Controversial Savannah alderman seeks return to City Council

Tony Thomas was voted out in 2019 after a series of miscues and now awaits trial on theft charges stemming from a 2022 incident
Tony Thomas, an alderman on the Savannah City Council for 20 years before an election loss in 2019, is mounting a comeback bid, even though a criminal case charging him with theft by taking remains active. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)

Credit: Savannah Morning News

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Tony Thomas, an alderman on the Savannah City Council for 20 years before an election loss in 2019, is mounting a comeback bid, even though a criminal case charging him with theft by taking remains active. (Josh Galemore/Savannah Morning News)

Credit: Savannah Morning News

SAVANNAH ― No law prohibits ousted aldermen from running again for the Savannah City Council.

Neither does a felony arrest disqualify one from office, nor a history of name-calling, public drunkenness, bad real estate deals or making wild claims about being a victim of politically motivated schemes.

Tony Thomas is indeed eligible to reclaim a seat on a council he served on for 20 years prior to a 2019 election loss. And the controversial former alderman’s bid has sparked public curiosity far beyond the other council races on the November ballot.

Credit: Savannah Morning News

Credit: Savannah Morning News

Adding to the intrigue is the identity of one of Thomas’ five opponents for the alderman at-large post. Carol Bell is a former council foil of Thomas’. She’s also being financially championed in her 2023 run by the businessman Thomas is accused of stealing from, convenience store magnate Greg Parker.

Thomas was arrested in September 2022, charged with an on-the-job theft and accused of leaving an “I owe you” note for $895. His case has yet to be presented to the grand jury for indictment but is still active, according to the Chatham County Superior Court Clerk’s Office.

Further driving interest around town is the normally outspoken Thomas’ silence since he issued a quasi-declaration of his candidacy via Facebook on July 30. He has yet to speak to Savannah-area media, and after initially expressing interest in speaking for this story, he has not responded to requests for comment.

Comeback bid sparks curiosity

City resident and longtime political observer Rebecca Rolfes compared Thomas’ comeback bid to that of another political figure who faced criminal charges prior to a reelection run, longtime Washington Mayor Marion Barry.

Barry was mayor of the nation’s capital in 1990 when he was arrested and later convicted on drug charges. After serving a short jail term, he mounted a successful run for the Washington City Council and went on to reclaim the mayor’s post.

“Getting elected after personal scandal can happen,” said Rolfes, who will cast a vote in Thomas’ race come November. “It’s a matter of whether he’s truly cleaned up his act — and the strength of his opponents.”

Thomas’ main election rival, Bell, is formidable. She, too, is attempting a return to the council — Bell and Thomas served together from 2012 to 2019. Asked about Thomas’ candidacy in an interview on Sept. 7, she said “anyone who meets the qualifications has a right to run.” She offered a neutral assessment of Thomas’ leadership skills during his previous time on the council.

“I’ve seen his approach to problem solving,” she said. “Sometimes his approach was a bit different than mine, but he has the right to do that. I have no qualms with that.”

She added she looks forward to candidate forums, which begin later this month ahead of the start of early voting on Oct. 16.

“I’m focused on serving my community,” said Bell, who was mayor pro tem during her second term on the council. “I will not be persuaded one way or the other by his platform. I’m running on my record.”

Credit: Savannah Morning News

Credit: Savannah Morning News

Candidate’s history is complicated

As for Thomas’ record, his public history — both professional and personal — is checkered.

He built his political reputation not on ideology or policy but on service to his constituents; he was renowned for responding to residents’ requests for city services and for bringing city investment into his home district.

But a string of incidents marred his last term in office, including:

  • In 2017, Thomas was barred from riding on the City Council float in Savannah’s famed St. Patrick’s Day parade due to drunkenness. The vehicle’s driver told reporters he feared that “the alderman would fall off the float.” Photos and videos of an inebriated Thomas taken earlier that day soon surfaced on social media.
  • Two months later, Thomas’ home appeared in a foreclosure and legal auction ad in The Savannah Morning News. A female TV reporter visited the address unannounced and attempted to question Thomas. The alderman responded by calling her a vulgar name that is especially offensive to women. Thomas was later censured by the council for the incident.
  • In 2019, Thomas voted against reaffirming an ethics ordinance and accused his colleagues of not following “the rules.” After the meeting, he went on Facebook and likened his stance to the one made by a demonstrator during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest in China. A famous photograph shows the protester standing in front of a column of military tanks, blocking their advance through the square.
  • Also in 2019, Thomas’ retail business was evicted from its space in Savannah Mall, and the store’s contents were removed and placed in the mall’s parking lot.

Then came Thomas’ election ouster. He then faced — and ultimately lost — a lawsuit filed by a campaign staffer over unpaid bills. The next year, he hinted via social media at running for a county government post, Chatham commissioner, but he did not mount a bid.

Instead, he went to work for Parker’s, a regional convenience store chain owned by Parker, a Savannah business leader and Bell’s supporter. Thomas was the store manager of a Parker’s location in September 2022 when he was arrested on a charge of theft by taking, a felony. A police report alleges that Thomas removed $895 from the store safe and took the cash home to “make coin change with it,” leaving a written “I owe you” note behind.

Thomas did not comment on his arrest or the situation in the days that followed, and he avoided posting to Facebook for more than four months. He returned to the social channel in February with a hint at a council run, writing, “We need a progressive, professional, and dedicated team of leaders willing to take on the challenge of moving this city forward and there has never been a time in the history of Savannah that the call for leadership and change has been more needed.”

To this point, his campaign messaging has focused on leadership change. He’s running for an open seat, denying him the opportunity to lobby against an incumbent. Instead, he’s targeted the seven council incumbents who are running for reelection.

He’s been particularly critical of his one-time council ally, Mayor Van Johnson. Johnson served 16 years as an alderman alongside Thomas before his election as mayor in 2019. Johnson frequently defended Thomas during his troubled last term.

Johnson is dismissive of Thomas’ critiques. He’s focused on his own reelection bid.

“Voters judge each of us on our character; they judge each of us on our record,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, those speak for themselves.”

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