Curtis Thomas, the 181st District state representative, announced his retirement due to health reasons last Friday at Mt. Olive Holy Temple and endorsed candidate his cousin Malcolm Kenyatta.
Thomas has represented the 181st District, which includes Main Campus, for almost 30 years.
Thomas’s career began after he graduated from Temple, first in 1975 with a degree in secondary education and again in 1977 with a master’s degree in education. Thomas later received his law degree from the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law in 1980.
Before this, Thomas was the lead teacher in the Get Set Program at Ruffin Nichols Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1966 in North Philadelphia. The program helped preschoolers prepare for elementary school.
“I developed a commitment and passion for doing what I could to improve the lives of all people, especially youth,” Thomas said. “I watched parents come pick up their kids [from school] and lay down in the street to avoid bullets between gangs along 11th Street.”
After witnessing gang violence as a young adult, Thomas co-founded the Philadelphia Committee for Services to Youth, which helped to minimize gang violence in North Philadelphia in the 1970s, he said. It also prompted him to complete his undergraduate and graduate studies at Temple and get his law degree.
“The gang violence was a result of poverty, broken homes, poor self-esteem and a number of other things,” Thomas said.
After he graduated from law school in 1980, Thomas worked as a law clerk in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He later returned to Pennsylvania to serve as a law clerk in Harrisburg.
After former 181st District state Rep. Alphonso Deal died in 1987, Thomas was urged by residents of the 181st District to run for state representative, and he subsequently won in 1988.
Reflecting on his career, Thomas said he would serve as state representative for another 30 years if his health permitted.
“The legislative branch is the most provocative branch in government,” he said. “Lawmaking gives you a chance not just to impact people who are struggling in your community, but across Pennsylvania.”
In light of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, when a former student shot and killed 17 students and staff in Parkland, Florida, Thomas introduced a package of gun safety reform bills in March.
“This is another step in a long effort for the last 10 years to try and bring reasonable sense to my colleagues about this whole issue of gun violence,” he said.
The bills in the package would prohibit people with a history of mental illness from buying guns, raise the age limit on buying guns from 18 to 21 years old, illegalize large capacity magazines and introduce a statewide school safety commission to evaluate safety in public schools.
“We should treat these shootings at our schools as issues of homeland security,” Thomas said. “We should never have a situation where kids have to worry about whether they’re going to live or die when they’re in school.”
Thomas has seen many legislative accomplishments in his career, including the Pennsylvania Primary Healthcare Loan Repayment Program, which expanded primary care practitioners to urban and rural Pennsylvania. He also worked to expand worker’s compensation to firefighters, police and emergency personnel who were infected by Hepatitis C while on duty in 2013.
Thomas is most proud of the Check Casher Licensing Law, passed in 1998, which requires check-cashing businesses to be licensed, provides penalties for money-laundering activities and restricts predatory payday loans. He is also proud of the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund, passed in 2005, which allows the city to raise money for new housing developments, mortgage foreclosure assistance, eviction support and the homeless.
Kenyatta, a 2012 public communication alumnus, is running for Thomas’ seat on May 15 alongside Democratic candidates Alex Deering, Gilberto Gonzalez, Lewis C. Nash, Lewis Thomas III and Kenneth Walker Jr., as well as Republican Milton Street.
“[Kenyatta] is young, energetic, a visionary and is willing to work with other people,” Thomas said. “I think that many of the issues we are confronted with like gentrification, somebody like Malcolm is needed.”
In a statement, Kenyatta said he is grateful for Thomas’s endorsement and is looking forward to “building on to his record of success.”
“Few legislators can point to his history of success, whether it’s increasing affordable housing, standing up against predatory lenders or even most recently, the comprehensive gun bill package he rolled out to try to keep our communities safe,” Kenyatta said in a statement.
Charlene Scott, who lives on 11th Street near Oxford, supported Thomas since she moved to the area 25 years ago.
“[Thomas] is a strong leader, and he speaks up,” Scott said. “He comes to community meetings. If we have problems and need help, we can call his office and it wasn’t a sham. That’s the kind of person you want to lead for you in the state. But sadly he’s leaving, and we just hope that somebody else will be there to talk to us.”
Scott, a veteran with a disability, hopes she’ll be able to get the same assistance from the next state representative. Scott said she plans to vote for Kenyatta in May.
“[Kenyatta] has integrity, and that’s hard to find,” Scott said. “I’m not voting for the rest of them because I watched them grow up and they show no conscious for the law or the rules, and I don’t want them to represent me.”