Those closest to the Rev. Dr. James Thomas from San Fernando Valley never anticipated him entering politics. However, they were not surprised that he did. A long-time advocate for everyone around him, Thomas has been a constant in the lives of his friends, family, and peers – and is now running for Los Angeles City Council.
“Mr. Thomas has been such an advocate for us all the way from being in high school. Mr. Thomas is why I am still an American,” said Baffour Osei, a high school friend of Mr. Thomas’s son.
Osei was at risk of deportation before Thomas stepped in and helped him navigate the collegiate search process as an international student. Today, Osei is a graduate of both Fisk and Vanderbilt University, and he now works at Princeton University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science as the Robotics Lab Manager.
Thomas is running in the upcoming Special City Council Election for the District 6 seat of former councilwoman Nury Martinez, who resigned last year after racist commentary of her and her fellow councilmen was made public, leading to a fevered frenzy of protests and calls for resignation.
Thomas has a long list of community-oriented roles. He is an activist in the San Fernando Valley, a pastor at the Living Word Community Church in Chatsworth, and a Pan-African Studies professor at California State University Los Angeles. Thomas is also an alumnus of USC’s Price School of Public Policy, studied at Fisk University and Southern Illinois University, and founded the Culturally Based Algebra Camp.
After hearing the racist comments from former councilwoman Martinez and her fellow councilmen, Thomas had enough, and he felt that his background had equipped him to be the perfect candidate for this seat.
“When I started, it was difficult for me to get as many signatures as I needed,” said Thomas, “I was able to get almost 700 signatures, but many of them were not valid signatures, and so we ran into a lot of different issues.”
From there, Thomas decided to continue anyway in his election pursuit, regardless of not receiving an official slot on the ballot for this April’s election.
Not getting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot would be a dealbreaker for many political hopefuls. Thomas, however, says he has a unique belief and trust in God that he believes can bring him to the finish line of the upcoming special election.
In this campaign, topics include street vending regulations, noise and fumes from Van Nuys Airport, homelessness, and policing.
The City Council’s District 6 is home to neighborhoods including Lake Balboa, Van Nuys, Panorama City, Arleta, North Hills, North Hollywood, and Sun Valley.
As of June 2018, the City Council 6th District is populated mainly by Latino people, who comprise 72% of the district. White people make up 15% of the district, Asian people make up 9% of the district, and Black people make up 3% of the district. 65% of the population is between 18 and 64 years old, according to ‘City and Community Health Profiles: Los Angeles City Council District 6.’
When it comes to the issue of crime and safety, Thomas wants to operate with a community-first mindset.
“I think that an effort to reduce poverty is the most important way to reduce crime. What I mean is - ‘refunding the police.’ Police should offer a certain standard of service. This money should be refunded, invested, and invested into poverty reduction programs,” Thomas said.
When it comes to unhoused communities, Thomas aims to provide resources to get unhoused communities sheltered.
“They should be given $5,000 a month guaranteed universal income immediately. We can afford that. $5,000 a month would get them off the streets immediately and give them the resources they need. Remember- being unhoused happens because of lack of affordability and availability,” said Thomas, additionally- “there are people who can’t find housing because of race.”
Those closest to Thomas are confident in his morals and ability to lead. “I think he’s probably one of the only people I know and including myself, that does things just for the good of his heart and not for anything in return,” said Thomas’s daughter, Imani, 21.
During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Thomas was active in the city, protesting and working toward the rights of Black people in Los Angeles and all over the country. He was even photographed on his knees while praying as the LAPD were standing guard outside the residence of Mayor Eric Garcetti during the seventh consecutive day of Black Lives Matter protests in Los Angeles.
Fueled by his religious beliefs, Thomas has continued his campaign for office, even though people have urged him to drop out due to the historical lack of success for write-in candidates.
“The reason that I’m running is that I want all of L.A. to know that the San Fernando Valley is L.A.,” said Thomas. “A lot of times, we are not treated as such. A lot of times, we’re treated as if we’re on a whole separate island. We don’t get the kind of resources that we need. We need a strong voice in the City Council chambers so that we can advocate for what citizens of the 6th district. That’s who I am, that’s my story, and that’s what I’m about.”
A community member of the San Fernando Valley, Thomas, believes the area doesn’t get enough attention and care from the City Council. He believes that racial reconciliation needs to happen in District 6, and he hopes that he can jumpstart the healing if given the chance to join the City Council.
“It’s important for city leaders to address these issues and work towards creating a more inclusive and equitable Los Angeles for all its residents, including African Americans,” said Thomas.
Thomas, an active and involved member of the NAACP of the San Fernando Valley, is concerned about the many Black folks leaving Los Angeles at disproportionate rates throughout the city due to gentrification.
Being in office is something he never thought he would do, but he never thought he would be a pastor or professor, and he is now both.
Darnell Singleton is a filmmaker and a close friend of Thomas. The two have been friends since 1986, when they met during their undergraduate studies. Singleton was friends with Thomas’ now wife, Mona Thomas, who runs the Culturally Based Algebra Camp alongside her husband.
“It was kind of a surprise, but he’s always been a people person,” remarks Singleton when asked if he foresaw Thomas entering politics. “Since he’s a pastor, I think he has a deep understanding of people and meeting people where they are.”
Singleton reflected on a time that he and Thomas reunited upon Singleton’s move to Los Angeles, where the reverend was the one to make the trek to Los Angeles International Airport to pick him and his belongings up.
“The first time I came to L.A., James came to pick me up from the airport. He said, ‘okay, before we get started, I wanna take you somewhere …We go downtown, and I’m like, ‘Oh cool,’ I’ve never seen Downtown before… We keep driving, and he’s like, ‘no, that’s not what I wanna show you.’ He pulls around the corner, and we pull up on Skid Row.”
When Singleton asked Thomas why they went to Skid Row, the reverend responded: “I don’t want you to ever forget what it’s all about. I don’t ever want you to forget what’s most important.”
Angela LeFlore has known Thomas since her childhood.
“I think it is awesome,” said LeFlore regarding the campaign. “I know he would do an excellent job. I am hoping and praying he is able to get the seat because of his passion and love for the people.”
According to his peers, a central identity of Thomas is that he doesn’t compromise his morals, ethics, or beliefs for anything.
“All his life, he has always been a person who wanted to help the underdog. If he saw anybody being mistreated or going through something, he’s always a person who would go out of his way to help, and sacrificially help. All of his life, that’s just who he’s been since [he was] a kid. That is who he has been,” said LeFlore.
As an activist and a pastor, the community lies at the center of Thomas’ world.
“He is a person that doesn’t compromise and wouldn’t compromise what’s best for the people for his own gain,” finished LeFlore.
Thomas has been part of the race as an unofficial candidate since January 18. The special election will take place on April 4, and Thomas will go against fellow candidates, including Marisa Alcaraz, Rose Grigoryan, Isaac Kim, Imelda Padilla, Marco Santana, Antoinette Scully, and Douglas Sierra. If necessary, a runoff will conclude the election on June 27.