Oliver’s Letter to the Mayor

Community Organizing Ideas and Issues

February 5, 2009
            London            From the brand new Terminal 5 at Heathrow I can see the snow still on the ground everywhere even on this gray, overcast sky.  Planes just hours before mine were still being cancelled in this city that seems to have about as much experience with a snow storm as my own, New Orleans, has.  All of which continues to snap my mind back and forth between this middle leg on the way to Africa to try to jumpstart a new office in Kenya for ACORN International and a letter I’m carrying with me in my pack.

            Oliver Thomas, as a councilman in the City of New Orleans from an uptown district, was our champion on the living wage campaign and on Local 100’s drive to organize city workers.  He is also the reason I was able to hold the deal together with HOTROC to ensure that the Loews Hotel on Poydras is the only union hotel in the city.  He was a politician, and that means he was never easy, but time and time again, he came through for us.  He was elected as a Councilman-at-Large and was touted after the hurricane as a possible candidate to replace Mayor Nagin, when his time was up.  Oliver was a rock in the storm, and a constant ally in the rebuilding for all of us.  Maybe it was post-Katrina trauma or whatever, but Oliver messed up and got caught shaking down a $10,000 contribution for some little lift on a parking lot contract deal.  He pled guilty and wouldn’t say anything more about anybody, and is now doing time. 

            A friend is a friend though.  Rosa Hines, Local 100’s Louisiana director, wrote him in prison and shared the letter he sent back to her, and I felt guilty not having written to say, “hi” and “hang in there,” so I sent him a note over the holidays wishing him a good Christmas and a better new year and telling him we were thinking about him.  A couple of days ago I got a long reply.  He kidded me about my terrible penmanship (all deserved), saying that he thought he “could read most of what I had written,” he mentioned his worry about his family and asked that I pass on the word to anyone who wants to help, but the heart of the matter was that he had written a letter to Mayor Nagin and wanted me to make sure that the Mayor got the letter.  He mentioned how supportive the Mayor had been to him while he’s been in the federal prison camp in Atlanta.

            It’s funny being in the middle.  There’s one part of me that feels uncomfortable reading something that is almost like someone else’s mail.  There’s another part of me that reads and then grieves that such a strong voice for our people has been not quite silenced, but lost.  The letter was a movingly, elegant plea to make New Orleans a paradise for working families.  I could weep at seeing someone put my lifetime dream on paper!

            This may not be the best way to get the letter to Mayor Nagin (and I’ll get it to him directly), but here’s a way to get it both to the Mayor and others by sharing some of what Oliver wrote from behind the bars:

            “One suggestion I have is why not work to develop policies to make New Orleans a mecca  for working class people.  What we know today is more people are working harder for less and the income gap keeps widening.  We also know that when we invest in our communities we get a positive return on the investment, especially if that investment is strategic.  No politician has ever said I want my state, my city to belong to and benefit the people who work hard everyday to take care of their families and support community businesses. 
            You [Mayor Nagin] could be the first politician to develop an economy not for shock and awe capitalists or major developers, but for small businesses, non-profits, and the real Joe the Plumber, and Mary the teacher, and David the water, etc….During tough times there is always the temptation to sell everything, privatize, unload assets, and give breaks to companies, not people.  All leaders usually forget we tried this already.  No one has ever said I’m going to build my economy around the little guy. Why?  Because the little guy spends his money to take care of the big guy anyway….”

Oliver goes on along these lines, which are shocking in their clarity and the novelty that he seems to understand well.  It is hard to name a city that from the top down says, they want to be the working families’ paradise.  As Oliver says later, “…I believe that communities should develop economic strategies around their population, instead of speculation about who might come to town, or who they can attract.”  And again, deeper in the letter he says, “…even when we thought things were good they really weren’t getting better for much of our city.”

A voice like that of Oliver Thomas is as rare as snowstorms in New Orleans and London.  Something that comes along every decade or two, it seems.  We miss Oliver on the scene in New Orleans, but we need a lot more Oliver’s both there and around the country. 

That’s a message and letter that I have to make sure get delivered.

Oliver Thomas