I’ll let them figure it out for themselves.”
Danae Truhart, Raye Thomas, Harry Thomas Jr., Romaine Thomas(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
Thomas’ colleagues are likely to spend a great deal of time trying to figure out Harry Thomas Jr. He claims to embrace the legacy of his father, the last true ward boss in the District. Thomas has vowed to lead a return to his father’s constituents-first approach at a time when most councilmembers like to tout landmark legislation and other feats accomplished from the grand confines of the John A. Wilson Building. This approach appears well-suited to Thomas’ background. He’s an ex-jock, coach, and athletic mentor-to-many who’s only now starting to dress like his dandified colleagues, though he continues to accessorize his outfits with a sporting touch.
Yet Thomas is not exactly a political meathead. Before he took his oath on Tuesday, he began cementing an alliance with recently sworn-in Mayor Adrian Fenty. At various Fenty events in recent months, Thomas could often be found slapping the city’s youngest mayor on the back and making pronouncements about a new generation of homegrown guys who were about to bring a fresh look to D.C. politics.
And the distance between Thomas’ and Fenty’s positions on core imperatives such as education and public safety is like the difference between Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans and the D.C. Chamber of Commerce. The two are united in their belief that a true public servant caters to the everyday needs of the citizen first; highfalutin policy stuff comes second or third.
In the wake of Fenty’s electoral landslide this past fall, the conventional wisdom held that the new mayor might have trouble finding allies on a council stocked with jealous former colleagues. The conventional wisdom, though, never accounted for Thomas, an upstart who just may spearhead a Fentyncouncil coalition. “Every mayor needs help on the council,” says Thomas.
Thomas’ inauguration gift to his colleagues(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
Two days before Christmas, Thomas got in the spirit by playing Santa for some constituents. About 30 people—parents, children, a few senior citizens—were gathered at Cafe Sureia in Brookland at Thomas’ invitation. Donated toys were stacked against one wall of windows; eager kids sat on the other side of the room eyeing the packages and waiting for the parental signal to dive in.
Thomas delivered his Christmas message standing in front of the baked-goods display case. He wore his trademark maroon Harry Thomas Jr. campaign T-shirt and a special Christmas baseball cap with a pointy elf-hat extension. Gold letters on the front read, i believe in santa claus.
But Thomas wanted those gathered to know that Christmas is more than a celebration of the jolly old elf. He kicked off the program with one of those minisermons certain to try the patience of the little ones being held back from a pile of presents. “Let’s not forget the real meaning of Christmas,” Thomas told the crowd. “Christmas is when God gave his son so we would have eternal life. That’s what the holiday is all about.”
The big announcement at the coffee shop that day came when Thomas presented a $500 check from the Herb Adderley Foundation and Team Thomas to the mother of a family who had recently lost everything in an apartment fire.
It was a classic Councilmember Thomas moment—Harry Sr.nstyle.
Harry Thomas Sr. in 1995(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
Thomas has the necessary training to forge a place for himself among the great patrons of the people. He had a father who didn’t sit in his office waiting for constituents to call him with neighborhood problems. He went out and found them himself. Then he called city officials himself. One legend holds that he kept a police and fire scanner running at all times and often beat public-safety officials to the scene of a crime or accident.
A poor Southerner who moved to the city when he left the armed forces after World War II, Thomas Sr. landed a job with the federal government and gradually rose to middle-class prosperity. The elder Thomas was never expected to be a skilled legislator or to make complicated policy pronouncements from the dais. His time in office had a primary goal: to ensure city services were delivered to his constituents.
Advice about what Daddy would have done won’t be far away from the new Ward 5 councilmember. Thomas is married to his father’s former chief of staff, Diane Romo Thomas, whom he says he met while coaching women’s fast-pitch softball. “I think my dad hired her just to make sure I’d marry her,” Thomas says.
He has no plans to shy away from his father’s style of patronage politics, which he claims is enjoying resurgence in the city—with the assistance of some old technology.
The Ward 5 council police scanner is already up and running. Thomas claims he was the one who set up his dad’s legendary scanner. “I was working at RadioShack at the time,” he says. His interest in technology hasn’t waned since the days when RadioShack was considered high-tech. These days, the key for Thomas is connecting the high-tech and the low-tech. “I monitor the online community chats and find out about problems in certain areas but don’t spend much time responding online,” he says. “I will ride to the sites myself and ask directly.”
He even has a plan to avoid the inevitable temptation to get sucked into the Wilson Building power game. “My favorite place for a meeting is Cafe Sureia,” says Thomas, who convinced Commander Jennifer Greene of the police department’s 5th District to meet him in the ward once a week to have lunch and walk the streets.
“Adrian [Fenty] got a lot of criticism for not being more active down at city hall,” says Thomas. “That’s because he was working for Ward 4. Now he’s been rewarded for that service.”
(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
Thomas was a high-school football superstar at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School and went on to play at Bowie State University and East Tennessee State University. His roommate during his time at ETSU was fellow D.C. high school gridiron hero turned politico Dwight Singleton, who went on to serve as a D.C. Board of Education member and run unsuccessfully for the council.
Thomas has never tried to play eloquent speechmaker. He’s stuck closer to what he knows best: sports. During a 2006 Ward 5 primary campaign that featured 12 Democratic candidates, Thomas usually arrived amid a sea of wildly waving maroon, white, and blue felt pennants normally reserved for the ballpark.
“I played baseball in high school but stopped because I wanted to focus on football. I played football in college,” says Thomas. “Had tryouts in the USFL and played semipro with the Virginia Storm.” Thomas claims he always had realistic expectations for how far his athletic prowess could take him. “I wasn’t going to get stuck on the NFL dream,” he says.
Thomas has always sought out leadership positions. He’s a big player in the Amateur Softball Association and serves as its commissioner for Washington, D.C. In that role, Thomas organizes and conducts coaching clinics, helps train umpires, and reviews rule changes. The group also has to keep up-to-date on the latest safety recommendations. “That has given me a lot of formal training,” he says.
Councilmembers Tommy Wells, Jack Evans, Harry Thomas Jr., and Kwame Brown; Chairman Vincent Gray (back)(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
Thomas knows that the dumb-jock stereotype may dog him during his council career. So he embraces it. “My role as a council member is…to be the quarterback and get the ball to you, get resources to you,” Thomas told the Washington Times shortly after winning the Democratic primary.
On the street and around the Wilson Building, he’s still called “Coach” by many people he knows—a lingering reference to his Saturday baseball clinics for kids conducted in conjunction with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. The way Thomas sees it, the label is something to be proud of.
“In all seriousness, my coaching skills translate well into politics,” says Thomas. “As a coach, you ID talent, ID a player’s strengths and weaknesses, and figure out how they fit into a team concept.” It’s a talent he figures will serve him well during council battles sometimes highlighted by soaring egos, gamesmanship, and an occasional pouting prima donna. “Making that team function as one—that’s what is important to me,” says Thomas.
Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member Bob King stuffed buses with senior citizens for Coach Thomas during the 2006 campaign. It was classic D.C. political organizing: King and the campaign offered up free grub for elders as long as they waved the “Tommy” pennants or cast votes for him in straw polls. King, a longtime political fixture in Ward 5, didn’t have any problem backing an ex-jock. “Hey, I don’t think there’s any stigma attached to it, but there are some things you are known for,” says King, who was on the receiving end of one of Thomas’ many sports allusions: “He called me the Vince Lombardi of his campaign.”
Thomas has already displayed his coaching chops in his official council capacities. During a train ride with nine of his colleagues and then Mayor-elect Fenty to New York, he noticed that with his victory and the election of Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, the council now had the makings of a competent basketball squad. He corralled Wells, Ward 2 Councilmember Evans, and Chairman Vincent Gray mid-car and yelled down the aisle to At-Large Councilmember Kwame Brown. “Hey Kwame, can you still run point?” he asked. “Can I run point?” Brown replied incredulously. “I’m a 5’7” guy from D.C., and you’re asking if I can run the point? Of course I can run the point!” Coach Thomas had cobbled together his first All-Council team.
(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
Thomas certainly has the duds for his role as coach-councilmember double-tasker. After winning the 2006 Democratic primary, for instance, Thomas showed up at a Committee on Economic Development vote on a proposed new project in the ward. He circulated among the lawyers and lobbyists in the hallway before the meeting wearing a suit—and a baseball cap.
His lid drew chuckles from some of the more sober councilmembers and staff. One commented that Thomas might have overlooked the schoolboy lesson that a gentleman, certainly a councilmember at least, should remove a hat indoors.
But for Thomas, the cap is a proud symbol of his connection to his sporting past and a link to the regular people on the street. “I always still wear a baseball hat,” says Thomas. “You won’t catch me wearing one of those nice hats like Adrian Fenty wears.”
When Thomas began his bid for Daddy’s old seat, campaign strategist King constantly rode the young candidate about his wardrobe. In the early days, Thomas was almost always seen wearing sweats, T-shirts, and a baseball cap. “I’ve got about 300 of them,” says Thomas. “Baseball-team hats, football hats, all kinds.” He plans to display some of them in his council office.
These days, the cap-and-suit combination makes Thomas stand out even more than the days when he dressed coach casual while pushing the stadium plan in the halls of the John Wilson Building. “I look good in suits, so I like to wear them,” says Thomas, though he indicates he’s not ready to give up jock fashion just yet: “I may wear my tennis shoes and suits.” He’s preparing his constituents for all kinds of looks. “Now that I’m in office, I will structure my life back to wearing my sweats occasionally,” he says.
(Photo by Darrow Montgomery)
Thomas considers himself Fenty’s political kin—a young, high-energy guy who seems to be everywhere all the time.
Shortly after they were both elected in November, Thomas served as Fenty’s personal guide at the Turkey Bowl—the District’s annual football showdown for the championship of the District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association. Thomas was in his element as he led Fenty through the crowd at Eastern Senior High School, shaking hands, hugging spectators, and introducing the newly crowned mayor.
At a recent press conference at which Fenty announced his inauguration plans, Thomas worked his way into the line behind the mayor, right next to Fenty’s unofficial senior advisers William Lightfoot and Jim Hudson. Thomas smiled and nodded at every Fenty point, but the then mayor-to-be never acknowledged his presence. Thomas wasn’t asked to speak, and he didn’t force himself up to the podium.
Thomas was undeterred by the slight. “This is about transforming government, so you have to be part of the process,” said Thomas that day. “I try to be in the room—in the place I need to be.”
His support for Fenty has been almost mindless. At a pre-election rally for Democratic candidates, Thomas led the crowd in chants of “Adrian!” The raspy-voiced mayoral cheerleader sounded a little too much like a bloodied Rocky Balboa screaming out for his wife from the boxing ring.
And during the highly publicized December field trip to New York City, Thomas was never far from the city’s latest political darling. When the council basketball squad mugged for the camera, Thomas tried to get Fenty in the shot. At photo ops, Thomas made sure to stand right next to the star.
At one point during the trip, New York City officials gave Fenty and his council pals a school tour. Fenty entered a classroom with Thomas on his elbow. After a teacher explained that the students had recently written a letter to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Fenty offered a new topic for student lobbying: a vote in Congress for D.C. The concept was a foreign one to the grade-school students, so Fenty began a slow and careful explanation of the city’s disenfranchisement.
The ever-present Thomas was apparently prepared to clear things up for the still-perplexed students. Three different times after Fenty paused during his minilecture, Thomas leaned forward, held up his fist, and chanted: “Fifty-first state! Fifty-first state!” Each time, his mantra was followed by curious looks and an uncomfortable silence.
Thomas will be more help to Fenty back home. He’s a likely yes vote for what is expected to be the new mayor’s first big legislative push—a takeover of the D.C. Public Schools. “In concept, I am with him on that,” says Thomas of Fenty’s overall goal of making the school system more accountable. “Of course, the devil is in the details.”
When it comes to pressing the police department for greater visibility in the neighborhoods, Thomas can be expected to be on board. When it comes to clean streets, trash pickup, speed bumps, Fenty and Thomas sing the same tune. “Philosophically, we come from the same driven background,” says Thomas.
Yet not even Fenty can match Thomas’ overt rah-rahism. For any of his constituents feeling a bit down or facing a big challenge, the councilmember’s cell-phone message is just the tonic. Most politicians get by with “This is Joe Public Servant, leave me a message.” Not Thomas, who manages to cram a campaign ditty and a pep talk into a single greeting: “Hi, this is Harry “Tommy” Thomas—building bridges, finding solutions, people first, Ward 5 council. Leave a message, and I’ll get back to you as soon as time allows. Stay focused, stay positive, and stay pumped!”