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One week ago the Chronicle reported that the City of Houston had rejected my application to appear on the 2023 ballot as a Mayoral candidate because of an 18-year old non-violent felony charge.

This rejection is frustrating because I have been campaigning since January, gained the endorsement of the Harris County Libertarian Party (their first ever in a Mayoral race) and the Texas Libertarian Party’s Mises Caucus, showed up in a UH poll at 1% with likely voters (and another 6% willing to consider me), and spoke with 1000’s of Houstonians about my vision for Houston.

Needless to say, my team and I believed we had a chance at continuing to grow a movement and potentially make the run off. Now, I’ll never know if I would have hit 10% in the next poll. Or if I might have earned one of the much-sought after spots in the final televised debates.

All because of a felony drug possession charge I picked up when I was a depressed 20-year old struggling with drug addiction and mental health issues. I was arrested in November 2005, sentenced to 2 years felony probation and a concurrent jail sentence. When it was all said and done I had spent 19 months behind bars in various Texas institutions. I was released in October 2005 and completed parole in June 2009.

I do not believe prison is a place that can rehabilitate all or even most who have the misfortune of rotting away in these facilities. All I know is that I was able to use the time to start healing my trauma so that when I finished parole in summer of 2009 I was a different person. I was in the beginning stages of becoming an activist. Within a year it consumed my life as I participated in movements like Occupy Houston, the local offshoot of the 2011 Occupy Wallstreet protests. By 2013, I began taking independent journalism seriously and started to learn the ropes of local government.

After spending years at City Hall as an activist and a journalist, I decided to enter the political arena and ran for Mayor in 2019. While I did not win the race I did get my message in front of Houstonians and gain some valuable insights.

So, what’s changed? Why was I allowed to run for Mayor in 2019 but not in 2023?

Texas Election Code regarding felons running for office has long been a subject of debate and confusion. It states that individuals who want to run office must have not been “finally convicted of a felony from which the person has not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities”. It is that phrase “resulting disabilities” which has caused much confusion in recent years.

Some have interpreted it to mean that when a felon finishes parole and no longer owes money to the state of Texas they are “released from resulting disabilities”. For example, in 2018 a felon filed to run for Austin City Council and – after public outcry – the City Clerk approved his ballot application. He said he believed completion of his sentence and parole relieved him of the resulting disabilities.

In 2019, I ran for Mayor of Houston under a similar premise and was allowed to stay on the ballot through November. In the 2019 District B City Council race, Cynthia Bailey also ran despite a previous felony conviction for theft. Bailey actually made the run off in her race and the 3rd place candidate filed a lawsuit which dragged on for more than a year. Ultimately, a judge decided to allow her to stay on the ballot (while not ruling on the specific language of the election code or her legitimacy as a candidate).

This brought more attention to the issue and in 2021 Texas Representative Jarvis Johnson introduced HB 1316 in an attempt to clarify the language. Unfortunately, Johnson’s bill did not get any traction, but another bill introduced by Rep. Ryan Guillien did and it became law. HB 4555 added a line to the Texas Election Code which said that “a person who has been convicted of a felony shall include in the application proof that the person is eligible for public office”. Unfortunately, it didn’t specify what counts as proof or clarify the resulting disabilities phrase.

It is this sentence from HB 4555 which the City of Houston added to the requirements to run for office in 2023, as well as a notice stating “release from or successful completion of probation or parole does not make a convicted felon eligible for a place on the ballot or able to hold elected office”.

That second line doesn’t come from the Texas Election Code or HB 4555. Instead, it is a direct quote of a 2019 legal opinion by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. The opinion was released after Paxton was asked directly whether or not felons should be able to run for office. It suggests that while felons do get a restoration of voting rights once they complete their sentence and parole, they do not get their full citizenship rights reinstated. This includes the right to run for office.

Ironically, Paxton himself is facing several felonies. However, I imagine he would have a much easier time getting a pardon from the Governor of Texas than someone like myself.

The only other path offered to felons interested in running for office is known as judicial clemency. Paxton acknowledges this path in his legal opinion but several Texas courts believe felons only have 30 days to apply for judicial clemency once they are released from prison or parole. I can say from experience no one tells you about this alleged time limit.

The idea that I am eternally robbed of my constitutional right to freedom of expression and freedom of association because of an 18-year old non-violent charge is baffling. I have been working with an election lawyer and more than likely will pursue a lawsuit over this aspect of Texas Election Code. Unfortunately, this won’t help me get on the 2023 ballot.

It’s not a pleasant feeling to be judged for the mistakes of my youth. Especially, when so many politicians pay lip service to wanting to help rehabilitated felons like myself build new lives.

I wanted to be in the Mayoral race to serve my community. I will continue to do so whether I am a candidate or not, but I hope we can change this.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Michael Ebner says:

    As a fellow ex- felon, I can relate how a past conviction can be used to deny many opportunities that others take for granted.

  • Alan Warner says:

    Hi Derrick. I am so sorry to hear about this. This is tragic and ridiculous. Indeed a citizen but with only partial rights now. Grrr…

    I think it should be: if you did the crime, do the time, then all is fine. As you note there is much talk about helping folks rebuild lives – yup just talk, no real action.
    It does seem like the bar is set quite low to pickup a felony these days (even roughly a $500 theft of property crime can lead to such – and we know $500 is not a lot).

    I had told my Houston friends to listen to your interview with Ryan (TLAV) and support you. I just happened to be sending one an email tonight and decided to check on your status beforehand. This saddens me. Obviously someone (or more) were getting nervous about the issues that resonate with voters and don’t want your honesty and truth-telling to be spread more and pick up traction.
    Peace my friend.
    Alan in Denver