There used to be a time, long before the threat of federal prosecution, when Harry Thomas Jr.’s biggest challenge seemed to be overcoming his insecurity about being a political legacy.
“Being a son of a councilmember is more of a hindrance because I’m scrutinized more than anyone else,” a 29-year-old Thomas told the Washington Times in 1989, when he was running for shadow senator. “People automatically assume things are handed to me and I have to work doubly hard to prove that I’m qualified for the positions I have obtained.”
It’s not hard to see how some people might have gotten that impression. Thomas represents the District’s dynastic politics in the most traditional sense. He shares the same name and office as his late father, Harry Thomas Sr., who served as Ward 5 councilmember for 12 years. Thomas’ mother, Romaine Thomas, was a well-respected school principal and is active in the D.C. Democratic State Committee.
Politics was embedded in Thomas Jr.’s DNA. He served as an ANC commissioner, head of the D.C. Young Democrats, and on the DCDSC before winning his council seat in 2006. His wife used to be his father’s chief of staff and has been active in running her husband’s office, too. Thomas worked on all of his father’s campaigns, once getting stopped by police with his trunk allegedly full of two opponents’ campaign signs.
So his decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and run for council surprised exactly no one.
“It just kind of happened automatically,” says Romaine Thomas of her son’s political career. “People wanted, were looking forward to him...carrying on that inherent legacy.”
The Thomas family’s life story mirrors that of many middle-class black families in the District. Thomas Sr. was born poor in Richmond, Va., came to D.C. after World War II as part of the second great migration and worked for the federal government. At night, he would work as a caterer or a waiter to earn extra money, and he built a solid middle-class life for his family.
Thomas Sr.’s legacy is that of the District’s ultimate ward boss: He busied himself solving the minor problems of his constituents—a missed trash pickup, a broken sidewalk, a relative needing help landing a city job. Thomas was legendary for driving around his ward looking for the kind of little problems he could help solve. (Also legendary: when the 70-something Thomas punched a 20-something aide who was late to a Christmas toy giveaway.)
He would also skirt city laws, though not in a big way, when it suited his purpose.
“Every time I would see Harry, he would grab my hand and say, ‘Hiya, sugar’ and give me a kiss on the cheek, and I’d take my hand away and he’d have put a five or ten in my hand,” says former Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose of her first run for council. The cash donations kept Thomas’ name from appearing on any campaign-finance disclosure forms, Ambrose says, but they were never large enough to warrant any kind of fuss. “We weren’t talking big bucks here. In full disclosure, I do have to say I grew up on the South Side of Chicago.”
The younger Thomas long benefited financially from his father’s position in politics. In 1987, he was hired by a conglomeration funded by some of the nation’s largest food retailers and beverage makers to defeat a ballot initiative to add a deposit on soda cans and bottles. Thomas was paid at least $11,000, plus nearly $3,400 in car-rental expenses, the Post reported at the time. In 1992, Thomas was awarded a city contract worth $20,000 to provide job-training services to the District’s youth while simultaneously working to defeat a recall petition of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, the Washington Times reported.
Leon Swain, who’s served twice as the city’s taxicab commissioner, remembers that during his first term, in the ’90s, there was only one paid lobbyist on taxi issues: Harry Thomas Jr. The elder Thomas was chairman of the committee that oversaw the taxi commission.
“For years, I have said this is a conflict of interest,” a cab advocate told the Post back in 1998. Dorothy Brizill, one of the District’s longest serving watchdogs, says she remembers raising conflict-of-interest issues with Thomas back in his lobbyist days. She also remembers his reply: “‘It’s no big deal. It’s not hurting anyone.’”
Thomas Jr. represented taxicab-company owner Jerry Schaeffer, who remains one of the most powerful figures in the taxi industry. Earlier this year, Thomas introduced a taxi-medallion bill that’s widely despised by many of the District’s cab drivers. The legislation is known in local taxi circles as Schaeffer’s bill.