A criminal justice activist with a past behind bars is the first candidate to jump into the race against Austin City Council Member Ora Houston in northeastern Austin’s District 1.
He doesn’t know if he’s eligible. But he might be the first in Texas to challenge a state provision blocking felons from public office.
Lewis Conway Jr., a Grassroots Leadership organizer, launches his campaign Tuesday with a party and fundraiser at Midtown Live Sports Café. Conway has a 1992 manslaughter conviction for stabbing an acquaintance to death during a fight over stolen money. He served eight years in prison and 12 on parole. After completing parole, his voting rights were restored in 2013.
Conway figures that should allow him to run for City Council. State law says a felon cannot hold Texas public office unless he has been “released from the resulting disabilities.”
But completing parole doesn’t count, the city and Texas secretary of state’s office say. To run for office, a felon such as Conway would need a pardon or a court declaration saying he has been released from their disabilities.
What does that mean?
No one knows.
“We are not aware of a case in which an individual convicted of a felony has presented a declaration from a court saying they have been ‘otherwise released from the resulting disabilities’ … so there’s no concrete example we can provide,” Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said in an email. “There’s no clear-cut case law that defines what such a document is and isn’t.”
Conway, 47, is a civil rights organizer, a fighter for “ban-the-box” initiatives to prevent employers from automatically nixing applicants with a criminal record, and a familiar face at City Hall. His campaign is focused on what he calls “radical compassion,” criminal justice reform and funding for community health care, schools and job training.
Conway is frustrated that the legal issues might detract from his message. But he’s not backing away from a fight he says is about more than his candidacy.
“I have been open that there may be difficulty getting me on the ballot,” he said. “The people supporting me understand that. They understand this is an experiment in democracy.”
Restoration of rights after a felony conviction varies by state, with some states permanently banning people convicted of certain crimes from running for office and with other states restoring the ability to run after someone has completed their sentence.
Conway filed a campaign treasurer appointment with City Hall in early September. As the Texas Observer first reported, City Clerk Jannette Goodall issued a memo last month about Conway to council members, noting that completing one’s sentence does not restore candidacy rights the way it does voting rights. In July or August, candidates will file applications for a place on the ballot, which include affidavits that they are eligible to run.
So, if Conway files to run for the office, he risks perjuring himself by swearing that he is eligible. But without doing that, there might never be a challenge to the state’s unclear language.
“It’s nebulous, right?” Conway said. “Until I file, we don’t know. And until an opinion is given, we’re in a holding pattern. … There shouldn’t be a question about what ‘disabilities’ means.”
Complicating matters, the city relies only on that sworn statement to determine eligibility, Goodall said, and cannot keep someone off the ballot based on outside information. An opposing candidate in the race would have to challenge Conway’s eligibility, the secretary of state’s office said. Neither a voter nor the city would have standing to sue him for filing improperly, Taylor said.
Houston said that Conway has served his time and deserves a chance to run, adding, “I would never challenge his right to file.” She noted that she was elected in 2014 from a field of nine and is expecting a crowded race this year as well. So far, Natasha Harper-Madison, a social activist and small-business consultant, has also indicated she plans to run and filed the paperwork appointing a treasurer.
Soon, Conway will head to court with a motion to release him from his “resulting disabilities,” his lawyer Ricco Garcia said. If denied, he will appeal and file his candidacy with the understanding that his eligibility hasn’t been settled.
For Conway, this fight is just an extension of what he’s fought for since his release.
“It’s ‘When does the sentence end?’” he said. “It’s the same issue as why I can’t get housing. It’s the same idea of why I can’t get employment. At what point are we allowed to impact the policy?”