In mid-2017, Lewis Conway Jr. had some political questions. He wanted to understand, really understand, the forces behind people of color slipping away from East Austin neighborhoods.
So the black Muslim socialist called the only person he could think of: a white nationalist libertarian tax consultant he had once served time with in prison.
“I was like, ‘Dude, tell me about gentrification,’” Conway said. “And we got to talking about land assessment.”
His friend told Conway that “y’all” are more likely to fall behind on taxes as land values rise and thus more likely to be forced to sell when land developers come along. He said, “We can’t kill you anymore, so we tax you out,” Conway recalled.
They hung up and Conway cemented his plan to run for the Austin City Council.
Conway and the tax consultant were unlikely friends. In a segregated prison social structure, they had formed a secret alliance in the maintenance offices where they worked, based around a mutual love of heavy metal music.
Now out of prison and working as a community organizer after being convicted of killing a man, Conway, 48, is an unlikely City Council candidate. He’s one of six people who have indicated they will pursue the District 1 seat held by the departing Ora Houston. Of the four candidates who filed July 15 campaign finance forms, Conway had raised the least money.
Win or lose, though, Conway hopes his run will be a step toward challenging a Texas ban on felons holding public office that has never been tested in court.
Goodbye to Doonie
He wasn’t always Lewis Conway Jr. Before that day everyone talks about, he was just Doonie.
He grew up in Coronado Hills in Northeast Austin, the son of a veteran and pastor who worked for former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. “Doonie” grew up with neighbors who loved to hunt and fish, and he often dressed in cowboy clothes.
“My dad was a black Republican, but my mother was a Black Panther,” he said. “But she’d put us in all these white activities. I was a little fat kid who had to go play tennis.”
Conway dropped out of Reagan High School in 1987, a year shy of graduating, and enrolled in Huston-Tillotson University. He was deeply interested in the Austin music scene. Roommates got him involved, too, in a blossoming crack cocaine and gang scene, he said.
On an August day in 1991, an old acquaintance named Derrick Davis took a little of Conway’s money and 1½ ounces of cocaine that Conway owed someone else, he said. Conway confronted Davis at an apartment complex on Patton Lane. He thought Davis was carrying a pistol, he said.
“I was a scared kid,” Conway recalled. “He reached, and when he reached I stabbed him. I stabbed him one time, and he looked at me and said, ‘I thought you stabbed me.’ … A spigot of blood started coming out of his chest, and my legs turned to jelly.”
Conway ran from the apartment, but he called 911 and waited at the complex for police to arrive. Davis died in surgery at Brackenridge Hospital, according to court documents. Conway was charged with murder and later pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
For a guy who had gone by his nickname so long that even his high school yearbook printed it instead of his given name, that day marked the end of an identity.
“I was no longer Doonie,” Conway said. “Doonie died because I could never go back to the life I had.”
When he came out of prison, life progressed. He married, had three children and then divorced. He struggled to find jobs with employers who would overlook his criminal history. He worked at convenience stores, nightclubs and, finally, the Yellow Rose strip club.
He never talked about what he had done.
Then one day he was hospitalized with a severe heart arrhythmia. Doctors began asking if he had a will. Suddenly, Conway said, he felt the weight of everything he hadn’t said. He made a deal with God that if he lived, he would tell his story, for whatever it was worth.
When he got out of the hospital, he considered a speaking career. He Googled how to self-publish a book. He went back to work at the Yellow Rose, where he scribbled the words to “Change the Whether: Techniques to Overcome Your Barriers.”
“I wrote the book in a strip club, by hand, as I DJ’d,” Conway said.
When the sentence ends
Sometimes, when Conway speaks about what he’s learned, he tells the story of Doonie and Cheesy.
When he was in the Travis County Jail, before being transferred to prison, he met an inmate trustee named Cheesy, who he thought was really named Terry Davis. The man told Conway that Derrick Davis was his son. He said he forgave him for killing him.
That moment of compassion, Conway says, is what made him change his life.
Davis’ family members say the story isn’t true. Derrick’s father was named Melvin Hughes, and he was never in jail with Conway, said Derrick’s mother, Brenda Evans. Davis does have an uncle, Larry Davis, who confirmed he was a Travis County Jail trustee at the time of his nephew’s death, but said he never talked to Conway there.
Conway concedes he might have misremembered the man’s relationship to Davis. Still, he says, the conversation that changed him occurred. He understands Davis’ relatives aren’t happy with his City Council run.
“I was shocked, shocked to learn that a man who killed somebody and then (was sentenced) to prison for 20 years could come out and run for office,” Evans said. “It brought back a lot of negative memories of what he did to my child.”
To Conway, his run for office and his advocacy are about a simple question: When does the sentence end?
Since 2015, Conway has fallen in love again, with a woman named Nicole who laughs at him and gushes about the hours they spent talking the first time they met. They got matching infinity tattoos a month after meeting and married within a year.
Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, met Conway when the group was encouraging employers not to nix job candidates solely based on their criminal history. Conway became a leader in that effort, lobbying passionately at City Hall until council members passed a “ban the box” initiative.
Grassroots Leadership soon hired him as a criminal justice reform organizer. Now, Conway is also involved in issues from schools to taxes as part of political outreach.
“The needle has moved (on reform) because of people like Lewis who are directly impacted by the system,” Libal said. “He’s an incredibly charismatic person. People are drawn to Lewis. He’s a natural at what he does, and I think that sets him apart.”
The group can’t endorse candidates but, in general, believes people with criminal records should have their rights restored when they have finished serving their time, Libal said.
Texas law says a felon cannot hold public office unless he has been “released from the resulting disabilities.” No one knows what that clause means, and no case law pertains to it, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office. Conway’s attorney, Ricco Garcia, is ready to argue in court that completing probation and having his voting rights restored should count as release from a conviction’s resulting disabilities.
So far, Conway’s opponents have said they don’t plan to raise the issue, and the city clerk accepted his application for a place on the ballot, after saying in a memo that she can rely only on Conway’s sworn statement that he is eligible.
“I’m not a professional politician so we count our wins differently,” Conway said. “When we started this campaign, we set up wins along the way, and the wins would have to be changing the narrative.”
A crowded race
Five people besides Lewis Conway Jr. have indicated they will run for the Austin City Council’s District 1 seat as Council Member Ora Houston prepares to leave office.
Outgoing Travis County Democratic Party Chairman Vincent Harding, homeless advocate Mariana Salazar and grant monitor Reedy Spigner had filed for places on the ballot as of Thursday afternoon. Community activist Natasha Harper-Madison has been actively fundraising for the seat, and a sixth candidate, Mitrah Avini, named a campaign treasurer last week.