Harry Thomas Sr., 77, a retired federal government worker and community activist who represented Ward 5 on the D.C. Council for 12 years before being defeated in the Democratic primary for renomination in November, died of cardiac arrest Aug. 7 at Providence Hospital. He lived in the District.
District Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) described Mr. Thomas as a lifelong advocate of civil rights and suggested the city should name a building in his honor. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), in her statement, recalled Mr. Thomas's love of the District, which "led to community activism, and he took that community dedication with him into the Council."
Mr. Thomas did not enter politics until retiring in 1983 from a 37-year career in the federal government. His started as a $1,000-a-year janitor and retired from a press relations post in the office of the secretary of interior.
Over those years, he also worked a second full-time job as headwaiter at Bolling Air Force Base. He did this to enable his wife, Romaine, daughter, Debara, and son, Thomas Jr., to attend college.
When he announced that he was running for the D.C. Council in 1986, a thumbnail sketch in The Washington Post said he was "a soft-spoken retired federal employee and chairman of the Ward 5 Democratic Committee" who had served as an advisory neighborhood commissioner for 10 years from the Brookland community. He also was a member of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
His wife, a longtime community organizer, also had been active in politics. She had led Mayor Marion Barry's mayoral campaign in Ward 5 and had been elected to the D.C. Democratic State Committee.
Mr. Thomas is said to have decided to run for the council only after failing to persuade his wife to make the race. Mr. Thomas took on a formidable opponent, three-term council member William R. Spaulding in the Democratic primary.
Mr. Thomas surprised more than a few observers with a campaign that included labor and tenant groups, scores of community activists, as well as supporters of then-Mayor Barry.
Mr. Thomas won the primary with 39 percent of the vote; Spaulding garnered 33 percent; and two other candidates captured about 28 percent of the vote.
During his years on the council, Mr. Thomas was a strong supporter of rent control and was a longtime booster of economic development projects for the New York Avenue corridor.
He also gained a reputation as one of the most affable members of the council, a man who seemed to revel in his ability to arrive at important and controversial decisions with greater speed than many of his more "intellectual" colleagues.
He made headlines in 1989 and again in 1992 for sponsoring ceremonial resolutions honoring Louis Farrakhan and Abdul Alim Muhammad, two leaders of the Nation of Islam.
Opponents on the council attacked the idea of honoring persons and movements that were connected with highly publicized anti-Semitic remarks. Mr. Thomas said the men and their organization were doing important public health and anti-drug work in his ward and that was why he wanted to honor them. The resolutions were referred to committee, where they languished.
Mr. Thomas made headlines, and probably more than a few fans, after a fracas in December 1994. The 72-year-old "crusty Democrat," as a Post reporter characterized him, was said to have hauled off and decked a much younger staff member with whom he was having an argument.
Interviewed by Post reporter Hamil R. Harris, Mr. Thomas, a former welterweight boxer and proud owner of a pair of gloves given to him by boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, said of the incident, "I bopped him."
In the view of some observers of District affairs, the candor -- no half-denial, no refusal to speak without an attorney present and no false modesty -- characterized Mr. Thomas. Harris reported that D.C. police had investigated the incident and declined to take any action against the lively legislator.
Mr. Thomas had enjoyed support he had garnered the old-fashioned way. He became a legend at doling out food and toys to needy families and assuring that constituents received city services.
But during his last years in office, his "people" skills and good deeds, according to a Post story, "were obscured by complaints from community leaders who accused him of allowing Ward 5 to became a filthy industrial enclave inundated with trash transfer stations."
Mr. Thomas ran his usual strong campaign in the 1998 primary, but he lost by fewer than 500 votes to Vincent B. Orange Sr., a certified public accountant, who ran a vigorous campaign that included media ads, huge professional mailings and even a golf tournament.
As nearly everyone seemed to note, Mr. Thomas's defeat was one of several that signaled the end of an era and a generation in D.C. politics.