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Columbia Missourian

Ian Thomas strives to bring his ideas and energy to Fourth Ward council seat

By Allison Prang
March 26, 2013 | 3:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Even in the evening of a gloomy day of off-and-on rain showers, Fourth Ward City Council candidate Ian Thomas managed to stick to his favorite form of transportation:

His bicycle.


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But this time, attached to the end of his bike was a trailer holding campaign signs. He was on his way to a campaign rally at The Main Squeeze in downtown Columbia.

The event, complete with strawberry-orange-banana smoothies in small plastic cups and personal containers of Sparky’s ice cream, attracted about 50 people an hour. Among them were Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe PedNet co-founder Chip Cooper and former Mayor Darwin Hindman, who is Thomas’ father-in-law.

Thomas has a cheerful grin, to say the least. His persona when talking to others epitomizes the definition of a "people person" and is demonstrated by his warm, upbeat demeanor. That, combined with the playful laugh he shares, gives off a vibe that's surprisingly conversational for someone who likes to talk about public policy.

Thomas’s living room is quaint; there’s a sofa and a few upholstered chairs, but Thomas opts for a wooden chair that would more commonly belong in a kitchen. A tall glass of milk in his hand, he keeps his legs crossed while he talks, with the tick-tocking of the grandmother clock that sits on the mantle and the crackle and pop sounds emerging from the fire in the background.

To the left of the fire, family photos line shelves over the slot for extra firewood and to the right are rows of CDs. Behind Thomas and to his right sits an old black piano he obtained for free when his two children were young and he hoped they would learn how to play.

One of Thomas' most distinctive qualities is his British accent, which easily stands out in central Missouri.

His accent isn't the only thing he holds onto from his London roots. After moving from London to the United States and back multiple times, the differences he saw in the accessibility to public transportation helped inspire his interest in public transit issues.

In 2000, he co-founded the Pedestrian and Pedaling Network Coalition, more commonly known as PedNet. Thomas also went with city and MU officials last year on their trips to learn about the bus systems in Lawrence, Kan., and Champaign, Ill.

Thomas doesn't like to drive and does so maybe 20 times a year. On a recent trip to Ashland, Ky., for his work with America Walks, a national organization promoting walkable places, he tried to avoid driving by looking for public transit routes that would get him to Ashland from the airport in Cincinnati.

When he can, Thomas opts for either biking or walking most shorter distances. His family of four has only one car.

Thomas, 51, isn’t too much of a long-term planner, but his life has taken him many places.

He was born in London; his younger sister still lives there, and his parents live in Manchester. He visits annually and mostly misses the pubs and playing cricket.

His time at University of London brought Thomas his first election experience. He now laughs at losing his bid to become president of the student union. The election also had run-off voting, which Thomas said he liked.

He earned a total of three degrees in London and Scotland — two in physics and one in biomedical engineering — before moving in 1990 to do a post-doctoral program in physics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. That's where he met his wife, Ellen Thomas. He also discovered the fun of college sports and said he always wants to live in a college town or close to a college sports team.

The newlyweds returned to London for three years, where they had their two children, Emily and Jack.

Back in London, Thomas was a producer at the BBC for educational TV and radio programs. The couple later returned to Nashville, where Thomas became a substitute teacher for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

After less than a year there, the Thomas family had grown tired of living in the suburbs, where they had to rely so much on cars to get around. They moved to Columbia in 1998 so Ellen Thomas could take a job as a pediatrician and they could rely more on biking and walking.

It also didn't hurt that Ellen grew up in Columbia and her father, then-Mayor Darwin Hindman, and mother, Axie Hindman, still lived there.

Darwin Hindman said he was surprised but pleased that Thomas wanted to run for City Council, and the former mayor offered his son-in-law some advice. Hindman called his son-in-law an ideal candidate for the council.

“(Thomas) has done everything from teaching physics to being executive director of the PedNet Coaltion, and through all of those different kinds of professional activities he has been exposed to a lot of Columbia,” Hindman said. “He listens to everybody and formulates his ideas and system through his very, very sharp mind and comes up with really good ideas.”

Hindman said Thomas is very bright and an independent thinker who has been involved in city affairs. Thomas would work well with the other council members, he predicted.

Hindman has had a peripheral role in Thomas's campaign, contributing money and attending fundraisers. But he doesn't know whether a lot of people know they're related, which he also pointed out in a letter to the editor that he and Axie Hindman wrote to the Missourian.

After he moved to Columbia, Thomas took his experience from the BBC and started working at Graphic Education Corp., where he wrote scripts for online training materials for nurses. It was there that Thomas met one of the corporation’s board members, Chip Cooper, with whom he would form a partnership. They and others founded the PedNet Coalition on Earth Day, April 22, 2000. Thomas also taught at the Columbia Independent School from 1998-2002, according to his campaign website.

Cooper, who sits on the PedNet board of directors and is a former board president, said he had no idea what Thomas' commitment to join PedNet would mean for him. He said Thomas has given his heart and soul to the organization for years.

"He has a lot of faith in people and the future," Cooper said, adding that Thomas is one of the hardest-working people he knows. Working with him, Cooper said, is the equivalent of working with five full-time employees.

Cooper called Hindman and Thomas two of the most remarkable community citizens he's been around.

Before PedNet was formally launched, Thomas was earning his master's degree in educational technology at MU to complement his work with the Graphic Education Corp. and build on his personal skills. He created the original PedNet website as a project for his information technology class.

While working for PedNet, Thomas started attending City Council meetings and became well-acquainted with some of its members, especially Hoppe. She and others encouraged him to run for a council seat.

Thomas left his job as executive director for PedNet in January, saying he had grown weary of administration tasks and that it was in the organization's best interests to hire a new executive director. He is now an independent transportation consultant. His decision to leave PedNet had nothing to do with his campaign for City Council, he said.

Thomas' campaign has identified 4,000 homes in the Fourth Ward whose residents have voted in at least one of the past three April elections. His goal is to knock on every one of those doors. A couple of weeks before the election, Thomas said he had reached about 2,000 homes.

His three "guiding values" in life — health, sustainability and social justice — also could apply to the city, he said. Aside from having enjoyed the campaign experience and his conversations with residents as he goes door to door, Thomas said he is running for council because he has good ideas and good energy to put into city government. He has a vision, enjoys public policy and thinks he can help guide the city's growth, he said.

Thomas said his plans for job creation have solidified after his door-to-door campaigning, and he’s learned residents are not very supportive of financial incentives to attract companies to Columbia. Strengthening existing businesses is a more popular idea, as well as investing in job training, he said.

Thomas’ campaign is being run by Jeff Chinn and Vicki Hobbs of Progressive Political Partners. They also are working with Third Ward candidate Karl Skala. The group also has worked on campaigns for state Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, Hoppe, Fifth Ward candidate Susan "Tootie" Burns, Boone County Northern District Commissioner Janet Thompson and Second Ward Councilman Michael Trappe. Chinn declined to comment for this story.

When Chinn and Hobbs told Thomas that he’d need between $20,000 and $25,000 to run a successful campaign, Thomas worried. By the time the first round of campaign finance reports was due 40 days before the election, he reported that he had raised about $16,000, more than any of the other six candidates for council seats.

Thomas said his campaign by now has raised about $23,000. He expects to reach the $25,000 benchmark.

“It’s funny because I’ve never been a fundraiser at all,” he said. “I’ve never even had an interest in it.”

More than 250 individuals or families have donated to the campaign, Thomas said, and the average donation is less than $100.

Steve Spellman, president of PedNet's Board of Directors, also believes Thomas would serve the Fourth Ward and the council well.

“He’s a high-energy individual,” said Spellman, who met Thomas in 2000 when he signed on in support of PedNet's mission. “He’s a very strong visionary.”

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.