He's served as commissioner of welfare reform for former Gov. George Allen. He's helped raise funds for candidates across the political spectrum — Democrats and Republicans.
Walk into his office at Hampton University and you'll see photos of him with President Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush and former Sen. John Warner, among others. There are stacks of books on education.
Reknowned on campus for his tailored suits, polka-dot ties and occasional cowboy boots, Bill Thomas is never one to shy away from giving his opinion.
Thomas serves as associate vice president of governmental relations for Hampton University, part of the university's small council. And over the past two decades, he has become an influential voice in Virginia politics — federal, state and local.
As Virginia is in the midst of examining ways to change its education system, Thomas has gained a reputation for being an outspoken voice for reform, giving scathing assessments of the system in place.
He has his share of critics, but they won't deter him.
Thomas served 12 years on the board of visitors for Christopher Newport University, more than anyone in the university's history.
"In this age of political correctness, someone needs to point out where our society is failing and how we can do better," CNU President Paul Trible said of Thomas.
Ring the alarm
Shortly before the election on May 6, Thomas sat on stage in the Newport News School Administration building with seven candidates vying for the city's School Board at a debate hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Thomas, the moderator, jousted with the candidates on nearly every point, cutting them off at times and injecting commentary when he thought their claims didn't add up.
For some in the audience, it was unclear if Thomas was moderating the debate, or debating the candidates. A few groans were loosed in the cramped meeting room.
His sharpest exchanges were with then-vice chairman Jeff Stodghill, after Thomas said the school division was a failure and no different from school divisions in New York or Chicago.
Thomas said he wanted to "ring the alarm" because of what he called the growing crisis in public schooling.
Several of the candidates were disgruntled as the debate ended, grumbling as they stood in the foyer. The normally placid-demeanored Stodghill walked tersely back into the administration offices lounge area, before emerging a few minutes later.
"I didn't come here and expect a nice calm-water event," Stodghill said. Gary Hunter, who now sits on the School Board, described the debate as "a little hostile."
"A lot of people just deal with the status quo and accept the status quo. But Bill Thomas does not accept the status quo," said Andrew Shannon, head of the Peninsula Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "He doesn't care if they are Democrats or Republicans. If he feels they're ineffective, he calls it as he sees it."
Thomas pores through the recent Standards of Learning test reports from local school divisions in his spare time. While there's been a major push statewide to reduce the amount of standardized tests at the elementary school level, Thomas thinks eliminating them will water down student education.
"I think that's a bunch of bologna," Thomas said, referring to efforts to eliminate SOLs in subjects such as history for elementary students. "I think the SOL tests are so simple … If you can't pass an SOL test, the public schools should close their schools."
Thomas wants to see more legislation pass through the state allowing schools to cooperate with private entities in the hopes of scoring grants like the ones Newark and San Francisco received from Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg.
He believes more needs to be done to evaluate and ultimately dismiss poorly performing teachers. In addition, he thinks good teachers need to be paid substantially more.
Bill Thomas grew up a military brat and lived in Kansas with his family for most of his childhood in the 1950s and 1960s. He attended segregated schools.
Concerned they would not get an equal education, some of the miltary wives in the communities took charge of the black children's education, hosting their own tutoring sessions and instruction after school.
One of them was Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
"Education was just like mother's breastmillk," Thomas said, of his childhood. "You had to have that to get nurtured."
His great grandmother, who could not read, would hand-trace verses out of the bible for her great-grandchildren to read and recite in church. An avid reader to this day, he usually works on reading two books at night before bed.
"The very first interaction I had with public schools, they failed me, because they said as a black kid you cannot go to the school with the white kids."
That skepticism has stayed with him.
"I've never had any faith with the government doing anything like taking care of essential needs for me," Thomas said.
"The community understood that and welded together to make sure we didn't miss anything," he said. "You had that kind of education that was self-motivating and self-generating out the community that doesn't exist right now."
Thomas mentors a group of students at Hampton University, giving them advice on academics, professionalism and life.
He believes the community will have to come together to improve the current situation in public schools.
"Hampton and Newport News produce more of the world's global athletes than any place I can think of in the world. Just world-class athletes. Why can't we do that in the classroom?" Thomas asked, before answering his own question. "Because the athletic coaches and the principals and the teachers will not allow those kids to just be good. They want them to be the very best."
But Thomas argues too many educators in the public school system look at troubling circumstances at home for students and handicap them before they arrive in the classroom.
"There's excuses for everything. Oh well, he's got a single mother or his father's in jail, this that and the other," Thomas said. "Our kids, all Americans can exceed beyond that."
Thomas was a huge proponent of opening a charter school in science, technology, engineering and math at Hampton University a few years ago. Though initial efforts to start it failed, he thinks it still could make a difference, especially for poor black children in neighborhoods in Southeast Newport News and around the Hampton Roads region.
In his mind, if he could get them "behind the gates" as he calls it at HU, where in a sheltered environment they could get exposure to a different picture of society, family and success, they would be much better off.
Only permanent interests
Thomas briefly considered a run for the Hampton School Board in 2012 before ultimately backing off.
Thomas said he considers himself a conservative, but in politics subscribes to the philosophy of "No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests."
Thomas's fundraising and political efforts have stretched across the aisle. He helped organize a fundraiser in 2007 for then Sen. Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, soliciting donations for former Gov. Bob McDonnell and supporting current Gov. Terry McAuliffe. He considers Ronald Reagan to be his politcal hero.
In addition to moderating school board debates, he's also lended support to some of the local candidates, most recently Jennifer Phillips, who lost her seat in the race to Jason Samuels.
Samuels had the backing of much of the black political establishment throughout the race after several decisions the board had made riled some in the community, including the outsourcing of custodians and the firing of a popular teacher. But Thomas held firm in his support of Phillips,who is white.
Phillips and Thomas first met at a debate he hosted in 2010 and they kept in contact afterward.
Phillips was crushed by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in the May 6 election, but Thomas pledged to give her more support if she decided to run again.
"I knew Jennifer. I knew she loved education," he said, saying she " as just the real deal trying to do the best she could with what she had."
"He's very smart. I just always have gotten a lot out of our conversations, whether I agree with him or not. He's very thought-provoking," Phillips said.