Sunday, November 27, 2005

Steve Thomas Speaks

On Saturday night I got a call from Steve Thomas, the newest contender in the race to unseat Congressman Richard Pombo. I spoke to Thomas for a little over fifteen minutes. Some of the following will simply be basic reporting, since Thomas has been beneath everyone’s radar. Importantly, much of the little we thought we know about Thomas is incorrect. I hope to correct the record on this. I will also offer some of my thoughts and impressions about what he said during our conversations.

For the sake of disclosure, I have offered Steve Thomas the opportunity to review this entry before I posted it here on the blog. I have not conducted many interviews before, and I am unsure whether this type of arrangement is unusual. But I realized that this was going to be the first time most people heard anything of substance about him, so I thought that it was important for me to give him a chance to look at the post and respond if he felt it necessary. I have, however, retained full editorial control of this post and have only promised to post his response along with this piece and to correct any clear factual errors. This seemed like a fair arrangement both for him, for me, and for you my readers.

That said, here are the most noteworthy aspects of our conversation.

First, Steve Thomas is not that Steven Thomas, either the lawyer from Danville or the owner of an expensive house in Blackhawk. I guess some of the confusion stems from the commonness of the name. No, this Steve Thomas is an electrician who is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 6. He consistently referred to himself as a working man or an average guy, which sounds both somewhat authentic and somewhat affected. It’s not that I doubt his working man credentials. But something about how he discussed this issue did not strike me as wholly authentic. Maybe he was just trying too hard or simply repeating himself too much. He did tell me that he worked in the stock market for ten years, but was an electrician for ten years before that and has been working as an electrician for ten years since then. It’s possible that I allowed the fact that he used to have a white collar job influence my perception of him as a blue collar type of guy.

Note, IBEW Local 6, the local in San Francisco, has already endorsed Thomas. So they clearly (and unsurprisingly) see Thomas as one of their own. This endorsement may or may not have any implications for Jerry McNerney, who rents office space from the IBEW in Dublin. Their arrangement does not constitute an endorsement of McNerney, but I have always thought it likely that McNerney would be endorsed by them. This development makes that assumption more questionable.

Second, Thomas’ strength is that he speaks the political language better than the other candidates in the primary. What do I mean by this? Thomas is obviously intelligent, articulate, well-informed and passionate. This, however, does not distinguish him from his competitors. But unlike some of the other candidates, Thomas was able to talk about politically important issues in a way that seemed sophisticated without sounding like an egghead.

This facility with language ties in with a third point I want to make. Thomas came across as more unabashedly progressive than either McNerney or Filson, although he demurred somewhat when asked to place himself on the left-right spectrum. He called the labels “not useful” and instead characterized himself as part of the “radical middle.” Still, he spoke about the need for single-payer healthcare and the need to retake the House with “the right type” of Democrats, which meant Democrats not beholden to corporate interests. About Iraq he said, “The war in Iraq is not making us safer and it is driving us bankrupt” and that consequently “we shouldn’t be there.”

I liked a lot of what he had to say, and at times heard shades of Kid Oakland, although (and I hope everyone understands this is no slight to Thomas) without Kid Oakland’s brilliance. Still, I generally found myself responding more to the substantive points of agreement than to his rhetorical ability (although I noted it more than once). I suppose he was singing to the choir (me) and getting me to say “Amen” in my heart. But my head really worried about how this will play in the district. He claimed to be used to persuading folks with common sense arguments. It’s not that I disbelieved him. But for me, the proof is in the pudding, and we’ll just have to see how he plays in the district.

Point four is that Thomas, despite his affability and his speaking ability, really comes to this race as an outsider. He is not part of any political organization that will rally around him, although he may be attractive to labor because he’s a union member. But he has not been a shop steward or otherwise held any official union positions. Neither is he a member of any Democratic clubs or organizations. And Thomas has never worked against Pombo in any concrete way. Put simply, unlike all the other contenders, Thomas lacks a pre-existing base of political support. If he were a rich lawyer from Danville who could self-fund his race, I’d wonder about his viability. Even Thomas himself admits that this fundraising will be vitally important in this primary.

This brings me to my fifth and final point. Without any sort of pre-existing political base there’s a big question of where Thomas will get the money to run his race, and how he’ll get the votes he needs to win. Right now he’s a complete unknown, which bodes ill for him this late in the game. When I asked him where he’d get his support he remained fairly vague. It’s fair enough if he wants to keep this close to his chest when talking to me, but it’s not me that he needs to convince. A lot of people are going to want to know what his plan is, and if he can’t articulate a plan without giving away his strategy he’s going to further marginalize himself. Furthermore, the one area that he was concrete about sounded unconvincing to me. He told me that he’d get a lot of support from his former customers. Color me unimpressed by this claim. If being a likeable, intelligent and politically aware electrician were enough to get the democratic nominations for a congressional race, there’d be a lot more electricians in Congress.

[Editor’s Note—Steve Thomas provided the following response to the above paragraph: “I was trying to make a different point here. It's not so much that I expect support from prior customers as that I connect really well with just about everybody I meet. I have to build support and I think I can do that.”]

All in all, I ended the conversation with the feeling that Thomas was a good guy who has the potential to do something in politics. But right now I’m not convinced he’s a serious contender for the democratic nomination for this race. Thomas does not have dollars in the bank or boots on the ground, and I’m not sure he can change these factors quickly enough to make a big impact. But if I am under-estimating him, the proof will, as I said earlier, be in the pudding. Come December, if he’s raised seventy thousand dollars or received the endorsement of any large labor group within the district, we’ll have to give him another look. Right now, however, the burden of proof is on Thomas to show us that he can be a serious contender. If he has magic to work, now’s the time for him to work it.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Matt --- you might want to correct the broken Steve Thomas link. You added an extra t to "http".

5:24 PM, November 27, 2005  
Blogger Matt said...

Anon. Thanks for the note. I've corrected the link.

5:40 PM, November 27, 2005  

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