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.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers