Oliver Thomas Makes a Comeback; Could Seek Elected Office in the Fall

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Former Council President Oliver Thomas was one of the city’s most beloved elected officials during his 13 years on City Council until he made a mistake which landed him in a federal corrections complex.

Since returning home in 2010, Thomas has rebuilt his reputation and his life. A new husband, father and one of the region’s best known radio personalities, Thomas is contemplating a run for the New Orleans City Council District E in this year’s elections.

Born in 1957, Thomas grew up in Lower 9 when it was a bedroom community – not plush – but with its own economy of Black entrepreneurs and homeowners. “The neighborhood was working class but pretty self-sufficient,” said Thomas. He had two “great” parents – Oliver Sr. who was a disabled laborer employed by the city’s recreation department and mother Mignonette, one of South-Central Bell’s first Black hires, who worked her way up to a mobile marine operator before retirement.  

Thomas’ sister, Juliette, had both mental and physical disabilities. “My mom had a sign on the wall. God didn’t make any junk. I miss my sister every day,” Thomas explained. The empathy he developed growing up around Juliette served him well in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Although Thomas was city council president at the time of the storm, he spent weeks rescuing people from their rooftops by boat and helicopter. He particularly saved many people with disabilities like Tony Ledet and his mother who rode out the storm at home and needed special assistance to get to safety.

When asked what advise he would give the current council if a Katrina-like storm approached in 2021, Thomas said he would suggest they improve communications between local, state and national elected officials and first responders. “I’d make sure we have a communications system that works including a back channel for essential personnel. We didn’t have that. I would not select the Convention Center or the Superdome as the first line of shelter. Those facilities were not built for that purpose. I would also recommend that all buses and major transit be brought somewhere safe so we don’t lose those methods of transportation. Let’s get the people in a safe zone not in a shelter in the emergency zone,” he continued.

Like his father before him, Thomas was an accomplished athlete. “When I was little, some guys in the neighborhood would take us kids to the park. I really wasn’t that good a ballplayer at first until a grew a little taller” Thomas played ball at Bunny Friend Playground with Coach Melvin Howard and at the Stallings Center on St. Claude Avenue with Coach Tony D’Angelo.

Thomas attended the College of Santa Fe (New Mexico) on a basketball scholarship and like many amateur athletes dreamed of playing professional ball. But his athletic skills were not quite at that level. Instead, Thomas worked in the private sector on the West Coast and came back only for visits until his mother became ill. “I had always thought of my parents as immortal. I couldn’t just do nothing while I was here so I started volunteering at playgrounds. Dr. Anita Crump also made me a permanent substitute at Edison School.” 

Edison was only a brief pitstop on Thomas’ path. Through one of his father’s friends-Ken Carter, the father of State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, Thomas heard that City Councilman Jim Singleton had a legislative aide position available. Talkative by nature, Thomas polished his resume and put on his best suit for the interview. Impressed by Thomas’ brains and his easy, down-to-earth style, Singleton contacted one of Thomas’ references, Coach Roy Glapion, who helped seal the deal. 

Singleton became Thomas’ mentor and Thomas later mentored Keith Pittman, Brian Egana, Una Anderson and a host of young interns. 

Singleton, Carter, Jim Lee and others had already started their own political organization, BOLD. Thomas had to “earn his stripes” and quickly became a trusted volunteer who rose into a leadership role. “BOLD gave me a stable foundation in uptown politics. It was a major benefit,” he explained. 

Though Thomas has not been a member of the organization for the last 11 years, he would recommend that young people interested in learning grassroots politics join such a group. “Through my work in BOLD I got to know so many important community leaders like Cynthia Wiggins and Yvonne Marrero. I would bring the political groups back to shape more intentional grassroots politics,” Thomas said.

Though Thomas spearheaded much significant legislation during his years on the city council, he is especially proud of two accomplishments. Armed with a study from LSU regarding alcohol beverage outlets, Thomas worked with Councilmember Suzanne Haik Terrell to clean them up. “The locations were saturated with crime, especially felonies, and drug activity. We also dealt with other quality of life issues.”  

He is also especially proud of his work on the Housing Committee with attorney Lolis Elie which gave the same protection to historic Black neighborhoods as historic White neighborhoods. “Black communities are sacred to the people who live there. We must give them the same value as other historic communities,” Thomas explained.

Thomas was wildly popular with voters. He received 88 percent of votes cast in 2002 and 78 percent of votes cast in 2006. “I was always humbled by my support. I’m from a humble family in Lower 9. It felt really good to hold my family name up. When you run and get more votes than the mayor and DA, that says something,” he mused.

On August 13, 2007, Thomas resigned from the city council and soon pleaded guilty to bribery. He knew he had let the citizens of New Orleans down. “Rev. Darren Martin wanted to make sure I was ok. He told me that I had really hurt people and how could we care and give a damn if you let us down. What would people have to look forward to, he asked. It made me cry. The moment stays with me today,” said Thomas.

Before Thomas was sentenced, the federal government wanted him to work with them to build cases against others. Thomas refused. “I am only responsible for myself. As a man, my father raised me to be responsible for what you do, for your own actions, period.” Thomas explained. Through intense study, Thomas said he grew spiritually while in prison. He worked with Hakim Kashif who took Thomas “under his wing.”

Thomas is also known to be a fine actor who performed many roles at the Anthony Bean Community Theatre, a training ground for young thespians. “Meeting Anthony Bean was a blessing. I realized being on stage was very therapeutic.” Thomas originally planned to help Bean with fundraising, but Bean insisted that Thomas could act. Acting is exactly what a politician does, Bean explained.

Thomas is a firm believer that juveniles should never be tried as adults. “Juveniles should do juvenile time. Very few kids who have gone from the juvenile system to the adult system have gotten out better than when they got in,” said Thomas. He prefers that additional time be added to a juvenile’s sentence rather than sending him or her into the adult system. “If you do the crime, do the time but keep the system’s separate,” he explained.

Thomas suggests one of the answers on how to address the city’s lack of affordable housing units is by better leveraging federal housing funds. Mayor Cantrell could improve coordination efforts with churches, financial institutions and non-profits to create “housing that fits.” He also feels that community education is important. “Affordable housing is not low-income housing. It should be spread equally across the city and not in any one community,” Thomas continued.

There are many things the Orleans Parish School Board can do to make public education better. “NOLA-PS must invest in our children. They must focus on classroom learning using every resource available. Working with social workers and behavior specialists, they must mitigate issues families are having. If we don’t continue to invest in our kids, we will lose the investments already made. Let’s put our children on a positive track and not into the school to prison pipeline,” Thomas exclaimed.

Thomas thinks that any school – charter or traditional – can work for disadvantaged students if the school has the proper resources and good committed teachers.

There is a dearth of shopping and dining options in New Orleans East that should be addressing by zoning and mapping the area to determine new uses, says Thomas. “New Orleans Black upper class live in New Orleans East. It’s where Black wealth is located and the most stable Black neighborhoods.” Thomas recommends using the same model in New Orleans East that was used to create the DDD and the regional medical center district. “We have the land in the East. We must bring in adequate police protection, enterprise zones, tax credits and zoning incentives to stabilize the neighborhood around the development,” he explained.

In order to reduce crime, the NOPD must be extremely intentional. “Anyone involved with guns and violence needs to be taken off the street ASAP,” said Thomas. During Mayor Marc Morial’s administration, “the NOPD was very aggressive in going after bad actors, folk who have earned the right to go to prison a few times. Today, you can’t use the same formula. The equation should consider the new population, times land mass, times calls for service. That’s how we determine the number of officers we need in New Orleans East.” The amount of drive time is also important and varies, depending on whether the call for service is for Lower 9 or New Orleans East.  

Thomas feels that the problems with SWBNO have been brewing for decades starting with concerns of the sewer system leaking into the water. “If New Orleans had started investing in maintenance rather than utilizing a band aid approach, New Orleans would not have the kind of problems that exist today,” said Thomas. 

He believes Mayor Cantrell has been working hard on New Orleans’ infrastructure problems. “To the Mayor’s credit, she has put as much money as possible to deal with infrastructure now.” He also says a density study is needed and a hard look of the effects of subsidence along Poydras and Canal.

Thomas is not committed to removing the Claiborne overpass. “Six of one, half dozen of the other,” said Thomas. He wants to see more justifications from proponents of removing the overpass. Among his concerns are the business people who make their money under the overpass.  

Thomas is firm in his opposition of relocating City Hall to the Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park. “It’s not just about tearing down because government destroyed the Black neighborhood anymore. It’s bigger than that. It’s about Marie Laveau, Ellis Marsalis, Jim Hayes, Sylvester Francis and the Back Street Cultural Museum,” Thomas opined.

Many citizens expected Oliver Thomas would succeed Ray Nagin as mayor. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Does Thomas still dream of filling that role? “I believe your work determines this. You will never find a story where I said I wanted to be mayor. I feel the same way now. It’s all about the work. I want to be the best I can be,” he said.

Thomas has not made a final decision about running for the City Council District E. “I’m working on it.  I’m getting real close every day. Moving forward to make that decision, the support is unbelievable.”

Thomas says he is a better listener than he has ever been. “If the political class and the business class spent a little more time listening to the people, we would have a better City of New Orleans.”  

Having watched or been an active part of four administrations, Thomas would bring significant institutional knowledge to the council. He would also be keenly focused that the mayor and the council are co-equal partners branches of government. “I don’t know if both have read their job descriptions. The political system has been successful at getting who they want elected not who the people need to be elected,” Thomas concluded.   

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