On the surface, the city of Mount Vernon should be a gold mind of sorts – a hotbed of bustling activity that should always provide its citizens, elected officials and those who work there, a comfortable, if not prosperous life.
With nearly 68,000 residents and sitting just north of The Bronx, the 4.4-square-mile city is close enough to the bright lights of Broadway and Times Square but just far enough away to avoid the daily and mad rush that accompanies life in the Big Apple.
Mount Vernon’s history is rich with some of Hollywood’s biggest – or at least most fascinating – names hailing from the enclave that’s bordered by the ritzy villages of Pelham and Pelham Manor to the east, Bronxville and Eastchester to the north and the city of Yonkers to the west.
The city claims such homegrown stars as Dick Clark, Art Carney, Nina Simone, Heavy D, Sean “Diddy” Combs, DMX, and Phylicia Rashad.
Others who have either lived in Mount Vernon or have extensive ties include the family of the late Malcolm X, Denzel Washington, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.
Beneath the service, however, Mount Vernon has often revealed itself as a politicians-first-residents-last bed of unseemly corruption.
Indictments have been the norm with taxes and drug arrests rising regularly and even in an era of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, children struggled at school and the city provided little in the way of sports and other extra-curricular activity.
However, there’s a new boss in town: Richard Thomas, who in 2015 won the general election for mayor by a landslide 74 percent of the popular vote.
At the age of 33, Thomas became the historic city’s youngest mayor and brought a lot of fresh ideas and quite a different perspective.
“The old guard are all still here but I try my best to work with everyone,” Thomas told NNPA Newswire.
The homegrown mayor attended public schools in his beloved city and earned an academic scholarship to New York University.
After a stint in the corporate world, something bugged Thomas – literally bugged him.
“I remember thinking about the time when I was using my grandmother’s iron and roaches came out of the iron,” Thomas said.
It was that moment that Thomas said he just knew he had to give back to his city.
But, he knew it would come with a price – and in his case – a high price.
While he’s being compared by some to a young Barack Obama – who actually praised Thomas for his work in Mount Vernon – Thomas already has about as many bumps and bruises as any politician could expect.
Along with his own indictment earlier this year on charges that he stole money from his campaign and inaugural committees.
However, that case seems to have many holes in it and, as Thomas continues to run the city he’s realized the landmines stepped on may have in part or in whole contributed to his own legal trouble.
“I’m a systemic threat to the political establishment statewide and I bring a totally different mindset,” Thomas said.
“I am very much like the introduction of the iPhone because I’m hard wired to solve problems and predict solution. When I came into office, the powers that be eliminated 20 cops. I had to fire the police commissioner because he was changing police reports and I said, ‘Not on my watch.’”
“I had to take command of the department and every week I went through every aspect of the department and we were making changes and even recognized by President Obama for the little things that we did while there was massive contention over unarmed shootings [of black people].”
Thomas also noticed that while his building department was clearing just $11,000 a year in revenue, his neighbors in White Plains and New Rochelle were eclipsing $1 million.
“I removed one person from the department and all of a sudden we were eclipsing $1 million. The corruption here had tentacles and there is still the old guard wanted to hang on to power and money,” Thomas said, noting a YouTube video that describes the matter in just over two minutes.
He’s won recent court battles against the City Council and the City Comptroller, who appeared to conspire against him, not paying city bills and taking care of other business.
“I had to take the City Council and the Comptroller to court and got a restraining order to prevent them from signing checks behind my back. They want money and power back for their friends and this is a microcosm of what’s going on around us,” Thomas said.
“It’s a deep state and you have the deep state City Council.”
Efforts to reach members of the City Council and the City Comptroller were unsuccessful this week.
Thomas also has promoted Mount Vernon as a clean and Green city. “Our sewers are crumbling and in many locations they’re made of clay and are over a century old, so we’ve got to fix them,” Thomas said.
He successfully secured a grant from the state and raised $1.6 million to activate the grant which means that a 15-year project is now underway that will fix what ultimately would have been a Flint, Michigan-like problem.
Thomas also has a host of statistics to back up his claims that he’s turned the city around.
He said not only has he fought for clean water, but also money to pay employees, money to pay vendors, while also fighting against what he said are unfair indictments and an old guard that’s done everything to stunt his growth.
His track record already includes several new business developers, new investors and more than 10,000 new jobs for the city which is now the third fastest growing economy in the state.
Property values have increased 10 percent and crime is down 32 percent since Thomas took office.
The mayor also helped convince Starbucks, Hilton, Marriott and others to open in Mount Vernon and he plans to open a ferry service that will allow residents easy access to LaGuardia Airport in Queens and Amazon’s new second headquarters in Long Island City just across the Queensboro Bridge.
“I Think of Mount Vernon like a garden overgrown and I have to prune it for it to come to full bloom,” Thomas said.
“But, we have to dig up these deep political weeds that are choking the life out of the flowers blooming. The hard work to weed a garden is what it’s like being mayor here. When I stepped into office, they eliminated 80 positions including 20 police officers.
“It was very similar to what Wisconsin is doing to the incoming Democratic governor. They unfunded government to take power from the people and to nullify and suppress the vote,” he said. “It’s been a battle ever since I’ve been in office. I’m a native son, born and raised and I wanted to come back to my city and give back. But this is how the old guard tried to jeopardize the future, they tried to kill it. We have to fix what’s broken and keep moving.”
Thomas said he plans to continue to highlight the rich history of Mount Vernon and build on its entertainment ancestry.
He believes that will continue to help instill pride in all – young and older.
“In four years, I see Mount Vernon competing with Miami for tourism,” Thomas said. “There are real systemic issues here and while I’m fixing what’s broken and keeping moving, the old guard hate it because they want to keep Mount Vernon their political prisoner but I’m setting it free,” he said.
When asked where he sees himself in four years, the mayor noted bigger aspirations for himself. “In four to five years, I see myself as governor,” he said. “Always being a public servant and representing the interests of the people.”