The following article is taken from the March 2010 issue of the Main Street Journal. Click “Subscribe Online” above to start your subscription.
2010 Candidate Profile: Chris Thomas & the County Commission
By: Michael Roy Hollihan
When is a primary not a race? When Chris Thomas is running in it.
In a recent interview with the Main Street Journal, Thomas spoke of his long-ago start in the political life. “I lost one election in my life, that was for student council president in 8th grade.” Through careful choices, hard work and his voluble nature, he hasn’t lost another election.
Now, after sixteen years as the Shelby County Probate Clerk, he’s set his eye on his next win: the Shelby County Commission, District 4, Position 1. That district takes in a broad arc of the county along the northern and eastern borders, and encompasses every incorporated community that isn’t Memphis. And that’s important to Chris, because he’s skeptical of the renewed push to either reinvent or consolidate the County.
“I’m against it. Bigger government is not better government. That doesn’t make it more efficient,” he says. “The City of Memphis doesn’t have its house in order. You’re more in touch with your community leaders when it’s a smaller government. Memphis doesn’t need to have more government; they need less. Or just need to keep what they’ve got and get in touch with that.”
Thomas sees the consolidation push as a distraction from more important, more fundamental issues. If elected, he says, his focus is on three interlocking issues. “Crime problems, taxes and education. They are the three biggies. You get crime under control and that will help so much. It will help the business community. You won’t have the stigma of bad crime, so people won’t have a problem bringing business here and moving here. So there’s a ripple effect. Of course, part of that is education and jobs.”
He also sees consolidation as many Shelby Countians do – the thin wedge that will eventually subsume the top-tier Shelby County school system into the ongoing, collapsing maelstrom that is the Memphis City school system. “Schools are definitely hands-off.” Thomas has first-hand experience with Memphis schools – he grew up in the Kingsbury and Berclair neighborhoods of Memphis.
And he has direct experience with the trouble that faces so many students in the city. “Dad left when I was a baby. Mom raised the kids by herself, working two jobs. I remember coming home from school one day and all our furniture was on the street, so I know what it’s like to be evicted. To receive food from the government. We used to get those food baskets from the church.”
It’s not luck, but learning and applying those lessons that kept Chris pointed to success. “I never had a father around. When I was eleven, Mom got me into the Big Brothers program … being involved in that program helped me tremendously.”
While Chris was involved with student council, he met City Councilwoman Barbara Sonnenberg and volunteered himself. “I just had a desire to get into politics. Barbara Sonnenberg spoke at Kingsbury. I asked, ‘Do you ever let students come down and watch what happens?’ Basically, she took me under her wing. I went to meetings; anywhere she went, I’d go.”
He later met former Memphis mayor Dick Hackett and campaigned with him. The same with former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout. Both men he counts among his mentors.
It was political consultant Layne Provine that put into Thomas’ ear the idea of running for Probate Clerk. He ran against Pat Vander Schaaf in the primary, who was widely tipped to win. “I didn’t listen. Ran my tail off.” He beat Vander Schaaf, then Sondra Becton in the general election.
“I worked very hard. Most attorneys will tell you now they were very skeptical, that I’d serve one term and run for something else.” But it was hard work that made him a success. “Working hard, working out front, working the counter, getting to know everybody.”
His approach was simple; if he did not know the answer, he would find it. It was this customer service approach that caused the Probate office to receive the highest marks for efficiency in Shelby County. It is the same approach he sees as the ingredient for success in the County Commission. “It’s customer service; it’s helping people. It’s putting them in touch with the right person.” The same willingness to dive in is how he’ll handle the issues confronting the Commission.
Thomas faces tough challenges transitioning from Probate Clerk to County Commissioner. He faces a whole new set of problems.
Take, for example, the current crisis about keeping the Regional Medical Center in Memphis sufficiently funded. Referring to Governor Phil Bredesen’s public attitude to The MED, Thomas is upset. “I thought that he was basically saying, ‘That’s not my problem, y’all figure it out.’ My question to him is, ‘Where are they going to be served?’ You can’t run from it; be a leader. You can’t just pass it on to the next guy. Help solve the problem, because it’s a major hospital in the state.”
On the issue of taxes, Thomas explains, “We’ve got to quit trying to be everything to everybody. Government’s gotten too big. What I want to do is look at all the areas that either the charter or the state . . . that we’re not mandated to be in. Now, I’m not saying government shouldn’t help people; it should. What I am saying is, we’ve got to quit going in and not even questioning programs. Look at possibly cutting programs. I don’t know what those are right now, but I’m going to look at the budget.”
While a reliance on cutting could produce results, it presumably has been tried by many commissioners (and even former Mayor Wharton) already. In the interview, Thomas would not veer from a focus on cutting as the way to make the budget fit.
He also is aware of other issues less often discussed. For example, take his confrontation with Henri Brooks a couple of years ago over her Kwanzaa celebrations in the County Commission chambers. He opposed it and stood up for what he thought was right, regardless of the slamming he took from the media. He knew what he wanted to do, and you might be surprised that the outcome of that incident wasn’t a disappointment.
“When people say you shouldn’t mix religion and politics, well…. Religion? Fine, but my faith? I believe you should have the right to believe is whatever you want to. I believe that if I wanna have a celebration where I invite people, I should be allowed to do that if others are allowed to do that, too. I have no problem saying that we’re not gonna have religious celebrations.”
No celebrations at all? “That would be fine with me.”
Being out front, being a leader, learning what he needs to know, solving the problem. That’s Chris Thomas. His confidence works because of his charm and previous successes, but his approach also could stand some continued scrutiny. Does the candidate canvass the community and then pick the positions on issues that he thinks will get the most votes? Or does he stand for certain principles and present those to potential voters, hoping to get a majority that way? Chris Thomas is the latter kind of candidate.