Inglewood Councilman Ervin (Tony) Thomas is living a political nightmare: Each time he takes his seat at council meetings, Garland Hardeman is there, pressing his claim that he is the legitimate representative of the 4th District.
Though Thomas' election victory over Hardeman last June has been annulled and opponents have called for him to step down, Thomas says his reaction has been to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of local politics: delivering services to constituents.
"I don't even focus on (the legal fight)," said Thomas, who remains in office pending appeals. "I take the job day by day. I've had positive cooperation from my colleagues on the council and my constituents. When constituents call me about getting their garbage picked up, I don't ask them who they voted for."
A 17-year resident of Inglewood's 4th District, Thomas said he intended his candidacy for City Council as an extension of his community involvement more than the beginning of a career in politics.
Instead, he has been forced to defend--so far unsuccessfully--the actions of his campaign against a lawsuit by Hardeman. Thomas said he has spent $12,000 in legal fees up to now and complained that Hardeman has cost the city considerable expense. City Atty. Howard Rosten concurred, but said he could not put a dollar figure on cost to the city.
Thomas criticized Tuttle & Taylor, the corporate law firm representing Hardeman without charge because lawyers deemed his case a public-interest issue. "Why should his lawyers represent him for free?" Thomas said. "Do they have a department that can represent me?"
Unless the appeals change the trial judge's decision, Thomas will have to face Hardeman in a new election. As a result, Thomas said: "I'm running for office every day. I'm doing the job. If I'm running for a new election, so be it."
Thomas talks about tree-trimming, garbage removal and Inglewood's efforts to upgrade its image. He says he has worked with the Police Department against gang activity and graffiti in the district. One of his goals is to build a recreation center in the 4th District to help keep young people out of trouble, he said.
Meanwhile, Hardeman and his supporters accuse Thomas of being a puppet who was picked by Mayor Edward Vincent to do what he is told.
"I totally resent that," Thomas said. "I don't discuss the agenda with any other council member. I don't talk to the mayor as much as you guys think."
Extolling the "team concept" that dominates Vincent's rhetoric, Thomas pointed out that since the controversial June runoff election, the Inglewood council has experienced a peaceful period marked by many unanimous votes.
Vincent loaned the Thomas campaign $5,000, according to campaign records, and Thomas appeared on election literature as part of the mayor's endorsed slate of candidates. But Vincent has repeatedly denied that he controls Thomas.
Thomas said he hopes people will lose interest in Hardeman as time goes on. Though the two candidates ended up 16 votes apart out of more than 1,200 cast, Thomas says the contested election has not created a rift in the community.
Thomas, 46, a planning and merchandise analyst for 7-Up, lives around the corner from Hardeman in Imperial Village, a neighborhood of well-kept, single-family homes.
He said the two men exchange greetings if they see each other on the street.
However, he said Hardeman's fight to be declared councilman will backfire. He even predicted that the Election Code violations cited by the judge and the annulment of his victory will not be major issues if he and Hardeman face each other again.
"I don't feel like he should have taken it to that extent," he said. "The longer a case goes on, the more people get tired of it. . . . People have gotten bored."
Although a new campaign promises to be a bitter affair, Thomas added: "I'm hoping he can work with me to help better the community. We are team-orientated and I'm hoping he can join the team."
Thomas--a man of few words, a man who has been painted alternately as the minion of an unscrupulous political machine and as a victim of slick legal maneuvering--seems uncomfortable amid the turmoil.
Still, he said he does not regret running for office. And he predicted his appeal will overturn the judge's decision.
"I think it was an injustice to me," Thomas said.