Lewis Thomas, III, is challenging W. Curtis Thomas for the position of Pennsylvania state representative in the 181st district. Curtis Thomas has been the representative for the district, which encompasses Temple, since 1989.
The North Philadelphia native grew up on 11th Street and Erie Avenue in the 181st district. Lewis Thomas has worked as a campaign manager and the state director of Progressive Majority, a political action committee that aids in the election of progressives to local and federal government. He also worked as a teacher and school principal and holds a bachelor’s degree in history and secondary education from Lincoln University. He has completed graduate studies at the University of Illinois and Howard University.
Thomas said that upon returning home to the 181st district, his neighborhood “looked worse than it did when I left for college, and that was a problem for me.”
Once a street of burgeoning homeowners, Erie Avenue is now marked with abandoned homes.
“It is just an abhorrent sight to see,” Thomas said. “It is the microcosm of the macrocosm that is the district.”
The 181st district also has the highest unemployment rate and the second-highest poverty rate out of all of the districts in Pennsylvania. The district does not have a single grocery store.
Thomas said that current conditions in the 181st district are the result of “impotent leadership.”
If elected in April, Thomas said he plans to direct his energy toward eight focus issues: education, violence, the environment, economic development and empowerment, housing and property taxes, work force development and job training, senior citizens, and community beautification.
A few of Thomas’s preliminary plans for change include 24-hour recreation centers to keep youth and teens off the streets and three free clinics which will specialize in family planning and women’s healthcare.
“Providing family planning to women offers them a chance at life and education and prepares them to better raise the next generation,” said Deborah Hinchey, president of Temple’s Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance.
“We have to get ahead of the causes before the effects are actualized,” Thomas said.
With the help of a financial pledge from former mayoral candidate Tom Knox, Thomas said he hopes to break ground on the first clinic, to be located at 11th and York streets, in November.
Thomas begins campaigning at 6:30 a.m., traveling to different subway stops on the Broad Street Line. To date, Thomas and his team have made about 4,000 phone calls and knocked on about 17,000 doors. He has also utilized the online social network Facebook to connect with Temple students.
Kevin Paris, a junior political science major, is one of the students whom Thomas reached out to. Paris said he starting working as a volunteer for Thomas’s campaign about three weeks ago after receiving a Facebook message.
Paris said he has been helping with campaign phone calls and event scheduling. He has also been reaching out to Temple student organizations, spreading awareness, listening to their individual concerns, and garnering support for Thomas.
“I encourage Temple students to get involved, register to vote, and go out and vote on Election Day,” Paris said. Votes will be cast April 22.
One student group, Temple College Democrats, may host a debate between challenger Thomas and Rep. Curtis Thomas on campus.
Curtis Thomas’s campaign manager Sharonda Johnson released a statement, which read in part, “Curtis Thomas is focusing on ‘developing more job opportunities, expanding access to housing and giving our children an educational foundation, promoting economic development, and supporting legislation that benefits the residents of the 181st district and makes Pennsylvania a better place to live and work.”
Anna Walker, president of the College Democrats, said she “really respects Mr. Lewis Thomas for his immediate outreach to our organization.”
Mathew Himmelein, president of Students for Environmental Action, said the 181st district is home to “extreme environmental injustice.” He added that the clean up of polluted brown field sites and economic revitalization should be top priorities for improvement the 181st district.
Himmelein also said he is worried about neighborhood gentrification in the name of improvement, a situation he experienced first hand growing up in West Philadelphia in the shadow of the University of Pennsylvania.
Thomas said he is against Temple’s gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods, which he said “sends the wrong message to the people of North Philadelphia.” Instead, Thomas said that Temple should help community members help themselves, thus beautifying their neighborhoods from the inside out.
As for his inspiration, Thomas credits his grandfather, a man who took pride in his community and stayed put, regardless of how successful or educated he was. From his grandfather’s example, Thomas learned that the best way to empower and uplift a struggling community is from within: as a part of the community. Thomas stressed the importance of a unified Temple-North Philadelphia community, working together for improvement.
“It’s time for us to turn the page,” he said, “and I am asking Temple students to join me and help me turn that page.”
Emily Gleason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.