For Richard Thomas, being mayor of Mount Vernon isn't a career; it's a calling.
Photo by Ken Gabrielsen
Richard Thomas is comfortable in his new office in Mount Vernon’s City Hall. There isn’t a lot of furniture remaining (they’ve had to make do with chairs taken from the conference room and folding tables set up along the wall), but the city’s youngest mayor ever doesn’t mind. He’s got more important things to worry about than office décor. The 33-year-old Democrat has to lead his embattled city.
Richard Thomas was born in Mount Vernon Hospital in 1983 and has kept the city close to his heart throughout his life. He played sports in the parks, shoveled snow, mowed lawns, raked leaves and played basketball for Mount Vernon High School. At 10, he lied about his age so that he could carry golf bags at a local course.
Much of what Thomas learned on the links made an impact that has remained with him to this day. “You can learn a lot about somebody by how they play golf,” he says. “You can tell if they’re an honest person or if they’re dishonest.”
Not only did he learn many valuable life lessons through golf, he also made some crucial lifelong connections. Thomas was able to develop relationships with business icons like Michael Bloomberg and Mario Gabelli. In fact, it was Bloomberg who helped Thomas decide where to attend college.
Ultimately, Thomas elected to attend New York University. This proved to be a wise decision: He met his future wife, Cherish Celetti-Thomas, in his first class.
At his inauguration ceremony, Celetti-Thomas fondly recalled the first time they’d met. “I asked him what he wanted to do, and the first thing he said was, ‘be the mayor of Mount Vernon.’”
Some might caution the new mayor to be careful what he wishes for, given the tempest that seemed to sweep him into office. Following a contentious primary campaign against fellow Democrat and multiterm mayoral incumbent Ernie Davis, there was Thomas’ brash proclamation that he was going to eviscerate the number of city commissioners and deputy commissioners, from 32 to 12, saving the city roughly $1 million but alienating many longtime, well-entrenched public servants. Then, only days after his inauguration, Thomas himself announced that his half-brother, Henry-George Thomas, would resign as president of the Mount Vernon firefighters union, after he was caught selling illegal firearms to an FBI informant. (He later pleaded guilty and is facing a 75-year sentence in federal prison.) In April, Thomas dismissed Robert Kelly, the same public-safety commisoner he’d appointed with glowing approbation only three months earlier, for reasons the new mayor has yet to fully explain. If all that weren’t enough, Thomas seems to be at war with his own City Council: They boycotted his first State of the City address; he sued them for signing checks without his permission and attempting to dismiss his appointees.
Still, Thomas tries to maintain perspective with regard to his embattled first days, saying, “The job of mayor doesn’t feel like work; it just feels like my life. I really feel like right now I’m doing what I love.”
When Thomas is not in the epicenter of the maelstrom that is Mount Vernon politics, he says he revels in the time he spends with his 3-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter. “We love to watch movies,” he says, adding that Night at the Museum and The LEGO Movie are among their family favorites. “When my daughter gets a little older, I’m sure we’ll start watching Shimmer and Shine,” he shares .
Perhaps it’s because Thomas so willingly embraces the role of crusader that he shares his son’s affinity for superheroes. The two Thomas men love Batman, Thor, The Avengers, and Superman, among others. This is evident when looking at the walls of the mayor’s new office, where two framed comic-book covers hang prominently.
Family drives much of what the mayor hopes to do for his city. “I cannot take my kids to the parks I grew up in as a kid,” he says. “It’s incredibly frustrating.” Many Mount Vernon parks have fallen into disrepair, and those currently in good shape are overrun with people. These parks were hugely important to Thomas’ childhood. They were where he defined his character, where he learned hard lessons of victory and defeat. He forged important friendships on the baseball diamond, the football field, and the basketball court.
Part of Thomas’ plans for Mount Vernon include revamping those same parks. A major element of this revitalization is Memorial Field. Once a point of pride for the city, it has since fallen into disuse. The field on which the Mount Vernon High School football team once battled before the town has devolved into a source of contention among the community’s political leadership.
Memorial Field has been the center of a tug-of-war since 1994, when then-Mount Vernon mayor Ronald Blackwood attempted to redevelop it. At that time, the community did not get on board with his proposal. Attempts to renovate the field under mayors Ernie Davis and Clinton Young misfired—forcing the project into a state of inertia. At the end of last year, a report by the Department of Envirionmental Conservation revealed that the park was contaminated with coal, ash, and slag.
That’s a condition Thomas plans to change. “We’re going to get Memorial Field right,” he says. “We’ll all be making decisions off the same information, at the same time—that’s the only antidote for confusion.” His ultimate goal is to get the field cleaned up and reopened for the community. It’s part of his larger campaign to make Mount Vernon more family-friendly.
He hopes to establish a Parks Conservancy in the city similar to the Adirondack Council—the gold standard for such a group. “None of this is going to happen without public engagement,” he remarks. “My role is to try and inspire people to share their time for this.”
Thomas has clearly inspired many of Mount Vernon’s 68,000 citzens. In last year’s mayoral election, he received 78 percent of the vote, having received support from the police union, firefighters union, and local churches along the way.
The savvy politico is keenly aware that those citizens will be critical to the success he hopes to achieve in his first term. “A lot of people want to see these problems resolved overnight,” he says. Patience is a virtue that Mount Vernon’s residents must have. “The problems that we are facing were not made over the last 100 days; they were made over the past two decades,” contends Thomas.
But despite the mandate engendered by his landslide victory, Thomas harbors no illusions that the road ahead will be an easy one. “I believe in hard work,” says Thomas. “I will put in 100 hours a week, and I expect everybody else to work just as hard.”