What’s with public figures who continue to think they can get away with scandalous and even criminal behavior?
The demise of Harry Thomas, Jr., the now-former Councilmember for Ward 5, is the latest example of the arrogance of power and debilitating effects of corruption. Federal prosecutors have charged Thomas with embezzling $353,500 intended for a children’s charity, and with tax fraud as well. He faces many years in federal prison.
Thomas is the first member of the D.C. Council to resign because of felony charges while in office, though not the first member of the D.C. Council to have a rap sheet. That honor goes to the inimitable Marion Barry, who recently announced his bid for re-election to yet another term representing the good people of Ward 8. Sadly, other major city leaders are also under investigation for various allegations, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Council Chair Kwame Brown.
Certainly, D.C. holds no corner on the market for corruption. These local peccadilloes seem like small change compared to the legendary scandals involving pols in, say, Illinois. Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor, could give Harry Thomas pointers on prison etiquette.
But D.C. can ill-afford to say that, “Everyone does it.” The District of Columbia continues to struggle for national acceptance as a fully-grown jurisdiction able to govern its own affairs. Look no farther than the comments accompanying any story about this scandal or other D.C. problems to see the intense racism that continues to demean this city and its citizens. Hatemongers thrive on this kind of scandal, creating a negative energy that hardens the opposition to any hope of further enfranchisement for the citizens of D.C.
Disenfranchisement is a familiar condition for D.C. citizens, and now the residents of Ward 5 are legislative orphans. Oh, yes, other public officials have said that they would “take care of” Ward 5’s needs — At-large Councilmember Vincent Orange used to be our representative, so he certainly knows this part of town, and Council Chairman Kwame Brown has also pledged his office’s resources to handle constituent services — but still, the democratic principle of governance by your own duly elected representatives is further damaged in this sad affair in Ward 5.
Building a strong national reputation for ethics and effectiveness, fiscal responsibility and educational accountability must become a top priority of every public official in the District of Columbia. Such a reputation will not emerge from empty gestures, speeches, legislative grandstanding or public whining. The only way this city can win national respect is through consistent behavior and clear results all the time. We need grownups in our local leadership positions, people who understand the meaning of the phrase “public trust.” We need leaders who understand that real power is not in the trappings of office — the ‘fully loaded’ SUV, e.g. — but in the respect the leader earns each day through effective, ethical actions that advance the best interests of the city and its citizens.