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TheRootDC
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Posted at 01:00 PM ET, 12/02/2011

Talking politics with D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr.

I recently joined D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. at a church in Northeast for a panel discussion about the state of black politics locally and nationally.


Ward 5 council member Harry Thomas Jr. talks with a constituent on First Street as he campaigns for reelection in August 2010. (Bill O'Leary - The Washington Post)
Thomas, the only elected official on the panel, took questions from constituents who had specific concerns about property taxes and other issues. He had two major points that I recall.

The first was that whatever Barack Obama has or has not done as president, black voters will not be better off under any of the candidates hoping to replace him. The second: We all need to get our priorities straight.

On the first point, he seemed to be rebutting the chorus of folks — some in the Congressional Black Caucus — who have argued that the president needs to do more for those who have been hit hardest by the recession, many of whom happen to be black.

His argument, made often during campaign seasons, is that however flawed you think this guy is, the replacements are worse. Reasonable people can disagree about these things.

The second point seemed innocuous. We need to pay more attention to the serious issues facing our society, he said, just as we find the time to watch the Redskins game no matter what’s going on.

That’s true enough. But this — and I am paraphrasing — was his zinger: We find the money to buy fancy cars when other things are more important. When he said that, I nudged a nearby panelist.

“Really, council member Thomas?” I thought. “You’re going to go there?”

This summer, the D.C. attorney general found that Thomas arranged to have more than $300,000 in public funds diverted to groups he controlled, using the money to buy an Audi SUV and take trips to Las Vegas and Pebble Beach.

I don’t claim to be an expert in these matters, and many a politician has been wrongly investigated and accused of crimes. But what’s been released so far does not look good.

As a District resident, I often get into arguments in the newsroom and with suburbanites who argue that graft and corruption in the District is akin to nothing else they’ve seen. I tell them this: You haven’t seen much.

Louisiana, my home state, knows a thing or two about scandal. So does Chicago. A little closer to home, Prince George’s has long had a pay-to-play reputation that persists even today.

I still cringe on days like today, when Thomas has his belongings rifled through by the FBI. Thomas has done plenty of mentoring in his day. Before he was a council member, I knew him for his baseball camps for kids.

What’s being alleged here, however, is not child’s play. It doesn’t look good for him, or our city.

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