Chris Thomas: “Doing It the Right Way” for One-Third(!) of a Century

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A seemingly new journalistic trend (which I heartily endorse) is the article noting and appreciating the service of election officials, who often end up on the business end of incoming media fire. The latest example involves one the nation’s longest-serving state officials, Michigan state election director Chris Thomas. Over the weekend, here’s what Michigan Capitol Confidential’s Jack Spencer had to say:

Over the past 33 years, Michigan’s Election Director Christopher Thomas has built a reputation for integrity, openness and honesty rarely matched.

An inevitable aspect of his job is that someone will almost always disagree with or criticize his decisions and opinions. Yet, Thomas has so securely established himself as being above politics that virtually no one would accuse him of any form of favoritism or partisanship.

Documenting the misdeeds, missteps and in some cases seeming insanity of government is a full-time endeavor; and one that Capitol Confidential pursues daily. However, there are people in government who should be recognized as dedicated public servants. While other officials meet this description, Thomas provides the best example.

So far as is publicly known, Thomas has no plans to leave his post soon. Nonetheless, as his service approaches one-third of a century, it is appropriate to call attention to his record and the example he continues to set.

“Chris Thomas has served Michigan voters well for the past three decades,” Secretary of State Ruth Johnson told Capitol Confidential. “I value his support and expertise as we work to ensure elections integrity.”

Bill Ballenger, founder of Inside Michigan Politics, said that Thomas has lived up to very high standards.

“Chris Thomas had big shoes to fill when he took over the Elections Division,” Ballenger said. “Men like Bernie Apol and Bob Montgomery had been his predecessors, and they had towering reputations. I would say that Chris, in his own quiet and steady way, has measured up well against the performance of those before him. He has been professional, understated, accessible, even-handed and very competent.

“Just the fact that he has lasted in the job as long as he has is testimony to how well he has handled it,” Ballenger continued. “Michigan can only hope that Chris’s eventual successor will be capable of continuing his standard of excellence.”

Thomas began his career in elections administration in 1974 by working for the U.S. House of Representatives and later for the Federal Election Commission. Former Secretary of State Richard Austin appointed him Elections Director in 1981, a post he has held from that point onward.

In 2013 Thomas was chosen as president of the National Association of State Election Directors, a group that shares elections administration know-how with state leaders.

“My experience with him is that he’s fair, good to talk with and always straight with the person he is talking to,” said John Truscott of the Lansing-based Truscott Rossman Group. “He absolutely has a reputation for integrity and fairness, which is quite an accomplishment when you consider the difficulty of the position he holds.”

Mark Grebner of East Lansing-based Practical Political Consulting said that Thomas might very nearly be irreplaceable.

“The best measure of Chris Thomas’s role is the dread we have that he may suddenly decide he’s had enough and retire,” Grebner said. “In today’s state political climate, where nobody trusts anybody and with good reason, I simply don’t know how he could be replaced without the position becoming a political football. I assume his successor would be some partisan foot soldier.

“I don’t think he’s always been correct in his technical judgments – maybe only 95 percent of the time – but even when he’s been wrong, he’s been consistent and fair,” Grebner continued. “Michigan’s election law is an incoherent mess, but whatever situation comes up, Chris finds some way to look at the statute that almost makes sense and provides a path forward. He’s proven himself a political Houdini. You can chain him in a box and drop him to the bottom of the ocean, and somehow a few minutes later he’s dry and unscathed, working quietly at his desk.”

Unfortunately, Spencer missed the fact that Chris was a member on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration, where he has been using the same no-nonsense, results-oriented approach he’s used in Michigan to attack the problems of election administration nationally.

Chris Thomas has been a supporter, mentor and gentle but firm critic of my work through the years and is nothing short of a treasure to the profession nationally. I’m delighted to see him get his due in the rough-and-tumble Michigan political press … for all of our sakes, here’s hoping he’s got at least another 33 years in him!

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