Editor’s note: The Journals have been profiling the self-declared candidates for mayor. This is the fifth profile in our series. We have profiled Mark Andrew, Jackie Cherryhomes, Don Samuels and Betsy Hodges and will be publishing stories in coming weeks on Gary Schiff and Cam Winton, an Independent candidate not seeking the DFL endorsement.
Jim Thomas might take the prize for funniest candidate for Minneapolis mayor.
He provided some comic relief at a mayoral debate at Solomon’s Porch in Kingfield in early April, and his tweets reveal his sense of humor. Case in point: “Had to buy some new clothes last night. Dottie (my wife) says my garage sale blazers just don’t cut it.”
But when you start talking about the state of schools and neighborhoods in Minneapolis with Thomas, his tone becomes more serious.
His concern about public education in the city prompted him to run for mayor.
Thomas has been a teacher for Minneapolis Public Schools since 1987 and a special education teacher since 1990. He works all over the city helping students with disabilities.
“My current job requires me to collaborate with parents, students and colleagues from a variety of disciplines across the Minneapolis Public Schools District to find creative ways to support constituents in a climate of scarce educational resources,” Thomas wrote in a statement about his mayoral campaign. “I think that’s what a mayor’s job is, too: in a climate of scarce resources I will collaborate with experts and stakeholders in Minneapolis to make our wonderful city better.”
Thomas said he’s been concerned about the size of classrooms for a long time. He was at a School Board meeting earlier this year and listened to a boy from the Seward neighborhood ask members of the board to do something about large class sizes because his best friend was moving to a new school as a result of overcrowded classrooms.
As mayor, Thomas said he would work to strengthen neighborhoods throughout the city — a key way to improve conditions in public schools, too.
“We know that kids that do the worst on test scores — of all kids — are homeless kids,” Thomas said. “Instead of blaming teachers, let’s really look at the causes of why our kids aren’t doing well and how do we help those families be stable so they can be successful. Kids of color — if they are from middle class and wealthy families — they do as well as white kids.”
A study released earlier this year that tracked Minneapolis Public School students for six years found that homeless students score far lower than their peers on math and reading tests.
Thomas would like to see more summer programs for low-income students. He said the achievement gaps tend to get worse over the summer months because poor students have less access to educational programs that keep them engaged while school is not in session.
He also believes there should be more diversity in the teaching ranks, and would like to see a local program that encourages and supports minority students interested in becoming teachers to pursue education degrees and teach in city schools after college.
Thomas is also critical of what he called the “teaching to testing” culture that makes students nervous.
“The more important thing is how do we make our kids lifelong learners and excited about what they do,” he said.
Judy Bjorke, a social worker for Minneapolis Public Schools Special Education department, is a supporter of Thomas’ campaign. She’s worked with him for several years.
“Jim is a wonderful voice for teachers because he understands the day-to-day issues in the classroom and the more global issues about education in general,” she said.
While he’s bringing the “issue of education to the forefront,” Thomas is also drawing attention to other major issues that ultimately have a big impact on schools — homelessness, income disparities and racially segregated neighborhoods, she said.
Alex Hoselton, a teacher at Southwest High School and Thomas’ campaign manager, said he was motivated to work on the campaign because of Thomas’ commitment to students and his gift of bringing people together to work on common goals.
He said while politicians often say education is their top issue, they don’t have the depth of experience and passion about schools that Thomas can bring to the mayor’s office. Since he’s not a career politician, Thomas could also bring a fresh perspective on tackling important city issues, he added.
“The students are the reason why Jim is running,” he said. “The city’s problems are reflected in the schools.”
As for ways he’d work to strengthen neighborhoods, Thomas said he’d make sure city leaders work with banks to reduce foreclosures and notify residents about available programs to keep them in their homes.
He’d also like to see more funding go to neighborhood groups. With the end of the 20-year Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), neighborhood groups have fewer resources and some have argued that community engagement has suffered as a result.
“It’s the people in the local community that know the community best and can make the best decisions about what needs to be done,” he said.
When asked about what should be down about the city’s property taxes — a question people often ask during debates and candidate forums — he said they should be kept as low as possible.
He’s also critical of how the new Vikings stadium was financed and is worried the city might be on the hook to help cover financial overruns in the future.
“I wish we would have had a vote on the stadium. That’s a big tax,” he said.
When asked about increasing garbage burning at the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center — another hot topic in the mayor’s race — Thomas said he’d prefer to see more effort go into increasing recycling rates in the county. Companies, in particular, need to increase recycling as commercial waste dwarfs residential waste at the HERC.
As mayor, he’d also recommend a review of city contracts and make sure city officials place a high priority on hiring minority candidates and people living in Minneapolis.
On the campaign trail
Thomas is a newcomer to political campaigns. This is the first time he’s run for office.
So far, he said he’s been enjoying the experience and said the exchanges between him and other candidates have been friendly.
He recently tweeted that he sees the other candidates so often “they are almost starting to feel like family.”
Thomas lives in the Hale-Page-Diamond Lake area of south Minneapolis with his wife Dottie Brown. They have two sons who now live in Chicago, but have been lending their support to his campaign.
His family has also hosted exchange students from all over the world, including Columbia, Spain, France and Russia.
Thomas was a distance runner in high school and college and has coached track at Patrick Henry and track/cross-country running at Southwest High School.
His hobbies include traveling, reading science fiction and playing the guitar and piano. He has also studied French, Swedish, Norwegian and Spanish.
He is seeking the DFL endorsement, but plans to continue his campaign regardless of the outcome of DFL City Convention on June 15 when delegates will meet to decide whether to endorse candidates for mayor, Park Board and the Board of Estimate and Taxation.
Thomas does most of his campaign work in the evenings and weekends given his fulltime job.
Given the crowded race for mayor, candidates need to work hard to hone their pitch to voters.
As for some of his key selling points, Thomas said he’s the only candidate talking about emphasizing high quality schools as anchors for neighborhoods, and he’s the only one with more than two decades of experience working in Minneapolis Public Schools.
He also has a personality that is well suited for public life, he said.
“I talk to strangers. I never thought of myself running for office, but it suits me in terms of being in public and talking to people,” he said.
(Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify information about Thomas' vision for a local program to encourage minority students to go into teaching.)
At a glance: Jim Thomas
Neighborhood: Hale/Page/Diamond Lake area
Family: wife Dottie and sons Andrew and Christian Brown-Thomas
Education: bachelor of arts degree in education from the University of Minnesota
Fun fact: At age 40, he ran a sub-five-minute mile barefoot at the Southwest High School track.