The Will of the People: Ex-prisoners Voted into Public Office
What happens when voters elect a public official once deemed a public threat by the criminal justice system? From Connecticut to Virginia, Michigan to New Hampshire and Oregon to Oklahoma – just a few of the places where former prisoners have been voted into office – it’s politics as usual.
After serving seven years in prison on charges that included bribery, racketeering and extortion for awarding city contracts in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts, including cash, home improvements, custom-made clothes and expensive wine, former mayor Joe Ganim was given a second chance by the voters of Bridgeport, Connecticut, who reelected him mayor on November 4, 2015 with 59% of the vote. He had been released from prison five years earlier.
“Tonight, we not only made history, but we defined a new course for this great city,” Ganim said in his victory speech as he was surrounded by supporters. “Of course, there’s an element of redemption in all of this,” he added.
Ganim’s election even brought a congratulatory message from Connecticut’s governor, who had refused to endorse his fellow Democrat during the campaign.
In Virginia, former state House Delegate Joe Morrissey gained notoriety when he was elected while serving 90 days in jail on a misdemeanor charge for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He had a sexual relationship with his then-17-year-old former secretary, Myrna Pride, who became pregnant when she was 18. Because Morrissey was enrolled in the jail’s work release program, he was able to campaign during the day before returning to the lock-up at night.
At first, Morrissey, 57, entered an Alford plea, the Virginia equivalent of no contest, refusing to admit guilt but conceding that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him. He later publicly admitted fathering the child with Pride; the couple later moved in together and announced plans to have more children.
He was twice elected to the state House of Delegates, prompting a scathing Washington Post opinion piece in which the newspaper called Morrissey “an embarrassment to Virginia’s General Assembly.”
“Rather than stumbling into laughingstock territory, the General Assembly would do well to censure and marginalize Mr. Morrissey,” the Post wrote on January 15, 2015. “He should be assigned to no committees, which would leave him twiddling his thumbs most days in Richmond, and prohibited from serving on state boards and commissions. Conceivably, he could even be banned from setting foot on the floor of the House of Delegates.”
Morrissey resigned his House seat on March 25, 2015 to run for the state Senate, though he dropped out of that race six months later due to a medical condition.
On November 5, 2013, the citizens of Flint, Michigan elected to their city council 5th Ward Councilman Wantwaz Davis and 1st Ward Councilman Eric Mays. Davis, who defeated the incumbent by just 71 votes, had previously served a 19-year prison sentence – beginning when he was just 17 – after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in 1991. Davis never hid his conviction from voters. In fact, he spoke openly with Flint residents about the day he shot and killed 27-year-old Kenneth Morris.
“He went and reached in his pocket, so I reached in my pocket and I shot him,” Davis said. “When I found out he later died, I turned myself in. I never intended to shoot Mr. Morris. To this day, I am very remorseful.”
More than 25 years prior to his election, Mays pleaded guilty in 1987 to felonious assault and served a year of probation. The assault, he said, occurred when a man threatened his life and he responded by brandishing a gun. Mays had just been accepted into law school.
“That destroyed my law career,” he stated.
There is nothing illegal in Michigan about ex-felons being candidates for public office, so long as their crimes weren’t committed while they were serving in office. Revelations of Mays’ and Davis’ criminal histories failed to dissuade Flint voters, who also elected two women to the city council who had previously filed for bankruptcy.
In August 2015, Davis and Mays were among four candidates for mayor of Flint; businesswoman Karen Weaver won the election, while Davis and Mays retained their seats on the city council. As part of his mayoral campaign, Davis had advocated for an economic development program that would focus on identifying and helping businesses which hire convicted felons.
“Flint is an industrialized city, the first in the auto industry and once third economically in the nation,” Davis said. “There are 30,000 or more men and women with felonies on their record and cannot receive a job. [Having] 80 to 88 percent of people living in poverty [is] not good for public safety or the economy.”
“Manufacturing companies would hire these men and women, crime will go down, and income taxes will flourish,” he added. “Once crime is brought down, other developers would come to Flint.”
Despite such examples of positive public service, many argue that ex-prisoners are incapable of possessing the integrity necessary to be effective elected officials. Trust, critics contend, is as much perceived as it is earned. Then again, although not on the same scale, the American public apparently trusted candidates who admitted smoking marijuana (Clinton, Obama) and who had a DUI record (George W. Bush) enough to elect them to the highest public office in the nation.
Davis and Mays are not anomalies in American politics; indeed, their election was not even unusual in Flint, or, for that matter, anywhere in Michigan. Back in 1962, former Flint Mayor Don Williamson was convicted of two counts of felony fraud and served three years in prison. Flint voters, nevertheless, re-elected him mayor in 2007 before he ultimately resigned in 2009 under threat of a recall.
In 2010, an amendment to Michigan’s constitution allowed ex-felons to run for statewide office as long as their conviction was not “related to the person’s official capacity while holding any elective office.” The amendment paved the way for Detroit native Brian Banks, a Democrat, to win 68% of the vote in 2012 to represent the city and serve as chairman of the Detroit caucus in Michigan’s state assembly.
Banks, who was convicted eight times between 1998 and 2004 for writing bad checks and credit card fraud, ultimately earned Bachelor’s, Master’s and law degrees. He said that his poor decisions “as a young adult” taught him valuable lessons and “inspired me to pursue my education and use my experience to deter other young adults from making the same choices.”
The political opponent Banks defeated – Republican Dan Schulte – offered the Detroit Free Press a different perspective.
“You can’t be an attorney or doctor with a felony, and I don’t think you can teach elementary school with a felony,” Schulte said during the 2012 campaign. “If you can’t do any of those things, I don’t know why you can be a legislator.”
One of the most famous ex-felons elected to office was Marion Barry, who served as mayor of Washington, D.C. from 1979 until January 1990, when he was caught on videotape smoking crack during an FBI sting operation.
After serving six months in federal prison on drug charges, Barry was elected to the D.C. City Council in 1992 then re-elected as the city’s mayor, serving from 1995 to 1999. Barry died on November 23, 2014 at the age of 78, while still serving as a councilman representing the District’s 8th Ward.
While Barry was affectionately dubbed “Mayor for Life” by his supporters, not all politicians or state officials look favorably on former prisoners holding public office. Take, for example, Arizona – even when it involves an ex-felon running for office in another state.
In 2011, the voters of Pawnee, Oklahoma, population about 2,300, elected Christopher Linder mayor at a time when the only hospital in town had closed and residents were struggling financially. Along with his wife, Linder owned the popular Pawnee Cafe, and he volunteered for the Chamber of Commerce, as a baseball coach and at the First Baptist Church.
But almost 12 years earlier, in August 1999, Linder – then 21 years old and a member of the Gangster Disciples known by his handle “Big Slim” – was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona and charged with a drive-by shooting following a botched drug deal.
Under Oklahoma state law, Linder, who laid bare his criminal record for Pawnee voters prior to his election, had to have his felony record expunged in order to serve as mayor, requiring him to petition Arizona’s five-member Board of Executive Clemency for a pardon.
“Every single day that I get up, I live with the decision I made 12 years ago,” Linder told the clemency board in May 2011. “I know it wasn’t a wise decision. I know it was atrocious.”
In spite of evidence of his rehabilitation since his release from prison in 2005, and vocal support from some of Pawnee’s most respected residents, Linder’s pardon request was denied by the Board in a 4-1 vote, prohibiting him from becoming mayor.
A more forgiving state statute in New Hampshire nevertheless barred Stacie Laughton, the state’s first openly-transgender elected official, from taking office. In 2012, Laughton, a Democrat, beat out two Republicans to represent Hillsborough County. But a local newspaper revealed just weeks later that Laughton had served a suspended sentence of four months in jail only four years earlier on felony charges of conspiracy to commit credit card fraud.
“I have made mistakes just like everyone else,” Laughton wrote on her Facebook page after the story broke. “No one is perfect. I don’t want to talk about my past nor do I care about my past. I live for today and my future.”
State law cared about her past, however, even if Laughton didn’t. Under New Hampshire law, a resident convicted of a felony is barred from voting or becoming a candidate for public office from the time his or her sentence begins until its final discharge. Laughton was sentenced to 15 years in prison on the conspiracy charges, but the sentence was suspended pending 10 years of good behavior. At the time she was elected she still had six years to go. As a result, she was forced to resign less than a month after her election.
“I regret to inform you,” Laughton announced on a Nashua public access TV station, “that I am unable to fill the state representative seat for Hillsborough County District 31 to which I was recently elected.”
And in 2008, in the small town of Sodaville, Oregon, Thomas Brady Harrington, a 33-year-old former welder, was inspired to run for public office after becoming disillusioned with the City Council’s ineffectiveness in dealing with water issues and fiscal mismanagement.
“I think I can bring a fresh outlook on all those things,” he said during his campaign. “I think, with all these past problems, citizens kind of lost faith in the city council. They’ve been throwing money at this thing with no real goals.”
It was not until after Harrington was elected that the town’s 300 residents learned of his felony record, or that he had completed probation for a 2006 criminal mischief conviction just five months before his election. His criminal record, in fact, dated back to 1995, with convictions for assault, robbery, felony possession of a firearm and attempting to elude police.
But Oregon law, unless a city charter mandates otherwise, does not prohibit felons from holding office if they are not incarcerated at the time they’re sworn in. Nor does it prohibit a state resident with a felony conviction from voting.
“I’ve done my time and proven to the state I’ve changed,” Harrington said in his defense after some Sodaville residents called for his resignation. “Regardless of my past, I can do a good job for the city.”
Local voters agreed. Just two years after he was elected, Harrington won re-election on a record of restoring Sodaville’s water system and stabilizing its financial footing. But in August 2011, for reasons unrelated to his criminal past, Harrington was removed from office. The city manager took over the position after Harrington missed council meetings and skipped three budget meetings due to his work as a city firefighter.
Sources: www.washingtonpost.com, www.cbsnews.com, www.wtop.com, www.housedems.com, www.cityofflint.com, www.nashuatelegraph.com, www.newhampshire.watchdog.com, www.huffingtonpost.com, www.mlive.com, www.speroforum.com, www.minbcnews.com, www.bet.com, www.nytimes.com, www.azlaw.com, www.lebanon-express.com, www.democratherald.com, www.columbian.com