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.
“He had earned it at his summer job and wanted to give it to the campaign,” said Roe, who tried to dissuade the teenager. “Because of the impeachment, we had more contributions and volunteers than we knew what to do with, and I hated to take this kid’s money.”
But he relented when he saw how badly Thomas wanted to help. Several years later, Roe helped get Thomas, who was about to start at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, an internship with then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
After graduating with a degree in advertising, Thomas returned to Los Angeles and in 2009 opened Thomas Partners Strategies. He mostly skipped the apprenticeships that typically launch young consulting careers. Thomas said he netted six figures last year, although not as much as many more experienced consultants.
He said he’s “rolled through several girlfriends in the last couple of years,” because many women his age don’t like it that his work comes first. He hopes to meet a woman “who appreciates and enjoys politics.”
As for his clients, Thomas screens them before signing on to be sure they’ll defer to his counsel. He expects them to “go negative” should the need for attack mode arise.
“We’re in this to win, not to make friends,” he said.
He went negative in a big way on Trutanich in the primary, setting up a website that skewered the city attorney for not honoring a pledge to serve two terms before seeking another office. He also masterminded a lawsuit that forced Trutanich to change the ballot description of himself as “Los Angeles chief prosecutor.”
After Trutanich failed to make the runoff, Thomas put out a statement claiming the Jackson campaign had “saved the people of Los Angeles County from a politician who was more concerned about winning the next office instead of winning the next case.”
His work on that campaign led to some criticism.
Thomas should not have gone to work against Trutanich when he had “intimate knowledge” of the city attorney’s campaign strategy, said longtime L.A. consultant Rick Taylor, who is running Trutanich’s city attorney reelection bid now that the district attorney’s post is not an option.
“That sends a signal that people can’t trust you,” Taylor said. “Why start your career as that kind of guy?”
Thomas said his only misstep was working for Trutanich at all. Besides, he said, he had received the city attorney’s blessing to represent Jackson.
At a recent a downtown debate between Jackson and Lacey, Thomas, in a dark suit and a shirt with monogrammed cuff, sat in the front row, taking notes on a yellow legal pad and working his smartphone. He clapped enthusiastically and chortled loudly whenever Jackson gave a response he especially liked or landed a zinger against Lacey. He frowned when Lacey called Jackson “naïve.”
A few days later, Thomas sent a reporter an email.
“Thanks again,” it said, before indulging in a little spin, “for taking the time to attend my debate.”