THOMAS, Lera Millard

THOMAS, Lera Millard
Image courtesy of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library, National Archives and Records Administration.
1900–1993

Biography

For more than 30 years, Lera Millard Thomas worked behind the scenes to cultivate the political career of her husband, Albert Thomas, who became one of the most powerful Members in the House. Upon Congressman Thomas's death in 1966, however, Lera Thomas opted to run for the vacant seat out of a desire to provide continuity for constituents and to further her husband's political agenda. In her brief nine–month term, Thomas worked on legislation affecting Houston from her Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee seat. A descendant of Texas territory pioneers, Thomas was the state's first woman to serve in Congress.

Lera Millard was born in Nacogdoches, Texas, on August 3, 1900, the daughter of Jesse Wadlington Millard and Annie Donnell Watkins Millard. She attended Brenau College in Gainesville, Georgia, and the University of Alabama. In 1922, Millard married her high school sweetheart, Albert Thomas. The couple moved from Nacogdoches to Houston, where Albert took a position as assistant U.S. district attorney for the southern district of Texas. The Thomases had three children: Jim, Ann, and Lera.

Originally, Lera Thomas did not want her husband to become involved in politics. But when Jim died at a very young age in 1934 (he was then their only child), the Alberts decided "to throw ourselves completely away from everything that we had done or where we lived or anything like that."1 In 1936, Albert left his district attorney post to campaign for a seat in the U.S. House, covering most of Houston, in the 75th Congress (1937–1939). Since radio advertisement time was scarce and prohibitively expensive, Albert and Lera Thomas divided up campaign duties to make the rounds at political events: "He'd go in one direction to picnics and barbeques and I would go in the other direction. Just to meet people." Lera Thomas frequently debated her husband on political issues to help him sharpen his positions. He "used to say I was his severest critic."2 Thomas won election to the House as a Democrat against a longtime popular mayor of Houston. He went on to win 14 consecutive elections after that and became a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee. Beginning in 1949, he chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Independent Offices, which eventually controlled funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Atomic Energy Commission, among other Cold War appropriations. Congressman Thomas helped make Houston a center for manned space flight operations, often opposed his party on generous foreign aid packages during the Cold War, and was considered an ally of labor unions. Lera Thomas, meanwhile, raised the family in Washington, D.C., and often commuted back to Houston for events in the district. Though Albert Thomas's name was not widely known to the public outside Texas, he worked closely with three Democratic Presidents—Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson. At the time of his death in February 1966, the New York Times described him as a "quiet power in the Capitol."3

Days after Albert Thomas died from cancer, district party leaders asked Lera Thomas to run for her husband's vacant seat, and she agreed to accept the nomination. In the March 26, 1966, special election, Thomas won with more than 74 percent of the vote against Republican Louis Leman, who himself had encouraged voters to go to the polls for the widow Thomas.4 Constituents identified with the Thomas name and seemed inclined to believe that Lera Thomas would carry on in her husband's tradition. "We see in her, the modesty and integrity that personified her late husband," one supporter observed.5 Party leaders seemed equally as interested in encouraging her candidacy because she was a safe placekeeper who was familiar with the Washington office operations. It was believed that her presence would create stability to keep experienced staff in place until a long–term successor could be chosen.

Once ensconced in Washington, Congresswoman Thomas was faced with deciding whether or not to run for a full term in the succeeding Congress. Texas election law kept Albert Thomas's name on the May 7 primary ballot for the Democratic nomination to the 90th Congress (1967–1969). A victory for the deceased Congressman would have permitted the Harris County Democratic Executive Committee to name Lera Thomas as the party's candidate in the fall election, but she discouraged the movement to gain her another term in office.6 Bob Eckhardt, an eight–year veteran of the Texas state legislature, eventually won the nomination and went on to win the general election in 1966.7

Sworn in and seated four days after the election on March 30, 1966, Thomas continued her husband's dedicated service to the district during her abbreviated term. She received a single committee assignment: Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Thomas's principal legislative task was to further the support her husband had gained for the space program and other economic interests of the urban Texas district. She petitioned Congress to appropriate funds for the construction of NASA's lunar sample receiving laboratory in Houston. The Congresswoman appealed to her colleagues, "If the lunar laboratory were to be placed at some location other than the spacecraft center … administrative and technical support would add considerably to the costs … . Who would build a house with the pantry at the opposite end from the kitchen?"8 From her Merchant Marine and Fisheries seat, she also sought additional funding of the Houston Ship Channel, the waterway connecting Houston with the Gulf of Mexico, which had been another of her husband's projects.9

Thomas undertook her most ambitious work as she prepared to leave office. In late 1966, she traveled to Vietnam as a Member and, after the expiration of her term on January 3, 1967, continued on as a journalist to gain an understanding of the prospects of victory in the war. A few days before she was scheduled to leave, she received an urgent message from the White House: She was to meet President Johnson at his plane at Andrews Air Force Base just outside the capital and fly with him on a trip to Texas. Setting aside her packing chores, Thomas complied, though she had no idea why the President needed to see her on such short notice. In mid–flight, Johnson summoned her to the front of the plane. "What do you mean—going to Vietnam?" he demanded. Thomas sensed Johnson's concern about growing congressional criticism of the war and sought to ease his fears that she would join the chorus of dissenters. She replied, "Mr. President you went to Vietnam and I'm not nearly as important as you are." Johnson told her, "All right, then, go on and go."10 On her six–week trip, Thomas personally delivered letters to U.S. troops. Some of her observations, based on meetings with South Vietnamese, were published by the Houston Chronicle and were later reprinted in the Congressional Record. In one account, Thomas wrote: "One fact is clear to me: Unless a stable economy is established in South Vietnam and the people are given an incentive to maintain that economy, we will lose what we are fighting for here."11

After returning to Washington in February 1967, Thomas served for six months as a consultant in the Vietnam Bureau of the U.S. State Department's Agency for International Development. She eventually returned to Texas and managed the family farm and an antique shop. One of Thomas's legacies was her part in the establishment of the Millard Crossing Historical Center on the north side of Nacogdoches, culminating years of work to preserve buildings and structures dating from the pioneer days of Texas to the Victorian Era.12 Lera Thomas died of cancer on July 23, 1993, in her hometown of Nacogdoches.

Footnotes

1Lera Millard Thomas, Oral History, 11 October 1968, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (hereinafter referred to as LBJL), Austin, TX: 4.

2Thomas, Oral History, LBJL: 9.

3"Rep. Albert Thomas Dies at 67; Texan a Quiet Power in the Capitol," 16 February 1966, New York Times: 43.

4Michael J. Dubin et al., United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishing, Inc., 1998): 647.

5Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in the U.S. Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 316.

6Martin Waldron, "Texas Democrats In Key Vote Today," 7 May 1966, New York Times: 15; see also, Thomas, Oral History, LBJL: 20.

7"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

8Congressional Record, House, 89th Cong., 2nd sess. (10 May 1966): 10225.

9Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: 316; Thomas, Oral History, LBJL: 5.

10Thomas, Oral History, LBJL: 18–19.

11Congressional Record, House, 90th Cong., 1st sess. (February 13, 1967): A619.

12Candace Leslie, "Collecting Culminates in Millard's Crossing," 7 July 1996, Houston Chronicle: 10.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Lyndon B. Johnson Library

Austin, TX
Oral History: October 11, 1968. 32 pages.

Rice University
Woodson Research Center

Houston, TX
Papers: In the Herman & George R. Brown Book Research Files, 1898-1989, 19.5 linear feet. Correspondents include Lera Millard Thomas.
Papers: In the Albert Thomas Papers, 1937-1965, 11 feet. Subjects covered include Lera Millard Thomas. A finding aid is available in the repository.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Lera Millard Thomas" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
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Related Media

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Description of the deep connection between two congressional widows. 

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Transcript (PDF)