By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
PENNS GROVE – Salem County was formally organized in 1694 and in its 326 year history, there never had an African-American woman elected to lead one of its municipalities as mayor – until LaDaena Thomas changed history last November when she was elected to lead Penns Grove.
For her historic accomplishment – including fighting off a lawsuit to keep up off the ballot and unseating a four-time incumbent – things became somber when she lost her grandmother to the coronavirus in March while trying to protect her residents in Penns Grove.
“Losing my grandmother was devastating,” said Thomas, who has been mayor of Penns Grove since January. “If any good can come from death, in this case it was a reminder to not take life for granted. COVID-19 is serious and can be deadly.
“Keeping residents safe is my first duty as the mayor. That is why I am educating, donating [personal protection equipment], and communicating. I share all the new information from the president’s taskforce, governor’s daily briefs, and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines. I donate masks to anyone in the community that needs it. And I share resources on Facebook and will be hosting a bi-monthly virtual townhall to share information.”
Thomas told Front Runner New Jersey.com said she still feels great about becoming mayor of the town her grandparents grew up in.
“I am honored by the distinction,” Thomas said. “If I can motivate young woman through South Jersey to get involved in public service then I will be proud. But I really am just thinking about how I can fulfill my promises. When I hug [pre-Covid-19] a resident that’s lost someone or hand out masks, I am told by so many people that they’ve never seen anything like this. I am astonished by how responsive people are to me extending kindness.”
Now on the job for six months, Thomas said she believes she has to set the example.
“In terms of leadership, I believe in starting with myself,” Thomas said. “I am taking classes and joining statewide organizations to gain knowledge and extend my network to other small town mayors that face similar issues. Next, I am working with council, the Department of Community Affairs, and administration to ensure we have a sensible government structure.
“We need a business administrator, a renewed focus on economic development, and more home ownership. So by the end of the term, I want more activities for youth and young adults, more thriving small businesses and home ownership, and less dependency for state aid to balance our budget,” Thomas said.
A California native, relatives drew her to Penns Grove in 1990 and stayed 15 years before moving to Los Angeles in 2005. After getting married, at the urging of her husband, the couple returned to Penns Grove in 2017.
“Each time we would visit Penns Grove, he noticed how close knit folks were here and he loved that,” Thomas said. “My father-in-law passed away from cancer back in March of 2017. It was then that we made the final decision to move to the East Coast. My husband needed a change and thought it would be easier for him to heal from the death of his father if we weren’t living in Los Angeles, surrounded by all of the things that reminded him that he was no longer with us.”
Thomas said during her first stint in Penns Grove, she opened a beauty supply store in Lindenwold and a record store with a friend in Clementon in 1999.
“We had to close them both because we were in a terrible car accident and were both unable to operate the businesses,” Thomas said. “When I came back to Penns Grove in 2017, I realized many of the stores, beautiful homes, and activities I experienced as a teenager were gone. There seemed to be a lack of hope and opportunity.”
Thomas said she was urged to run for office by neighbors and friends who were also frustrated by Penns Grove progress.
“I was reluctant, but after attending my first borough council meeting, I was persuaded to run for office for the first time. I am not a politician and never had any ambitions towards government. But after seeing people denied the basic respect and service that local government should have provided, I decided I should compete for the position of mayor.”
The mayor then, John Washington, filed a lawsuit to keep her off the ballot where her residency was questioned. Superior Court Judge Jean S. Chetney ruled Thomas eligible less than two months before the November election.
Despite the huge disadvantage of running against an entrenched incumbents in a short campaign period, Thomas won the election by 132 votes, 383-251.
“I was excited,” Thomas said about election night. “I have worked hard all my life, but this was the biggest challenge I faced. I was sued to be removed from the ballot twice and won in court the second time, representing myself. My husband and I were verbally attacked and victims of a smear campaign.
“I knocked on hundreds of doors and talked to so many residents. I was proud to be able to form a coalition that Salem County has not seen — bringing together people from different backgrounds that shared a vision for a new, better, cleaner, safer, happier community. But worse than that, I knew if I lost — the things that the community wanted to see change would stay the same.”
In the end, Thomas said working as a small business owner helped her connect with residents as the grassroot level.
“As a former business owner, I know exactly what it is like to earn every dollar,” Thomas said. “Many evenings I had to be everything – the stylist, the buyer, the janitor, the accountant – and in that I learned the value of teamwork and being organized. That is why I decided from the beginning to run for office with people with political experience that showed examples of doing for their community and asking for nothing in return.”
Thomas touched on numerous other subjects with Front Runner New Jersey.
FRNJ: FRNJ tries to highlight positive African-American role models in South Jersey. How seriously do you take your role as a role model for young people? Why?
LaDaena Thomas: I take the role serious. I am reminded all the time that people have high expectations of me. In the Black community, we have had influential people that lifted people in terms of changing laws and improving economic situations rooted in poverty, traced back to slavery. Now, we see that there have also been African American leaders that have not had the best interest of their community. so, I’ve seen it done right and wrong. I choose to do it right – to lead with grace and honor, to value the community, not donors, to be inclusive and non-judgmental, to follow the path laid out by my faith in God, and to show little black girls and boys – that they too can use the limited time we have on this earth to contribute to leaving it better than we found it.
FRNJ: Who are you inspirations (parents, teachers, etc.)?
LaDaena Thomas: I have a few. But if I name them all, I would be here for hours. My grandmother Sallie Jones (who recently passed away from Covid-19) was my biggest inspiration. She was the first person to introduce me to Jesus Christ when I was 3-years-old. When she was 18 years old, she developed cancer in her right leg and had to have it amputated. She lived with a prosthetic leg for the rest of her life. She became a nurse, she was a musician (she always played the piano every single day), raised her children and her grandchildren, and she was the best at everything she did. She never let anything stop her. Harriet Tubman has been a huge inspiration to me since I was a little girl also. I first learned about her when I was in elementary school at the age of 8. We were actually reading about her on a stapled hand-out. After watching a video in class during 10th grade about all of the journeys she’d made to free slaves, I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I barely want to run around the field a couple of times during Gym. And here this lady walked hundreds and hundreds of miles MANY TIMES to free people”. That day, I suited up and participated in Gym. I hadn’t suited up in days.
FRNJ: Where do you see yourself in five years?
LaDaena Thomas: I cannot predict the future in terms of politics. What I know for sure is that whatever I am doing and wherever I am will be in a position of service in a place of duty.
FRNJ: Anything else you would like to add?
LaDaena Thomas: Yes. I encourage everyone to help others. Helping other people is not only good for the other person, but it is the single most effective thing we can do to keep ourselves happy. Check on your elderly neighbors, call your mom and other family members, donate to issues that matter to you.
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