Doubting Thomas

Did City Council Watchers Who Thought Danny Thomas Wasn't Ready for Prime Time Miss Something?

Danny Thomas (right) ministers at the Eph'phatha Full Gospel Baptist Church
Danny Thomas (right) ministers at the Eph'phatha Full Gospel Baptist Church (Photo By Jana Birchum)

The fragment of scripture on the white banner hanging behind the altar at Eph'phatha Full Gospel Baptist Church refers to Pastor Thomas as "The Chosen One." Not Danny Thomas, the first-term City Council member and the administrative pastor of the church at 12th and Chicon. The one chosen is Dr. Nathanial Thomas, a dynamic, charismatic, "preachin', teachin', shoutin', and runnin'" pastor who is the rock upon which Eph'phatha is built.

A banner that referred to administrative pastor Danny Thomas (no relation to Nathanial) might ask: "Who is it that men say I am?" Not that Danny Thomas -- a sober, thoughtful man possessed of all the charisma of an elder Anglican deacon -- has any doubt about who he is, who he represents, or where he's going. But ever since Thomas -- backed by $25,000 from former Dallas Cowboy Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson and $7,000 from the Austin Police Association -- defeated one-term incumbent Willie Lewis, anyone trying to handicap the Austin City Council has started with the question "Who is Danny Thomas?"

The answer depends on whom you ask. To the downtown business community, Thomas is Beverly Griffith's man, a novitiate who too quickly aligned with Griffith, the bête noire of the Chamber of Commerce's grow-and-go agenda. To embittered supporters of Lewis, whose spring 2000 election campaign never quite happened, Thomas is "Hollywood Henderson's man," and wouldn't be in office had Henderson not introduced soft money into city elections, buying $25,000 worth of ads supporting Thomas. And more than one political leader in East Austin's African-American community has suggested that Thomas is "Eric Mitchell's man," too much influenced by the outspoken and abrasive Mitchell -- whom Lewis knocked off the council three years ago with the organized support of environmentalists.

Yet there's another, altogether probable answer to the question. To borrow a campaign slogan from John Sharp's failed bid for lieutenant governor, Thomas might be "Nobody's Man." Or, as Sharp might have been known if his media brain trust hadn't set him up as "Nobody's Man," Danny Thomas might be "His Own Man."

There is more behind the question than the fact that Thomas seemed to come from out of nowhere to defeat an incumbent. After the Place Six seat was vacated by Charles Urdy, who had held it for 13 years, it has been impossible for an incumbent to defend. "It seems to me that the last two elections for that seat were more about getting someone off the council than getting someone onto the council," said Austin state Rep. Dawnna Dukes.

Dukes' House district includes East Austin, which might be considered Thomas' city council district -- if council members did not run at-large. East Austin is Thomas' district because he lives there -- but, perhaps more importantly, because of the "gentlemen's agreement" that reserves Place Six for an African-American. In a system that is loaded with potential for failure, only minority council members bear the burden of representing a racial or ethnic constituency. That burden requires the Place Six candidate to carry the predominantly African-American polling places in East Austin, while still winning at-large -- because there are only enough votes in the African-American community in East Austin to swing an election, not to carry one.

Former state representative Wilhelmina Delco has some doubts about the current workings of the informal system that designates one seat on council as the African-American seat. Delco, who won at-large elections to the Austin Independent School District Board and the Legislature, said the old system worked best when black community leadership was not as fragmented as it is today, and when almost all African-Americans in the city lived in East Austin -- "because we had no choice.

"The black community leadership could anoint a candidate that the local Democratic Party leaders would support," said Delco, who won her first election in the same week Martin Luther King was assassinated. "Today, with the so-called African-American seat, there is no way that you can be certain that the person elected is the choice of the community."

"It is difficult to put your finger on who the leadership is," said Urdy. And if the community can't agree on leaders, then, as Delco suggested, the larger community is left to speculate about which candidate is the choice of the African-American community.

But choice of the community or not, if an African-American candidate wins a City Council election while failing to carry East Austin, he's in trouble. "That was the distinction between Danny [Thomas] and [Willie] Lewis," said Delco. "People felt that Danny was part of the community."

The Pastor Danny Thomas

Thomas graduated from the old, African-American Anderson High School, earned an associate's degree from Austin Community College, and worked for more than 20 years for the Austin Police Department. But his most visible connection to East Austin is the Eph'phatha church, which he helped found in 1997. Although Delco and Urdy both observed that the political muscle of churches in Austin's black community is not what it once was, churches still hold considerable power. Rev. Anthony Mays' Mount Sinai, while not considered a politically activist church, might be the most influential church in East Austin -- if only because the ranks of its large congregation are filled with young professionals. Rev. George Clark's Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church has a prominent place in the black community. The staid Ebeneezer Baptist is one of the oldest African-American churches in Austin, and, by tradition, one of the most influential. And Joe Parker at David Chapel Missionary Baptist and Sterling Lands at Greater Calvary Baptist are part of a network of African-American churches that could swing an election one way or another.

Compared to those established Austin institutions, Eph'phatha might be called a start-up. And the three dozen congregants who followed Pastors Nathanial Thomas and Danny Thomas out of First Baptist and into the sanctuary that used to house Grant's Chapel launched their start-up venture in a competitive market. Within a few blocks of Eph'phatha's sanctuary are Rosewood Avenue Baptist, Greater Mount Zion Baptist, Simpson United Methodist, the Church of God in Christ No. 1, Wesley United Methodist, Mount Olive Baptist Church, Holy Cross Catholic Church, Olivet Baptist, and a storefront Ministry of Challenge. All of them -- even the storefront ministry -- are more traditional in their liturgy than Eph'phatha.

A banner in the Eph'phatha sanctuary reads "2000 in 2000," and in three years the congregation has already grown from 35 to 900 -- though Thomas admits that not all 900 who "united with the church" remain involved. Eph'phatha offers a style of worship that is not found in many of the established churches in East Austin. "We're free," Thomas said in an interview at his City Council office last week. "Freedom means when the Holy Spirit hits us, we might get up and dance. We practice the laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. All of that is in the Bible." The Holy Spirit regularly "hits" the congregation at Eph'phatha, inspiring dancing, speaking in tongues, weeping, and falling out -- and then, if the past two weeks' services are an accurate indication, more dancing. Eph'phatha literally rocks, or is rocked by the presence of Holy Spirit -- and the preaching of Nathanial Thomas.

Services at Eph'phatha begin with a half-hour of hymns played by a keyboard player who is sometimes accompanied by two or three vocalists. When the congregation is warmed up to the point of being almost on fire, Nathanial Thomas enters, picks up a microphone, a white handkerchief, and the chorus, and the church fills with an evangelical fervor that seems to threaten the structure of the sanctuary.

Pastor Nathanial Thomas gets the Sunday service fired up.
Pastor Nathanial Thomas gets the Sunday service fired up. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

On a Sunday in late September, within 20 minutes of Thomas' entrance, half of the congregation of 60 had closed in on the altar and were dancing, singing, and jumping -- the exception being one adolescent lying with his head on the altar. Five days earlier, during a Wednesday evening service, three women lapsed into semi-consciousness after Dr. Thomas laid hands on their shoulders and spoke quietly into their ears. As the pastor walked up and down the main aisle, he passed one member of the University of Texas football team, on his knees with his forehead touching the carpet. Around him, another dozen congregants walked aimlessly through the narrow spaces between pews as if they were broad transepts, waving their arms and talking in tongues.

Over all of this, Council Member Danny Thomas, a huge man with a sweet, beatific smile, quietly presides. "He preaches sometimes, but you're not going to see him preach today," said a woman at the back of the church on Sunday. So Danny Thomas, rocking gently to the music, stands behind Dr. Nathanial Thomas -- who is singing, spinning, and stepping like one of the Temptations. Danny Thomas also quietly prays with individuals who answer Nathanial Thomas' altar call, or stands at the front of the sanctuary, following the scripture around which his colleague builds his physically and emotionally exhausting sermons.

The Secular Danny Thomas

"I've known him a good while," said Urdy. "I didn't know too much about him. But in watching him since he's been in office, I get a sense that he's determined to make a difference ... I think he has a good base in East Austin, a religious, church base ... He works from a Christian religious point of view -- and he's honest and that serves him well."

Urdy isn't alone in his admiration for Thomas. "I am completely blown away by his personal integrity and commitment to government with open and meaningful public participation," said Bill Bunch, an environmental lawyer and executive director of the Save Our Springs alliance. Bunch points to Thomas' open disagreement with the council on the $150 million bond package scheduled for a referendum on Nov. 7. Thomas refused to vote for the package, joining Griffith in withholding his vote unless an additional $120 million, mostly for parks and green space, was added. With Thomas and Griffith holding out, the council was unable to pass the mayor's $150 million deal until Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman returned from the Democratic convention in Los Angeles to cast the vote to put it on the November ballot.

Refusing to support the bond package wasn't the only unpopular position Thomas has taken since he was sworn in in June. He recently abstained in a vote to provide $675,000 for a police helicopter. And in early August, Thomas pressed the council to accommodate East Austin's Cedar Avenue community residents, in a renewed dispute over a 1995 police brutality lawsuit. By providing $710,000 in scholarships and grants to community organizations, the city assumed it had ended the legal dispute involving a violent 1995 confrontation between East Austin residents and Austin police who responded to a call for police assistance at a private party. In early August, when a group of East Austin residents, led by Eph'phatha's Nathanial Thomas, pressed the council to reopen the Cedar Avenue lawsuit negotiations to ensure that the city was providing funds to all the qualified applicants, Danny Thomas backed his constituents -- and his colleague from Eph'phatha. In doing so, Thomas risked his relationship with the Austin Police Association, which had poured money and volunteer hours into his campaign.

Deliberate Self-Defense

In an interview in his City Hall office last week, Thomas methodically defended each position he took, and implied that to disagree occasionally with his colleagues on the council is part of a healthy democratic process.

"I didn't understand why they were so adamant about that $150 million for roads," Thomas said of the bond package. "We could have split up those funds and still got our roads taken care of and met some other needs."

Among the needs Thomas cited is the neglected Colony Park neighborhood in Northeast Austin, additional green space, and affordable housing. "There will be times," he said, "like in the bond package, where we won't all be together."

Thomas failed to get the bond money he wanted, but he had more success in his budget dealing with the police helicopter. "I wanted additional funding for Eastside Story," Thomas said. "That program serves 400 to 500 kids after school, 1,300 kids last summer, and 2,000 kids this summer. I didn't vote against the police helicopter; I think the police needed another helicopter. But I needed an additional $300,000 for that program. ... I voted for the helicopter in the end." Thomas abstained on the first reading on the helicopter item and in the end got $300,000 for Eastside Story. "And the police got their helicopter," Thomas said.

"I have no issues with how the budget was done," said Austin Police Association president Mike Sheffield. "I visited with Danny on the helicopter vote. He was not opposed ... it seemed reasonable."

Similarly, Thomas said the position he took in the Cedar Avenue debate had nothing to do with APD. "The Austin Police Department has been cleared by the judiciary," he said of the 1995 incident. "I needed to know that the plaintiffs have been taken care of. That agreement was for everybody -- a lot of organizations that had applied for that money." The city's legal staff is currently studying the disposition of the funds set aside in the settlement the city and Cedar Avenue plaintiffs signed two years ago.

Sheffield is not so comfortable with the reopening of the Cedar Avenue debate. But he said it wasn't a loss for the police association, which, from the beginning, wanted to ensure that no city money is paid to individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Because the suit has been settled, the council cannot vote to give money to any individual. "Carlos Cardona needed 70-some-odd stitches to close the wounds to his head," Sheffield said of the officer injured on Cedar Avenue. "To settle that issue, we would like to see the person responsible brought to justice.

"But I don't expect Danny to cast every vote because we either like this issue or don't like this one issue," Sheffield continued. "He has to be his own man up there. And that's what he's done."

For Thomas to convince the public of that might be more challenging than cutting budget deals. One lobbyist from the downtown business community observed that Thomas shows up at meetings with Griffith and can be expected to vote with her. A credible political leader in East Austin's African-American community says that Eric Mitchell has said he doesn't need a seat on the council as long as Danny Thomas is there. Another lobbyist points to Mitchell's ally Linda Dailey, who now serves on Thomas' staff.

Urdy believes that the fights over the seat he held for 13 years have become far too personal. "The focus had been on Eric Mitchell and Willie Lewis rather than the issues and the projects that would benefit the community," Urdy said. Yet in Thomas' improbable election to City Council, Urdy sees the potential to end the infighting. "In the last two elections, folks were sharpening their knives long before the campaigns began. I hope that's gone. I think [Thomas] has moderated that personal focus and taken some of the edge off of it."

Delco seems to agree, and sees Thomas -- the first Place Six candidate to carry East Austin since Urdy gave up the seat -- as a hometown Metternich, who has the potential to piece together the fragmented political map of East Austin. Thomas carried the vote west of I-35 and won the majority of votes east of I-35. "He has to act on the premise that most black folks, wherever they are in the city, are going to look to him. And members of the council, when they discuss issues that relate to the black community, are going to look to him."

Seated behind his desk, Thomas seems as serene and deliberative as he is when standing in front of the sanctuary at Eph'phatha. He had a thoughtful response for every question, and wasn't even defensive when asked about Hollywood Henderson's $25,000 ad campaign on his behalf. "I was thankful for that support," he said. "That money was a blessing for me, and if somebody wanted to do that for me again, I would welcome it.

"I will tell you something else," he adds toward the end of the interview. "I intend to run again." end story

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