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Consultant's profile rises quickly on L.A.'s political landscape

John Thomas, 27, has drawn praise for skills that benefit his candidates, who are mostly Republican. He is uncannily at ease advising people twice his age. But his tactics don't win unanimous support.

October 08, 2012|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • Political consultant John Thomas meets with L.A. mayor candidate and former talk-show host Kevin James. “I like tough races. I like dealing with underdogs,” Thomas said. “That’s what gets me up in the morning.”
Political consultant John Thomas meets with L.A. mayor candidate and former… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)

It was hardly your typical stump speech, and that's just the way the young strategist wanted it.

"Show them how you do your job for the taxpayers," John S. Thomas had advised his client, a candidate for L.A. County district attorney who three years earlier had won the murder conviction of music producer Phil Spector.

Thomas watched approvingly that June day as Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Jackson walked a group of Republicans through the Spector case, talking animatedly about blood spatter as his audience lunched on line-caught Pacific swordfish and heirloom tomatoes.

Not three weeks earlier, both men had been catapulted into the heady air of top-tier L.A. politics by Jackson's upset victory in the primary election, edging out heavily favored City Atty. Carmen Trutanich for a place on the November ballot. Jackson finished second, behind Chief Deputy D.A. Jackie Lacey, and is generally viewed as the underdog this fall.

But for Thomas, who turned 27 the day of Jackson's talk at Pasadena's Annandale Golf Club, the primary triumph marked a personal breakthrough. He had participated in two other winning campaigns, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's 2008 reelection bid and Trutanich's city attorney race a year later. But Jackson's was the first competitive, high-profile race he had steered solo and won.

His previous campaigns involved long-shot candidates who lost bids for Congress and the Legislature. He also has long-odds clients in next year's contests for L.A. mayor and city attorney.

"I like tough races. I like dealing with underdogs," Thomas said. "That's what gets me up in the morning."

He has drawn praise for his smarts, hard work and an ability to frame issues that bring him and his candidates attention. But some view him as a self-promoter, a whippersnapper with much to learn.

The son of wealthy, politically active Republicans, Thomas "was born in a suit," quipped veteran Democratic consultant Eric Hacopian, who worked with him on a nonpartisan matter. "He's 27 going on 50," uncannily at ease advising people twice his age.

That was evident one recent afternoon as Thomas sat with L.A. mayoral candidate Kevin James, 49, in the stylish downtown apartment the strategist shares with his older sister, Kelly. He was prepping James, an attorney and former radio talk-show host, for a candidates' forum. Fox News flickered silently on the TV. Guitar Hero and other electronic games Thomas uses to blow off steam were stowed in a basket next to a bookcase laden with political tomes.

Thomas was all business.

"You're really going to be pushing the clock," he said,perched on a stool at the counter, authoritatively making notes on his laptop. A bit later: "Mention your mom was a teacher. It gives you more street cred. People like teachers."

James offered that his work with an AIDS program could show him able to deliver services on a tight budget. Thomas flashed a broad smile. "That's good!" he told the older man.

His youth, Thomas acknowledged, can be offputting to some.

D.A. candidate Jackson, 47, had to overcome some early discomfort about it. In the end, he said, "I was impressed with his confidence and his energy, and I knew that he was fully invested in me as a candidate and a friend."

Last spring, when one of Jackson's supporters got cold feet as the time came to fire up the crowd at a Pasadena Ralph's, Thomas literally leaped to the rescue. Scrambling atop a Coca Cola crate as evening rush-hour traffic whooshed by, he started a slow clap, hollering, "Alan!" The 40 or 50 people at the rally yelled back, "Jackson!" and waved the handmade signs Thomas had urged them to bring.

"It needed doing, so I did it," Thomas shrugged afterward.

There are others of Thomas' generation with more victories. Brandon Powers, 29, has managed election successes for state and local officials and was named a "rising star" by the nonpartisan Campaigns & Elections magazine. But his base is GOP-friendly Orange County, while Thomas is trying to make his name in heavily Democratic L.A. County with mostly Republican clients.

Thomas got hooked on politics at age 13, watching President Clinton's impeachment trial on TV. The following year he volunteered for one of the prosecutors, Rep. James E. Rogan (R-Glendale), who was running for reelection. Thomas' first assignment was baby-sitting Rogan's small daughters.

"Now he's the one who's telling me about politics," said Rogan, who lost his reelection bid and today is a Superior Court judge in Orange County.

Jason C. Roe, a GOP consultant who oversaw that failed campaign, remembers the day Thomas showed up with his sister at Rogan's headquarters. Wearing his navy blue private-school blazer and a look of determination, the teenager pulled a wad of bills from his pocket. Thomas remembers clutching "at least $200"; Roe recalls it as $1,000.

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