First elected to the Peoria County Auditor position in 2018, Jessica Thomas became the first African American and youngest woman elected to a county-wide seat in Peoria County’s 193-year history. In this role, she works diligently to protect taxpayer dollars and is responsible for the ongoing internal audit of operations and financial records of the officers, agents and division of the County. Born and raised in Peoria, she is active with the Peoria NAACP and a range of other community organizations—always working to ensure that disenfranchised and marginalized people not only have seats at the table, but are leading the agenda.
Tell us about your family and childhood. What were your hobbies and interests? Who were some of your early influences?
I grew up on the South Side of Peoria, the fourth youngest of five children. My dad Charles served in the Army for 20 years, working as a diesel mechanic. My mom Cynthia mostly stayed home, but also served as an advocate and mentor for teenage moms, and later was a caseworker for a local children and family services agency.
A misconception of the South Side is that it is an awful place to live, when the truth is that it has always been like living in a small town within the city. I spent summers riding my bike all over, went swimming at Lakeview and Logan centers, and attended camp at Neighborhood House and South Side Mission. In school, I was that kid who participated in as many clubs and activities as possible. I participated in orchestra and band during elementary and middle school. In high school I was involved with JROTC, the bowling team, Future Teachers of America, Civic Center Student Advisory Board, Girl Scouts, Key Club, Student Council and Delta Teens. It was through these organizations that I developed key leadership skills and my love for serving my community.
My mother was my biggest influence; she taught me tenacity and perseverance. My father taught me hard work and dedication. His go-to statement which I live by to this day is: “Trust but verify.”
Tell us about your education and early career path. Why did you decide to relocate back to the Peoria area?
I attended Garfield Primary School, Trewyn Middle School and Manual High School in Peoria, and graduated in 2003. I then attended Grambling State University, where I majored in accounting with a minor in marketing, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2008. While working, I enrolled in Kaplan University’s MBA program and completed it in 2011.
Willstaff, a staffing agency in Monroe, Louisiana with offices across the country, scooped me up in 2007 and I was quickly promoted to staff accountant after obtaining my accounting degree. One of my major duties was to conduct ongoing internal audits of the field and corporate office. Because it was a Japanese-held company, there were very strict financial policies, so I learned a lot. During the recession, the company was bought out and changed its name to Advantage Human Resources. Shortly after the buyout, I decided that I had been away from home long enough. I wanted to spend more time with my family, so I moved back to Peoria.
Why did you decide to run for Peoria County Auditor?
I was serving as social action chair for my chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. Part of my responsibility was helping our community and motivating people to become change agents, which included challenging people to run for office. I felt that I should practice what I preach, and the best way to teach is through experience. I researched the requirements, deadlines and open positions in Peoria, and the Auditor position matched my experience and interests. This happened to come at the same time the County Board submitted a referendum to get rid of the position. Many citizens had no idea about the position or why it is important, so I ran two campaigns: one to get the office, and the other to keep the office elected for the people of Peoria County.
What was it like to run for public office at such a young age?
Challenging. I was embarking on an adventure and had no experience running a campaign, nor did I have a campaign manager. I had to learn quickly about campaign finance, and everything else I had to figure out as I went along. I had no clue that I would go on to be the first Black person to win a countywide seat in the 193-year existence of Peoria County. My biggest challenge was defeating a referendum that sought to take the power of the independently elected Auditor’s office from the people. I had to rely heavily on volunteers, and I still have some of the most dedicated, knowledgeable and active volunteers in town!
What are your duties as Peoria County Auditor?
My duties are to protect taxpayer dollars and determine compliance with County policies and other applicable requirements (e.g., state statutes, federal requirements, generally accepted accounting policies, good business procedures). My main responsibilities include:
- Continuous, ongoing internal audits of operations
- Financial records of all officers, agents or divisions of the County
- Determining vendor compliance with prevailing wage requirements
- Auditing, approving and maintaining the database of County vendors
- Verification of the physical presence of County assets through audits
- Audit of receipts of all County officers and departments deposited with the County Treasurer
- Review and verification of adherence to the appropriate County ordinances and/or state statutes.
What aspects of the job do you find most rewarding? What do you find most challenging?
Working for the people of Peoria County is most rewarding. I am a public servant, not a politician. The citizens demand, expect and depend on my transparency, honesty and diligence. The adverse attitudes toward the Auditor’s office and its functions are most challenging. I must overcome those attitudes before being able to educate them on the purpose of the office. We are often counted out before we are given the opportunity to show how the Auditor’s office enhances the County, keeps it fiscally strong and holds everyone accountable.
Describe your involvement in the community and with nonprofit organizations. What causes are near and dear to you?
I am involved with the Peoria NAACP as chair of the Young Adults Committee (for members 18 to 40), and I sit on the Executive Committee. I am a state lead for the Young Adults Professional Leadership Program, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and co-chair of the Delta Social Action Committee.
Social activism for equality and equity through community awareness is my passion—teaching people to advocate for themselves to change policies and laws, and ensuring disenfranchised and marginalized people are not only at the table, but are leading the agenda. If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.
What is your leadership style or philosophy?
Being a servant leader through transparency, treating all people as I want to be treated, respecting and treating staff like family while grooming them for leadership, and creating a comfortable environment where all can thrive and be their best selves every day.
Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career? How did they help you along the way?
The people who mentored me in the early stages of my career were Evonne Fleming and Carol VanWinkle. They helped me greatly in navigating the world of Auditor, working with the union and County politics.
What’s the hardest life lesson you’ve had to learn?
I can’t expect people to act and think like me and vice versa… so tempering my blunt approach. This a constant growth area.
What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
Believe in yourself even when you are the only one who does. Imposter syndrome is real, so be your best cheerleader. Don’t do it superficially. Don’t let anyone discount you or tell you that you are not enough. Know your worth and add 20 percent.
In your opinion, what is the greatest struggle working women face today?
In my opinion, the greatest struggle with working women, especially minority working women, is not being paid what they are worth and not being respected or heard. Another struggle working women face is other women—we often fight against each other instead of working together.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be remembered as a woman of supreme character, perseverance and ethics—someone who worked tirelessly for the rights of others and for our community. The true measures of my success are how many people I can influence and individual torches I can light to make our world a better place to live, work and play.
What is one goal you hope to accomplish in your lifetime?
To have a family.
Who or what inspires you?
Others who persevered through impossible situations.
What three words would you use to describe yourself?
Passionate, proactive, tenacious.
If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be? Why?
Shirley Chisholm or Fannie Lou Hamer. They are dope women of influence, sorority sisters who paved the way for politics, and women before their time who have inspired generations.
If you hit the jackpot tomorrow, what would you do first?
Build a handicap-accessible house for my mom.
What is your greatest fear in life? Greatest joy?
My greatest fear is leaving this earth without making it better or not making a positive impact in the lives of others. My greatest joy are my family and friends—they are amazing!
What book do you think every person should read?
The Book of Job in the Bible; his story impacted my life at a very young age. Just because you are a devout follower, that doesn’t mean you will not have challenges. God will challenge you. Just keep your faith and trust that all blessings may not come wrapped up in a pretty box.
What social issue fires you up?
Lack of reparations not received for pain from the atrocities against African Americans that is and will be felt for generations to come. The government not following or respecting the will of the people.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I urge everyone to always show up as your authentic self every day. Treating everyone that you encounter with the same level of love and respect that you expect of yourself. And let’s work together to make our community and the world better! PM