Around the nation, people know Providence as the city with the mayor who went to prison. Most don’t know about Pawnee, Oklahoma, where a former prisoner has been elected mayor. Twelve years ago, Chris Linder was involved in the rough and tumble world of a 21 year old Black man in America. He served his time, finished his parole, and now owns a restaurant, coaches baseball, and is a member of his church.
Former Providence scion Buddy Cianci is always a topic of discussion, whether he will re-enter electoral politics or not; and his talk radio show has his popularity numbers as high as ever. Of course, a major difference between Cianci and Linder is that Cianci went to an elite prep school and ultimately received masters and law degrees before building his empire… and took kickbacks while in office (overlooking his assault conviction that represents an emotional outburst). Of course someone of his caliber, one never knows what he got away with.
Mayor-Elect Chris Linder never got away with anything. They won’t even let him assume office unless Arizona pardons him, but he was recently denied. He and the people of Pawnee should sue the Board of Elections, as they are being denied their right to vote. They are being denied the right to representation by who they choose. This is a constitutional issue.
When community activist, counselor, and musician Joe Benton considered running for Providence City Council I was interested to see what would happen if he were elected. Being on parole for Life (despite being in the community for nearly two decades), he was not “eligible” for office… yet he might have won. What then? What does it say when a community willingly and knowingly elects someone who has been through the fires being set unto their neighborhoods? People want leadership that reflects themselves, that reflects their own aspirations to overcome adversity.
Linder’s election snafu is not about his “right” to be a leader in the community, as nobody has such a right in an electoral democracy. The rights are for people to choose their leaders, and they are being trampled in this circumstance by the overwhelming prejudice against people with convictions, and the caste system we have developed.
Buddy Cianci, to my knowledge, never acknowledged that while he was away in prison, hard-working activists (who he has always scorned) fought to restore voting rights to people like him- who was on parole when released. He is forever labeled a “felon” by his detractors, whether they be party adherents, loyalists to another clique, or those who distrust him regardless of his past.
Mayor-Elect Linder is an example I can relate with: someone who has an upward trajectory in life, yet started in the dugout… rather than second or third base like many of our publicly “successful” people in America. To all those who encourage a formerly incarcerated person to get involved in politics, those with dedication to their community, wisdom, and leadership qualities: Question first if your community is allowed to elect the leaders you want; the leaders you need.