At first glance, it may seem typical that Lewis Conway Jr. got his name on the ballot for a seat on the Austin City Council — he paid the filing fee and turned in his application before the deadline. But Conway's success Tuesday is unique for one big reason: He's a convicted felon.
According to Texas' election code, a person is only eligible to run for office if he or she has not been "finally convicted" of a felony "from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities." Conway was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 1993, and his candidacy is testing that state law.
It's the "resulting disabilities" portion of the code that's caused people to scratch their heads — there's no legal precedent defining the term. But after a brief challenge on Friday by the city clerk, Conway has been cleared to continue his campaign.
“I am happy that Austin is standing up for the nearly four million Texans affected by our criminal justice system," Conway said in a statement. "Our campaign is about more than just an election — it’s about diversity in leadership, belief in a fair chance, and bringing the sentence to an end. I have been released from parole and my voting rights have been restored. I have served my time and now I am ready to serve my community.”
Conway's conviction stems from a 1991 stabbing that he has described as self-defense. He says he he stabbed a man at an Austin apartment complex during a skirmish over drugs Conway said the man had stolen. Conway served eight years in prison and has completed his 12 years of parole. He now works as a criminal justice organizer at the advocacy group Grassroots Leadership.
The statute regarding the eligibility of a felon is one Conway's campaign called "ambiguous, unchallenged and potentially unconstitutional." Because there's no clear definition of resulting disabilities, nor a prior legal case to help determine it, Conway has pressed forward.
Sam Taylor, a spokesperson with the Texas Secretary of State's office, agreed that the issue is unclear and without precedent. But citing a 2004 memo from the office's former director of elections, Taylor said the office maintains that a finally convicted felon is not eligible to run for public office without a pardon or a judicial release. Although Conway's attorneys believe that fulfilling his probation and having his voting rights restored counts as judicial release from his disabilities, Taylor said there's "no legal precedent for that interpretation to stand on."
And Conway's case might not end up providing much broader clarity. His opponents vying for the East Austin seat would have had the opportunity to challenge Conway's candidacy in court, but they told the Austin Chronicle earlier this month that they wouldn't fight his eligibility.
After months of the Conway campaign waiting for a challenge, City Clerk Jannette Goodall sent Conway an email on Friday, citing his inability to meet the requirements to run under the Texas election code. Goodall gave Conway until Tuesday to prove his eligibility. He submitted what he believed was that proof Monday, indicating that he has been released from "resulting disabilities" by serving out his parole and having his voting rights reinstated.
A spokesperson with the City of Austin said Goodall met with city attorneys and came to the determination that the city had no reason to question his eligibility.
Conway says he will make criminal justice reform one of the main focal points of his campaign.
Correction: A photo caption incorrectly stated the historic nature of Lewis Conway Jr.'s campaign. While officials say the state law banning felons from serving office has never been tested in court, Conway isn't the first felon to seek public office in Texas, which the body of this story also implied.