Who is Robert Thoms?
Its a question thats been raised by some Tacoma residents and even a few longtime political insiders after the Tacoma City Council appointed Thoms in January to fill the District 2 council seat vacated by Jake Fey.
Thoms beat out six other applicants vying to serve the remaining year of Feys term, after the two-term councilman won election to the state House and bolted for Olympia.
But Thoms is hardly an unknown quantity in Pierce Countys political circles.
The 42-year-old Stadium District resident, Navy reservist, registered lobbyist and married father of two came to Tacoma in 2004, tasked with opening a district office for his then-boss, Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
Thoms road to Tacoma was a circuitous one, he recently told The News Tribune during an interview.
Raised in Louisiana, Thoms enlisted in the Navy at 19, served during the Persian Gulf War and finished his active term in Washington, D.C. He later worked for a congressman in Buffalo, N.Y., and a lobbying firm in D.C., where he met his future wife, a college student from Spokane interning with then-U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley.
Thoms followed her home to Spokane, where he ran a congressional campaign, worked for state Rep. Jeff Gombosky and eventually helped Cantwell open and run several district offices.
Following are excerpts from an interview with Thoms earlier this month.
Q: What was it about Tacoma that made you want to stay?
A: When I opened the office here, I was 34 years old. My life had been a constant move to the next job and finding the next task at hand. When I got here, I never felt like there was anywhere else I needed to go. I mean, I could do anything I wanted to from a policy perspective, from a public-service perspective, here. I almost (ran for Gomboskys seat), but Spokane always seemed like a transition for us. It just doesnt have the same dynamics that Tacoma does as far as commerce, opportunity, a piece of the puzzle of whats going to happen.
Q: After you left Cantwells staff (in 2007), how did you end up lobbying for Thompson & Smitch Consulting?
A: In 2007, we went through the election. And we just had my son in October of 06. And these offices, you just cant work 80 hours (per week) and have a successful family. So, Id been doing it for a long time. And, its one of those things where its either up or out. So my next rung was entirely running the state out of Seattle or moving to D.C. And I knew D.C. wasnt an option I didnt want to do that. And it just seemed like a good time. We got through the election, we did really well. Our numbers went from losing Pierce County in 2000 to winning it by a pretty healthy margin (in 2006). So it was just a good time. And I knew Tim (Thompson) from many years when he worked for Norm (Dicks). In 2007, I was like, What am I going to do next? And hes like, Hey, do you want to do some work for me?
Q: You eventually left and started your own firm, The Navigation Group, with (former Dicks aide) John Jolibois.
A: In 2010, because of the stuff in Afghanistan and Iraq, by now Id gone back into the Navy reserves as a public affairs officer. In the reserves, you have to pick (an assignment) sooner or later, or they just call you and say, Hey, youre going to Afghanistan. And so, my rotation is one in every five years. Im supposed to be gone for a year. ... And for me, Im 38 or 39 at this point. Theres other stuff I want to do. And if Im going to do it, this is a good time to make a break. Ill go do my service; Ill come back then reassess what I want to do. So when I came back, I went down to the secretary of states office, and met with the SBA (Small Business Administration) and talked with them about, Hey, I think I want to do some strategic management, public affairs. What would I need to do to do that?
Q: Who are your clients?
A: I have a group called Sole Source Community Hospital Coalition, which are a couple hospitals from Aberdeen to Chehalis. Were tying to figure out a way to get them put in alignment with federal sole community hospital designation. Another group that I just started working on for strategic planning moving forward is Tacoma Public Schools, to try to work with them on issues as it relates to how do they better avail themselves to some of the bigger issues that are facing them at the federal level.
Q: When the Tacoma City Councils District 2 came open, why did you apply?
A: A few people had mentioned it to me notionally, and then I was driving with my wife, and I said, Hey, what do you think of this city thing? I dont really do anything (in my firm) before the city, so it wouldnt harm me professionally. And that was a big concern, because its taken me a long time to just get to the point where I can actually bring on clients in a way that made sense. So, I just said there werent enough reasons why it wouldnt be a good thing for me to lend my time and talents to the city. And I care. I care about whats going on. So my wife even said to me, You know all this stuff and you have great ideas about how you can fix these things. And I said, Youre right.
Q: Do you foresee any sort of conflict between your private business and the councils business?
A: I have not done anything with a city nexus in many years. The two things that I worked on that had anything to do with the city as it relates to a policy nexus is the LID (Local Improvement District) for Point Ruston and MLK (the Martin Luther King Housing Development Authority) at one point was trying to go from four floors to eight they were trying to go up additional floors (with a proposed business center). So, they were trying to leverage TDRs transfer development rights, where you take some lands out of production and you put it into height and into density.
Q: What specific skills and expertise will you lend to the council?
A: Well, I think what I bring to it is a belief of collaborative models of partnering, meaning that no one level of government has the answers. Were all sort of in this together, so we have to figure out a way to think in a way thats not like, Hey, what can the city of Tacoma do? but what is we as a community can do? I think I bring a level of exuberance of good government. I know it can work well if were all rowing in the same direction. It can work well and it needs to. You know, these are serious times where theres serious questions to be asked. We need to be thoughtful, understanding legislators. And I hope that theres a lot of that there. I think thats something Im very excited to do.
Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542