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At the end of last week’s legislative session, the District’s lawmakers started talking about high school football.
What a shame, some councilmembers said, that past winners of the city’s annual Turkey Bowl—the city’s football championship game—have had issues getting the District to buy them championship jackets.
The councilmember who seemed most energized by the issue was Ward 5’s Harry Thomas Jr., who said it was high time the city got its act together to “ensure” student athletes in all sports “get what they deserve.”
In past years, Thomas said, he and other councilmembers have had to dip into constituent service funds (which, you may recall, are barely regulated piles of money to which big developers and other folks with an interest in city business are free to contribute) to pay for things like rings and jackets for winning teams.
“There should be no way that we always have to come up and step up to the plate,” says Thomas. “It should be a process where they are guaranteed their jackets, their rings and the respect that comes with a city title.”
If any other politician had made such a speech, it wouldn’t have been noteworthy. After all, no politician ever went wrong advocating in favor of winning high school football programs, even if the current solution—politicians use their own funds to pay for jackets—could suit the city’s budget situation better.
But Thomas’ speechfying in favor of increased spending on youth sports is remarkable both for its subject and its subtext. The irony of Thomas’s mini-diatribe isn’t hard to spot: This very same man is under federal investigation for allegedly steering into his own pocket more than $300,000 in city funds earmarked for kids’ sports. An organization he controlled spent the money, according to the D.C. attorney general and Thomas’ bank records, on a $69,000 SUV, high-priced golf trips, and at least one meal at Hooters, among other things.
And the subtext of Thomas’ speech last week was hard to miss too: Thomas, who at times appeared shell-shocked and withdrawn at the beginning of this summer, is back at full force. It seems his new rallying cry is: To hell with his critics and whatever demons of self-doubt might come with staring down the barrel of a federal indictment.
“He’s definitely trying to put forth an image that he’s unconcerned,” says Councilmember David Catania, who has called for Thomas’ resignation.
It’s not always been that way.
On the day the attorney general filed his civil suit in June, Thomas’ response was all bluster. He was innocent, he said at a news conference outside the Wilson Building, and had the details that would clear his name. But a month later, he agreed to pay the city $300,000 to settle the suit. Instead of a news conference, Thomas issued a meek statement saying the management of his nonprofit hadn’t been done with “the discipline and strenuous rigors” needed.
Thomas’s attendance at the Wilson Building dropped off noticeably after the civil suit was filed. He went from being a consistent presence to hardly ever showing up.
When three councilmembers called on Thomas to resign in wake of the settlement, his response was to forward an email from a supporter to the entire council asking them to follow their “moral compass” and not rush to judgment.
Around the same time, Thomas appeared to be trying to pump himself up on his Facebook account.
“I realized that worry never changed the outcome of anything I was worried about,” Thomas wrote on his wall, shortly before the settlement was reached.
Mayor Vince Gray, a political ally and friend of Thomas’, told the Post in July that Thomas “seems a bit withdrawn at this stage. I don’t hear from him as much as I did.”
Continued the mayor: “In fact, the last time I saw him, he said, ‘I guess we all have our ways of compensating. It’s given me a lot of time to do some things around the house that I’ve been putting off; I cleaned up my whole basement today.’”
But Thomas’ days of crossing off items from his honey-do list appear behind him. A few weeks ago, Thomas was one of the most vocal supporters of the mayor’s plan to increase income taxes on the wealthy. Thomas repeatedly talked about the inequalities in the District and the city’s responsibilities to look after the less fortunate. (Never mind that there’s no evidence that his nonprofit organization, which was never tax-exempt, paid any taxes.)
For his part, Thomas says there’s no truth to the idea that’s he more energized of late. “I haven’t changed at all,” Thomas tells LL. “I’m going to be consistent ’til the end.”
And that’s nothing but bad news for the mayor, who is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Thomas. Like most D.C. politicians, the mayor appears to have made the political calculation that the cost of calling on Thomas to resign was higher than the cost of saying nothing. Part of the risk-reward ratio, as with just about every issue in D.C. politics, involves race; there’s a sense in some parts of the city that black politicians like Thomas are unfairly being attacked.
On a purely political level, it’s hard to quibble with the mayor’s choice. Why risk alienating the African-American base that got him elected (and a 52-point margin of victory in Ward 5)? That may not be courageous leadership, but smart politicians know which battles to avoid.
But in recent days we’ve seen that Gray’s safe bet still comes at a cost.
The Post editorial page penned a series of articles last week detailing the political machinations involved in awarding the city’s grass cutting contracts. The Post strongly suggested that the mayor was improperly trying to steer contracts to a local business that has ties to Thomas. The Gray administration pushed back hard, saying the paper is engaged in fiction writing and the mayor was simply trying to make sure that city-owned businesses could compete for city contracts.
An exasperated Chris Murphy, Gray’s new chief of staff, held a conference call with reporters where he said the Post was intent on looking for a “bogeyman where it doesn’t exist.”
Indeed, so far a marathon council hearing and internal Gray administration emails made public don’t point to anything on the mayor’s part worth getting too excited over. But Murphy is wrong about the Post looking for a non-existent bogeyman. The paper has one: Harry Thomas Jr., and even a whiff of his possible involvement is enough to turn a so-so story on grass cutting contracts into a much more exciting read at 15th and L. The Post ran four editorials in one week hammering the mayor on the grass cutting contracts, and Thomas played a prominent role in each one.
For now, that’s probably a hit the mayor is okay taking; after all, the Post ed board backed Adrian Fenty against Gray last year, and all that got for Fenty was more time to train for triathlons. But as Thomas becomes more emboldened, expect the price of Gray’s silence to add up. And if an indictment comes, as many expect it will, then expect even more pressure for the mayor to do some political recalculating.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
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