Take Cover
John Johnston

Take Cover

The politicians assembled in a conference room inside Denver's City and County Building are on edge.

A routine meeting of the city council's parks and recreation committee is suddenly at the center of the hottest political story in town. Charles Robertson, a high-level manager with the parks department, has been accused of using city funds to buy trophies for his son's northeast Denver football team. It's the most recent in a series of embarrassments the department has endured under director B.J. Brooks, and the seriousness of the allegations is highlighted when Mayor Wellington Webb sweeps into the room to announce that the department will undergo an independent audit of its finances.

As the TV cameras click on, the mayor faces Ed Thomas, the councilman who chairs the committee. Thomas has been outspoken in his criticism of Brooks and her department, and the mayor looks at him as he tersely informs the committee that he has also asked the district attorney to investigate the department for possible illegal activity.

Later, several people involved with Robertson's son's football team make it clear they think the entire affair has been overblown. Since most of the team's members are black, they even hint that the criticism may be racially motivated. "You're an ex-police officer. Your nature is to look at this as a criminal investigation," one of the coaches tells Thomas, adding that kids from wealthy white neighborhoods never have to wonder where their uniforms and trophies will be coming from.

Thomas is clearly angered by this suggestion. "The issue is we used tax payer dollars to buy these trophies," he grunts. "We have to focus on the special preferences that were given to certain teams. A lot of people are upset that this existed in the first place."

The councilman doesn't hide his contempt for Brooks, whom he regards as incompetent and arrogant. "Some of the things that have been done within the parks department are inexcusable," he tells the gathering.

Most of the other councilmembers on the committee are considerably more cautious, making bland statements about "re-establishing confidence" in the department.

But Thomas's willingness to publicly criticize city officials isn't unusual. He has earned a reputation as the fastest mouth at city hall, someone who doesn't hesitate to say what he thinks, even when it involves topics that would send other politicians running for cover.

"He's Denver's Jesse Ventura," says a councilmember who doesn't want to be named. "But if you want to be effective on council, you have to collaborate to move things forward. Ed doesn't do that."

Although Thomas is the first former police officer to be elected to city council, he's actively disliked by many Denver cops, who came to view him as a turncoat after he tried to take away some of their benefits. In addition, he's taken on neighborhood groups, other politicians and even the mayor. Despite his controversial positions, however, Thomas is popular in his district and has been easily re-elected twice.

But like the mayor and most of the city council, Thomas will be forced out of office in two years because of term limits, and his high profile has spread speculation that he may be mulling over a run for mayor. Although Thomas says it's too soon to think about that possibility, it's clearly something he has considered.

While his role as city hall curmudgeon has garnered attention, whether Thomas has what it takes to win citywide office is still in question. Could he be another Jesse Ventura?

"Well, I don't wear a boa," says Thomas. "Jesse Ventura was an outsider. He did what no one else had ever done before. I like a good fight, and I'm not shy. I think there are times when somebody has to stand up and say this doesn't pass the smell test."

Despite his gruff reputation, Thomas is surprisingly soft-spoken. He has a sharp sense of humor and an easygoing manner that immediately puts strangers at ease. On a recent day, he watched with a wry smile as security guards at city hall insisted on putting a man's crutches through the metal detector.

"Like Osama bin Laden is going to hit this building," he quipped.

Inside the building, dozens of city hall employees, from security guards to the man who runs the espresso machine, greeted the councilman warmly.

But Thomas's mood can change quickly.

In January, after a bitter six-month struggle, the city council enacted a new ethics policy prohibiting city employees from accepting gifts and allowing the public to file complaints against any Denver employee or official with the city's ethics commission. The ordinance was crafted after revelations that former civil-service director Paul Torres had hired friends and relatives to administer civil-service exams. Getting the law through council was an agonizing process that left hard feelings on every side. Thomas felt it went too far and would make it difficult to do something as innocent as hold a fundraiser for a local charity. He called the ethics board a "politically correct Star Chamber" that would have extraordinary power to investigate public servants.

On January 29, the bill passed on a 7-3 vote. It would have been 7-4, but Thomas stomped out of the council meeting before the final tally was taken. He insists there was no reason to vote, because he knew he was going to lose. "I could see it wasn't going my way. I was frustrated and angry, so I left," he says.

But Thomas's critics say that kind of behavior reflects a hothead temperament and an inability to work on difficult issues with others on the council. Before he left the meeting, for instance, Thomas referred to Colorado Common Cause, the citizens' lobby that was pushing the ethics bill, as "a self-righteous, condescending group." At one point, he even said he wouldn't support the ethics bill if Common Cause was involved.

Pete Maysmith, the group's executive director, calls that "an unfortunate and unwarranted attack."

"We worked in a constructive manner with the mayor and many of Thomas's colleagues," Maysmith says. "It's not as if we had a knock-down, drag-out war of words with him. For him to come out swinging against Common Cause was surprising."

"I don't think [Thomas] has the attention span to get anything done," adds one veteran bureaucrat. "He's very impulsive and can be irrational. He jumps from one thing to another and flies off the handle."

Thomas's temper became an issue during his most recent re-election campaign, when his opponents criticized him at a public candidates' forum. Mason Lewis, who was one of those candidates, says the councilman's unpredictability has made it difficult for him to accomplish much on the council. "Politicians have to be bridge-builders and come up with solutions," says Lewis. "For Ed, a lot of times, it's my way or no way."

"In a legislative body, there's a place for a cowboy, but real leadership is moving people through a collaborative process," says councilwoman Susan Barnes- Gelt. "The challenge for Ed is aligning his good heart with strong collaborative skills."

Thomas, who likes to present himself as a tough-talking, no-nonsense former cop, relishes this outsider status. Ironically, because of his outspoken manner, his ex-comrades on the force see him as public enemy number one.

The union that represents Denver's police officers, the Police Protective Association, was initially an enthusiastic supporter, donating $1,000 to the 1994 campaign that put Thomas in office. But that was before the councilman proposed that the city end its practice of picking up liability insurance for off-duty cops working at bars and nightclubs.

The controversy came to the fore after the city agreed to pay $250,000 to the family of Jeff Truax, a 25-year-old man who was killed by an off-duty officer following a fight at a Denver nightclub in 1996. Thomas said the city shouldn't have paid. But since police officers are required to act when witnessing a crime, even when they are off duty, the union argued they should be covered by the city's insurance.

And because many cops earn a substantial side income by working security, the union saw Thomas's proposal as a betrayal. Emotions ran strong, and Thomas got death threats from angry officers. "I had threats on my door and at home from Denver's finest," he says. When his proposal came before city council, hundreds of officers turned out to oppose it. "We had 200 angry police officers show up with their arms crossed," he says. "The council was terrified." The measure was quickly shot down.

Thomas describes the affair as "the issue for our divorce," but he angered his former colleagues even more when he opposed the union's 1998 drive to repeal a section of the city charter that requires municipal employees to live in Denver. The police union made its feelings about Thomas clear the next year when it endorsed his opponent Kevin Shancady, a gay activist and former contestant in a "Mr. Leather" pageant in which Shancady was videotaped inserting a penile catheter into himself. The union endorsement was a clear sign of the bitterness that the police had for Thomas.

"Our membership wanted us not to support Thomas," says union president Kirk Miller. "It seemed like if it was a money issue, we couldn't depend on him. It was an 'anybody but Ed' mentality when the election came around."

Since the union is regarded as one of the most powerful political groups in the city, many thought Thomas might be in political trouble, but he easily defeated Shancady.

And Thomas's role as odd man out at city hall has grown in the last two years. He's been willing to challenge policies that have widespread support on the city council, including Denver's dogged defense of affirmative-action rules that reserve a fixed portion of city contracts for minorities and women. U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch found last year that those policies discriminate against white men, but the city has spent nearly $2 million over the past eight years defending its contracting rules through endless rounds of appeals and court challenges.

Thomas also opposed a controversial payment of $1.2 million to a boy who was paralyzed after being shot by a Denver police officer. Since the boy was armed and burglarizing a home at the time of the shooting, many were outraged by the settlement, which the city argued was necessary to prevent a possible jury verdict that might be much larger. That settlement also eclipsed the $400,000 given to the family of Ismael Mena, a Mexican immigrant who was slain when police mistakenly raided his home. Thomas said the payment to the boy, DeShawn Hollis, sent the wrong message.

He has taken a high-profile role criticizing some of the mayor's initiatives as well, such as the proposed sales-tax increase for children's programs. (He said that raising the sales tax might drive shoppers to the suburbs.) He has also opposed efforts to hike the minimum wage in Denver and even questioned the city's involvement in funding Head Start, the preschool program for low-income children that most of his fellow Democrats see as beyond reproach.

"I don't think there's been enough information to point out that Head Start is effective," says Thomas. "I don't think it's against the law to ask questions."

Whether Thomas's role as the city council's lone ranger is good for Capitol Hill is open to question, but Thomas believes he plays an important part, especially when it comes to challenging the mayor. "There's a coalition on city council that are in lockstep with the mayor. They're visibly shaken by this guy walking into the room; they're scared to death of him," he says. "We're a separate legislative body, but there are people who are terrified of him."

Although Thomas thinks Webb has done a good job overall, he's exasperated by some of his appointments -- including that of B.J. Brooks.

"My only thing with him is he's hired some people on his staff who can't tie their own shoes," he sighs. "We do get sideways on stuff. It's some of these people he has around him. I respect the mayor, but I don't fear him."

Thomas grew up at Eighth Avenue and Adams Street in Congress Park, the neighborhood he still calls home. Now 51, he remembers Denver in the 1950s and early '60s as a place where kids could spend hours exploring their neighborhoods without worry, and where the most daring crime a kid might commit would be to jump the fence and sneak into the Congress Park pool.

"I thought the Seventh Avenue Parkway was the biggest place in the world," he recalls.

The Thomas family included nine children and was devoutly Catholic. Thomas attended St. John the Evangelist school (now Good Shepherd). His father worked as an auto parts salesman, and Thomas remembers money always being tight. "The work ethic was pretty strong, because you didn't have a choice," he says. "I started working when I was ten as a caddie at the Denver Country Club. Eighteen holes for a buck fifty. That was a joy. That was the first job I had."

Thomas also mowed lawns and cleared sidewalks for neighbors. Outgoing and popular at school, he met hundreds of people in Congress Park, an intimate knowledge that has served him well as a politician. "There's not an alley in this district or a house or family that I don't know. Someone will say, 'I live at so and so on Cook Street,' and I can tell them exactly what the house looks like. I know who lived in the house forty years ago and who has moved in and out."

Thomas joined the police force when he was in his early twenties and spent more than two decades with the department. During the last few years of his career, he worked as a community-relations representative in Capitol Hill, a job that allowed him to meet people all over the district. He also served as president of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods, the powerful neighborhood organization that has served as a training ground for a number of Denver politicians, including former congresswoman Pat Schroeder.

So when former councilwoman Cathy Donohue gave up her seat in 1994 after nineteen years to take a job working for the mayor, Thomas decided to retire from the force and make a run for council.

He'd burned out on police work anyway, he says, after killing a man in the mid-'80s. Thomas had been called to a house where a man was threatening to shoot his wife. When he went into the bedroom, the man aimed the gun at him, and Thomas fired. "That was the turnaround for me," he recalls. "I got tired of the violence and the stupid people. I did a background check on a guy once who was applying to be a police officer. He was wanted. I had to walk him past the chief of police in handcuffs. I always wanted to have a place called stupid jail: It would always be full."

After entering the race for council, Thomas almost immediately established himself as the front runner in a field of eight candidates. But he says giving up his job and entering politics was terrifying. "I remember the night of the election. I had no job, no salary, no pension, and my wife had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. We stood in the living room and said, 'What the hell are we going to do?' It was about the most terrifying thing, because I couldn't go back."

Thomas won easily with 46.5 percent of the vote in that special election. He was re-elected in 1995 and again in 1999.

He makes it clear that family is his priority, though, and the health of his wife, Connie, will be a major factor in considering a run for the mayor's office.

The Thomases and their children -- 28-year-old Michael Patrick lives in San Francisco, and 26-year-old Jennifer lives with her husband in Baltimore -- are close-knit, something Thomas is proud of. "We developed a relationship with the kids both as parents and friends," he says.

This is all the more remarkable for Thomas, who describes himself as conservative, since Michael is gay. Michael came out to his parents when he was in high school, and Thomas says that they accepted his revelation. "I loved my son from before he was born -- always have and always will," says Thomas. "He's a good guy. I have an affinity for the gay community, because I understand the discrimination and hatred they've faced."

This affinity may have helped him carry the large gay community in his district over the years. Thomas was one of the first Denver cops willing to work off duty at a gay bar, and he forged a strong friendship with Wayne Jakino, one of the owners of Charlie's Bar, a longtime gay hangout on East Colfax.

"We were trying to bring in an off-duty cop and were having trouble finding one," recalls Jakino. "They perceived anybody who worked here as liking us too much. Ed was willing to help us when other officers wouldn't."

At one time, Charlie's patrons were routinely harassed by the police on Colfax, says Jakino. With Thomas's help, that began to change ten years ago. Jakino was even invited to teach a class on gay awareness at the police academy.

Thomas became close enough to Jakino that he served as a witness at a partnership ceremony in 1994 for Jakino and his companion. Since then, Thomas has successfully sponsored city ordinances allowing gay couples to register their partnerships at city hall and offering equal benefits to the partners of gay city employees.

"There have been tremendous inroads made," Jakino says. "Ed has led the way."

Thomas's district takes in the heart of Denver, extending from Colorado Boulevard all the way to the Golden Triangle, and from East Colfax to Cherry Creek.

The challenges that face the city are on full display here. Multimillion-dollar homes line Seventh Avenue Parkway, and in Cherry Creek, pricey new townhomes seem to rise from the ground on a daily basis. But affordable housing is becoming scarce, even in the older parts of Capitol Hill and the Golden Triangle, where a wave of real estate speculation is forcing rents sky-high and changing the look of the city.

Driving down a street in Congress Park, Thomas points to a large brick bungalow. "I remember when that sold for $40,000," he says. He is acutely aware that the current asking price would be ten times as much, since he makes a habit of reading weekly real estate listings to see what homes in the neighborhood are going for.

Thomas has had to take sides in disputes involving development, but even the people who have worked against him say his ability to personally please his constituents is one of the reasons he is so popular.

Thomas recently angered the Country Club neighborhood group when he endorsed a controversial plan to allow the construction of a ten-story building on the Sears parking lot in Cherry Creek. Neighbors feared the proposal would generate too much traffic. "Most people in Country Club were disappointed with his response to the neighborhood," says Buzz Geller, vice president of the Country Club Historic District. "But he told us ahead of time he would be voting against us. That means a lot. He'll always be there to talk to you."

Geller was also involved in a bitter struggle to rezone East Colfax several years ago. That effort failed after proponents tried to ban new day-labor shops from opening on the street. Thomas opposed the rezoning, angering several Colfax merchants, including Geller. Despite their history, however, Geller credits Thomas for his attention to residents. "The whole city could take a lesson from this guy in terms of accessibility," says Geller. "He'll often call you back in minutes."

Many people say Thomas's honesty is the best thing about him. "Ed is very straightforward; he speaks what's on his mind," says Tom Knorr, executive director of Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods.

Knorr does have criticisms of Thomas. "He sometimes has a tendency to give more of an ear to Country Club and the Seventh Avenue Historic District than he does to other parts of his district," he says. "I'm sometimes sorry about that."

Knorr doesn't think the councilman is doing enough about affordable housing, either. "I haven't heard him talk a lot about it," he says. "I'm not convinced he's all that concerned about it."

Thomas disputes this, saying he is working with several nonprofits to create new housing in Capitol Hill. He is also proud of being able to convince several people who were planning to tear down homes to instead donate them to charities that moved the houses to new locations and offered them to low-income families. "It is crucial in the neighborhood," he says, adding, "No matter what, it will never be enough."

Despite their differences, however, Knorr says, "I think people like him as a person. He's very inclusive in terms of all the groups you think of. He hasn't got a prejudicial bone in his body."

In fact, Knorr says Thomas is popular in Capitol Hill because residents like his mix of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism and feel that he is open to all the groups that make up the district. He adds that Capitol Hill probably has more diversity of income, education, race and lifestyle than any other part of the city, and it will always be a challenge to represent such a varied district. Since the neighborhood is often regarded as one of the most liberal in Denver, Thomas's success there is even more surprising.

"I'm not going to deny I'm a conservative," says Thomas. "There's the ability to be a Democrat and a conservative. I'm a fiscal conservative; I think it's important to protect taxpayers' investment in the city. In some areas, I'm far more socially liberal than other people. They can't pigeonhole me that easily. Find me a conservative Republican that would be a witness at a gay union. Find me a conservative Republican that would work a gay bar at night. I'm a fiscal conservative and a social liberal on some issues. I don't see that as a contradiction."

Many people praise Thomas's efforts to help Denver nonprofit groups. He has sponsored numerous events to benefit schools and community organizations.

"Ed has facilitated several fairly sizable donations," says Leslie Foster, executive director of the Gathering Place, a shelter for battered women. "This past Christmas he invited a bunch of people to his party, and the price of admission was a donation to the Gathering Place. We consider Ed a good friend. He likes the fact that we're a private organization and get very little government money. He also likes that we help people rebuild their lives."

However, Thomas has also noted that Capitol Hill still has the biggest concentration of group homes and halfway houses in the city. The neighborhood has "done more than its share" to provide that type of housing, he says.

Mason Lewis says that when he ran for council against Thomas, the big issues were traffic, parking and affordable housing. None of these problems has been solved, but Lewis says that whoever represented the district would have a more difficult time addressing the challenges in the heart of Capitol Hill than in places such as Cherry Creek.

"The problems affecting the northern part of the district are difficult to solve," he says. "The problems around Cherry Creek are easier. How do you protect affordable housing on Capitol Hill? That's not an easy problem to solve. These are social issues that can't be easily solved. As low-income people get forced out, where do you put them? It's easy to put in a traffic light, but how do you solve that?"

But Thomas doesn't claim to be looking for big solutions to Denver's problems. He makes it clear that for him, solving the day-to-day problems of neighbors is what city government is all about. "I feel my job is constituent contact and dealing with the nuts and bolts in our community," he says. "It comes down to keeping the streets clean and keeping the bad guy from your door. Politically, if you can do that, you're a success."


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