Above an official portrait of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, crisp silver lettering spells out a welcome to one of the shiniest new places in D.C. government — the Office on Returning Citizen Affairs.
And on a flier lying nearby: “YOU CAN LEGALLY VOTE!”
The bustling facility is designed solely for convicted criminals, a center for training, job placement, housing services and other programs for a slice of the population growing by thousands each year. Ex-offenders account for at least one in 10 D.C. residents and perhaps many more.
That makes them a potentially pivotal, if uncertain, voting bloc — and a highly coveted target that no political campaign has ignored in the tightening April 1 Democratic primary for mayor.
Every mayoral candidate has promised something. Any taboo that previously muted politicking with prisoners, some of whom once preyed on city residents, has fallen away in favor of winning a few thousand votes that could tip the balance in a close race.
D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser said last month that Metro’s hiring policy discriminates against city residents with “relatively minor” felony convictions. Council member Tommy Wells stressed that his bill to decriminalize marijuana would help keep former prisoners out of jail. Council member Vincent B. Orange pledged a 40-fold increase in spending on ex-offender services. And restaurateur Andy Shallal gets big applause when he touts his policy of not asking job applicants whether they’ve been convicted of a crime.
But no one is doing more to capture this vote than Gray, the embattled mayor seeking a second term even as he braces to face potential charges himself related to illegal funding in his 2010 campaign. He has expanded city services for ex-offenders like no mayor before him. And he is extolling that accomplishment with great fanfare — and promising more over the next four years — in the final weeks of the campaign.
Under some of the country’s most liberal voting-rights laws, more types of convicted criminals are eligible to vote in the District than nearly anywhere else: felons, parolees, probationers. Some are out on bond or wearing electronic monitoring devices. Some are still in jail.
Next week, for only the second mayoral election, hundreds of ballots are scheduled to be delivered to the D.C. jail. Anyone awaiting a trial or convicted of a misdemeanor can vote. Unlike in most states, felons in the District can cast ballots the day they leave prison.
For decades, the city has been ahead of a national trend to undo Colonial-era laws prohibiting convicts from voting. More recently, the movement has gained traction across the country and across partisan lines, with nearly two dozen states in the past 15 years revamping voting laws. In Virginia last year, then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) eliminated the requirement for qualified nonviolent felons to apply before their voting rights can be restored.
Last month, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. thrust the issue into the national spotlight, casting voting rights for ex-prisoners as a civil rights issue. He urged all states that had not yet done so to loosen their laws.
In the District, the growing strength of the movement comes not only from ex-convicts themselves but also from churches, younger residents who are new to the city and a coalition of liberal groups who see it as a social-justice priority.
The District — especially since Gray has been mayor — has also blazed the trail setting up government services to help ex-convicts reenter society.
In a busy city services building in the heart of Anacostia, the Office on Ex-Offender Affairs used to be hidden on the third floor, behind a wooden door that always seemed to be locked. Now, after a half-million-dollar office makeover and staff expansion, the Office on Returning Citizen Affairs is on display behind glass doors near the main entrance and goes by the term preferred by advocates. It has new computers, invitingly warm, red walls and artwork featuring sun-drenched former prisoners. More than 5,000 residents with records visited the office in 2013, its first year in the new location.
Gray also signed into law early in his tenure a key priority of the advocates: a ban within city agencies on asking job applicants whether they had been convicted of a crime.
Since then, the District has hired 534 former inmates — most for positions with benefits, including hundreds into jobs that were once off-limits because of their proximity to children, such as school bus attendants, drivers and camp directors.
The city has placed 400 more ex-offenders in jobs with private construction firms and paid for 112 to complete training for commercial driver’s licenses. Last year, the government enlisted nearly two dozen city departments, courts and federal prisons to begin a broader effort to get ex-offenders hired.
“This is resonating with a lot of returning citizens,” said Amin Muslim, a D.C. Council staffer who served 12 years for conspiracy to distribute heroin.
Muslim said many ex-offenders see Gray for the jobs he has created, not for what a campaign donor and the U.S. attorney have said about him. “In street language, ‘Who do you want to be with?’ The guy who told on somebody, or the guy who has gotten people jobs? . . . There’s a lot of people who have been accused of something wrongly in prison,” he said.
Gray has taken pains to explain that his work on behalf of ex-offenders is not designed for political advantage. They are among the city’s neediest, most underemployed and most at risk of homelessness, the mayor said. His efforts, he said, fall under his 2010 campaign slogan of “One City” and his goal of advocating equally for all.
“We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to keep people from returning to the life that got them into difficulty in the first place,” he said in an interview.
But there is also no mistake that Gray’s campaign is targeting a group that has benefited heavily from his attention.
He hired Rahim Jenkins, the former head of the Office on Ex-Offender Affairs, as his deputy campaign manager for east of the Anacostia River. He is also relying on the resources of his office to bolster the case that they should vote for him.
On the Saturday before early voting began, Gray and several members of his cabinet traveled by caravan to Anacostia for a “Returning Citizens Town Hall.”
It was an official event of the Executive Office of the Mayor, but the atmosphere inside the new pavilion on the east campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital had the look and feel of a campaign rally. Blue “Vince GRAY for Mayor” T-shirts peppered the crowd.
Gray didn’t shy away from his personal connection to the gathering: Campaign volunteers distributed a news article in which former mayor Marion Barry, now a D.C. Council member and returned citizen himself, urged voters to discount allegations by federal prosecutors that Gray knew of an illegal, off-the-books effort to finance his 2010 campaign.
In front of the crowd, Gray explained how his administration had “laid the foundation” to triple or quadruple job gains for ex-offenders over the next four years.
“Four years from now, we will have a clear pathway for citizens coming back to this city,” he said.
Gray’s deputy mayor for public safety, Paul Quander, boasted that the fire department had just hired eight former inmates.
The mayor’s director of permitting told the crowd not to be bullied by landlords. And when Gray was asked how he would help returning citizens afford housing, he promised to tap into $100 million he had just pledged for affordable housing next year.
He turned to Michael Kelly, his director of housing:
“Mike, you clearly understand that reentering citizens have to be a part of that?”
“Yes, sir,” Kelly replied.
Finally, the Rev. Donald Isaac, head of Gray’s interfaith council, spoke.
“How many folk are going to vote on April 1st?” A hundred hands shot up.
“Give yourself a hand,” Isaac said. Gray’s staff hurriedly launched into applause. “If you don’t vote, you don’t have any basis to complain,” Isaac said.
Assessing just how many ex-prisoners live in the District or any major U.S. city is not easy.
A widely cited 2011 report by the nonprofit Council for Court Excellence held that 60,000 D.C. residents had a criminal record.
That number came from a 2008 survey of ex-convicts and employment, said Charles Thornton, director of the Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. Thornton, who spent much of the 1980s in and out of prison on federal drug charges, said the number is surely higher now, perhaps one in seven adults, or about 75,000. As many as 8,000 D.C. residents are released annually from the city jail and federal prisons combined. Roughly half end up back in jail within three years, Thornton said.
Records show that roughly 22,000 D.C. residents are now under correctional supervision.
Predicting voting patterns is just as hard.
In the District, ex-prisoners have had the right to vote since 1976, but the exercise of that right took on new momentum preceding the 2008 presidential election for President Obama, said Courtney Stewart, head of the Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, which organizes voter-registration drives in the city.
The District’s many nonprofit groups dedicated to voter registration did not keep a coordinated tally that year, but by some estimates, at least 10,000 ex-offenders were registered to vote.
Stewart said his group signed up nearly 4,000 more before the 2010 mayoral election. That year, the city also allowed inmates to request absentee ballots and vote inside the city jail; 446 did so. “It’s a growing force,” Barry said.
In 2012, Barry sponsored a short-lived legislative effort to make ex-offenders a protected class in the city, akin to those with disabilities, to prohibit employer discrimination based on a criminal record. That goal, along with housing assistance, continue to be the central rallying cries of those trying to urge more ex-offenders to the polls. “We need more returning citizens to know they can vote,” Barry said, “and more to get out and vote.”
To maximize the bloc’s influence, advocates are also trying to steer ex-offenders to rally around a single candidate.
At a mayoral debate last month for ex-offenders, Cornell Jones, a 1980s drug kingpin-turned-D.C. radio personality, took the stage and told a story of being in jail when Barry was arrested in 1990 and bringing him bags of food and other contraband in the infirmary.
“It’s like this: We need to figure out how to get together,” said the host of “Keeping Up With the Joneses” on WOL (1450 AM). “We’ve been doing this for four mayor’s races, every time we split up, we go to different camps, we battle it out, and we move our agenda nowhere.”
Muslim, who backs Gray, said the 534 jobs Gray has been able to secure for returnees will probably make the difference. “That’s five rocks in your pocket — that’s meat on the bone to show you’re more than just talk,” he said, and when it comes to votes, 500 jobs translates into something larger:
“You have to extrapolate, how many people do 500 people touch, especially when you talk about a mom who knows her son was given an opportunity by a particular candidate?” Muslim said. “These are not political people, they don’t follow the process. You’re talking about a mom, an aunt, maybe his friends and family who know he got a job. They’ll vote for that.”