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Political Obscurity : Retired Electrician With Little Name Recognition Takes a Very Long Shot at White House

March 10, 1988|DONNA DOWLING | Times Staff Writer

Not every kid can grow up to be President, but Frank Thomas is living proof that any kid can grow up to run.

The 69-year-old retired electrician from Thousand Oaks sat out Super Tuesday, but did snap up 28 votes--three more than former Florida Governor Claude Kirk--in the New Hampshire primary. He captured about 50,000 votes in each of the last two California gubernatorial races, and waltzed away with nearly 200,000 votes in the 1980 race for U.S. Senate.

Yet the garrulous Thomas, who drives a battered old pickup truck and chooses to live without a telephone, is a prophet without honor in his own county.

Most area Democratic leaders have never heard of him. He says the only people who know him are his neighbors, his campaign manager and people to whom he occasionally brings food discarded by supermarkets.

"I have treated so many people so good," a beaming Thomas says. "I've given all this food away. I get so much, and I can't use it all myself. If it wasn't for me to pick it up, it would all go to waste."

The idea of picking up trashed food from supermarkets occurred to him years ago. Thomas drives his Datsun pickup to back doors of local groceries to scavenge through garbage bins. At first, he made the rounds in search of corn shucks and carrots to feed the 22 cattle grazing on his 2 1/2-acre lot. What he found, however, were crates of discarded food, which he hauled home.

Food Search Continues

The cattle are gone now, but Thomas's food runs continue. What food he does not save for himself, he delivers to senior citizens, churches and poor folks he's met on the way.

"He brought quite a bit," said Ruth Parton, director of the Fillmore Senior Center, referring to a couple of loads Thomas hauled to the center last year. "He brought chicken, vegetables, bread--things along that line. It was very nice and everyone appreciated it."

Some of that appreciation, Thomas hopes, will be translated into votes in the June 7 California presidential primary.

Thomas is serious about politics and that mystifies local Democrats. If he is serious, they ask, why doesn't he join their Democratic clubs or come to their meetings?

"I can't tell you a thing about him," said Terry Grando, president of the Democratic Club of Conejo Valley." He came to talk to me one day last year. He asked if I would support him. I said I wouldn't. I was not impressed with him when I met him, his whole persona. No one else I know has ever heard of him or seen him."

Jim Clark, chairman of the Democratic Party of Los Angeles County, said: "He was definitely someone not active at all with the party."

Of course, Thomas does not expect to win the 1988 presidency. He never even campaigned in the 20 states up for grabs in this week's Super Tuesday primaries. He did not have the money. In fact, the former North Dakotan has never even been South, the site of most of Tuesday's action, except for stints as a soldier during World War II.

But this summer, Thomas did drive to New Hampshire with the borrowed $1,000 he needed to get a spot on the ballot. He spent two weeks talking to people, hoping they would remember him when at voting time.

"I did pretty good in that darn New Hampshire election," Thomas said with a chuckle. His platform? Making life better for senior citizens, free legal service, road improvements, a strong national defense, a national driver's license and subsidized car insurance. "Our insurance is so uneven, so unfair," he says. "People just can't buy insurance."

Inside the cluttered house he's inhabited for 37 years, Thomas keeps clipboards listing his food deliveries. Some names on the list become part of his master political mailing list for his typewritten newsletter, Western Nues, which describes his political stances. He frequently corresponds with federal and state officials and senior-citizen advocacy groups.

Ideas and Makeshift Cabinets

Other clipboards of Thomas' ideas are arranged on cobwebbed shelves full of dusty lawbooks. The legal process intrigues Thomas. In 1985, he chronicled his views of it in a 68-page pamphlet called "Our Judicial System in Operation--Book One."

"'Our Judicial System in Operation'," it begins, "is hereby given to show the way in which your typist has been treated by the courts in the State of California." The cases involve, among other things, traffic accidents and weed eradication. The reader is reminded up front that "a rattlesnake gives warning before it strikes, but not the County of Ventura."

Mark Sellers, Thousand Oaks city attorney, said the city currently is trying to condemn a portion of Thomas' land in order to widen a road. "He is well aware of our court system and litigation process," Sellers said.

Cartons of canned goods line Thomas's floors and tables. More grocery cartons, emptied of food, serve as filing cabinets. Labeled boxes are stacked in every corner of every room.

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