The Rhode Island House of Representatives, in a decision that may be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, has refused to seat a convicted felon who was elected to the chamber in November.
The unusual case of William II. Bailey, 40, a rugged black man who in 1960 was offered a try-out as a half back with the Cleveland Browns but instead, by his own account, chose the life of a professional shoplifter, was resolved by the House after a tense, emotional debate.
The vote to deny Bailey his seat representing Providence's 19th District - a largely black neighborhood - was 32 to 10, with eight representatives absent or not voting.
But the Bailey case, which had hovered over the Rhode Island legislature like a storm since the first of the year, is far from finished.
"If necessary, this will go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," said James Murray, one of the several lawyers who have represented. Bailey, their friend, since his eligiblity to hold office was first questioned last December.
There are those who think the constitutional issues in Bailey's case are such that it is realistic to expect the nation's high court will ultimately become involved. William Kunstler, the lawyer who has defended political radicals, is about to enter the case, according to Bailey's Providence lawyers.
In November, the election day figures gave the results, but didn't tell the whole story.
Bailey, a Democrat, defeated Republican Roberta M. Scott 951 to 332.
It wasn't surprising, considering Providence's penchant for Democratic politicians. And, although Bailey is black and the 150-member legislature had only one black at its last session, it still made sense.
District 19 includes most of Providence's south side, a ghetto area, the only area in the state with a concentrated black population. It is a troubled neighborhood.
J. Howard Duffy, a rumpled, 71-year-old white man and a holdover from the days when South Providence was an Irish stonghold, had decided not to seek re-election in District 19 after a 16-year legislative career. That a black man would succeed Duffy made political sense.
"I know very little about politics, only that it's the dirtiest game going outside of boxing," said Bobby Young, 44, an ex-prize fighter who grew up and still lives in South Providence. "But I do know Billy Bailey. We're friends. Billy is a nice, easy-going guy. There is no question whatsoever that he would do a better job than anyone who has been there before him."
But while Bailey appeared to be nothing more to some than a good looking, aggressive Democrat, there is another side to his portrait:
He has felony convictions for larceny in Pennsylvania, Mannachusetts and Michigan dating to 1956.
How did a man of Bailey's background get elected?
"I was a professional booster [shoplifter], that's what I was, and they [the District 19 voters] know it," Bailey said. "But they don't care because they know I'd fight for them. They know I had a record, my opponents put it out in everything.
"One of Bailey's constituents, Loretta Brown, said, "I voted for him and I would vote for him again. He knows a lot of people in the neighborhood; he knows the adults had he knows the teenagers. I think he would do a lot for the neighborhood."
Bailey's position is clear. He admits to having spent most of his adult life as a thief. But now, he claims, he has rehabilitated himself and should be given a chance to work within the system like anyone else.
But the only way Bailey will be able to serve in the Rhode Island House now is if he can win the court battles he promises to wage.
His grounds for the challenge are based on complex interpretations of two state constitutional amendments governings a person's qualifications to vote and therefore to hold public office.
Felons cannot vote, according to the state constitution, unless the legislature restores that right by passing an act to that effect.
There is also likely to be federal court action on Bailey's behalf. That would be a class action suit filed on the grounds that District 19 voters are being deprived of their right to be represented by the person of their choice.
For Bailey, the situation involves more than just the legal issues. His conviction on a Michigan larceny charge carries a two-to-four-year prison sentence. Bailey was free on a $2,000 bond, pending an appeal of the conviction that was improperly filed.
Michigan officials, however, were doing nothing about Bailey's case until inquiries by the Rhode Island state police about his record there prompted new action. Extradition proceedings have begun and could send Bailey to prison in Michigan.
Only part of Bailey's background has emerged since his political and legal struggles began after his election. He says he makes his living now from apartments and other real estate he owns in the South Providence neighborhood. But he has no office, no business phone, nor is there a telephone listing for the Providence address he calls home.
Where he got the money to become an apparently successful real estate man is also unclear, although he says now that legal fees in his fight for the House seat have put him behind in his mortgage payments.
Yet, said Robert Carpenter, 26, who runs a community center in South Providence. "He was allowed to spend his money and time on the campaign and he was elected by the people of his district. Why shouldn't he be seated.?"
Beiley talks bitterly about the "system" that let him rehabilitate himself, only to chop him down."T"In Rhode Island, they've never had a black who had any power politically," Bailey said. "I used to back guys and make sure people got to the polls and voted.
"But I said, 'What the hell am I doing this for? Why don't I run myself?' because I knew there was no problem that I was going to win."
He adds, "Any time a black person has tried to get power in this state they knock him out."
Meanwhile, plans are moving forward to hold another election in about two months in which the voters of South Providence will be asked again to elect someone to represent them.