Tammie Hagen, an ex-felon who registers other ex-felons to vote, was fighting an uphill battle during a rough week.
Her 44-year-old brother, a longtime drug user, was in intensive care with liver and kidney problems. She was trying to convince her mother to show her brother some tough love about his addiction, but her mother is suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer. And Hagen was still shaken by a shooting she witnessed a few days earlier while trying to register voters in a Richmond housing project.
Days before Virginia’s Oct. 17 registration deadline, she was working the crowd outside the Third Street Bethel A.M.E. Church south of downtown, where men and women — many of whom are homeless and have criminal records — line up for a weekly free lunch.
“Does anyone need to check to see if their rights have been restored?” Hagen shouts.
Hagen said Virginia hasn’t made her job easy. There’s confusion among ex-offenders after Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced in April that he planned to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons — only to have his order invalidated by the state’s Supreme Court in July.
That decision forced the governor to do the job on a case-by-case basis, instead of en masse. He has restored the rights of more than 85,000 Virginians since he took office, including more than 67,000 since the court decision, a spokesman for the governor’s office said.
Hagen said she has helped “a couple hundred” people win back their right to vote and has registered 900 new voters. But many people she works with have bigger problems than getting to the polls.
Those gathering to eat at Third Street Bethel are poor. Some are addicted to drugs. They might have physical or mental disabilities. They might live on the streets, with no permanent address to receive mail. Many don’t want to talk about their past.
Such obstacles don’t make paperwork easy. People with felony convictions in Virginia need to petition the state to get their voting rights back. Then, they need to register to vote. To vote, they need photo ID. And they need to know where to cast their ballots.
Hagen, a $15-per-hour employee of the nonpartisan, nonprofit New Virginia Majority, is not deterred. Since her car died earlier this year, she has been riding a bike with a “Question Authority” sticker, endlessly asking: “Are you registered to vote?”
At Third Street Bethel, Hagen, 52, is a familiar face. She approaches Maurice Williams, who lost his right to vote in 1986, when he was convicted of a felony that he wouldn’t discuss.
“I just hope they give it back,” Williams, 52, said as Hagen used her phone to check his status in Virginia’s online database. “I just want to vote. I would like to have the privilege.”
Another man — James Barrett, 62, who said he lives in a warehouse nearby — pulls Hagen out of the line for food. Although he successfully petitioned to get his rights back, he couldn’t register because, for reasons neither he or Hagen fully understand, the state won’t recognize his address as valid.
“I care about who’s going to be in the White House,” Barrett said. “The last time I voted was when Clinton was in office.”
Hagen was born and raised in Richmond’s Oak Grove neighborhood. She was a half-Cherokee girl with curly hair who was looked down upon in a tough neighborhood where men carried knives in their boots.
“At 5, my ambition was to be a gangster,” she said.
She landed in juvenile detention at age 9 after running away. Then, at 13, she again ran away and landed in Florida, where she was picked up by a biker while hitchhiking. That biker “sold” her, she said, to a high-ranking member of a motorcycle gang for $2,000 and a diamond ring.
Hagen married the motorcycle gang member, going on the run with him until the early 1980s, when she came home to Richmond. She said she sold drugs, and abused them. She ran a heavy metal bar, the Hungry Fox, on the city’s south side. She also had three children.
Then, in the early 1990s, Hagen was sent to prison for drug possession, among other charges, after what she said was a “six-month binge.” She lost custody of her kids, spent much of the 1990s behind bars in Virginia and was released in 2000.
While incarcerated, Hagen said she started to think of herself differently.
“I always thought I was a bad person and needed to get good,” she said. “I didn’t realize that substance abuse disorder was an illness. I had no idea.”
She also began to see the criminal justice system and poverty in a new way.
“The whole thing is set up to fail,” Hagen said. “It’s set up to keep people who are down down. And quiet. Because if you are busy spending your whole fricking day figuring out how to keep a roof over your head, you have no time to do anything else.”
Inspired by the example of former congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, a son of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, who is open about his mental-health problems and struggles with addiction, she also became more politically active. She fought against food deserts in her neighborhood, and she joined the national fight for a $15 minimum wage. Richmond Magazine, not to mention the New York Times, wrote about her.
When she learned that other states let people with felony convictions vote and, in Maine and Vermont, felons can vote while incarcerated, registering those around her just made sense.
“I was a political kindergartner then,” she said. “ . . . I didn’t really know that I deserved anything better than what I had.”
After two hours at the church, Hagen gets a call from Glenn Artis, a homeless man who recently found a way off the street.
Artis is in an unusual position. Convicted of a felony in D.C. that he won’t discuss, he was in federal prison from 2001 to 2008. When he was released, he was able to vote in Washington but lost his voting rights when he moved to Richmond to spend time with his ailing father.
Hagen helped Artis win back his rights. He had just moved into a two-bedroom apartment his sister rented for him and is eager to show it off. His belongings are still in garbage bags.
“This right here is a blessing,” he said as Hagen prepares a voter registration form with his new address. He’s so new to the place that he has to check the front door for his apartment number.
Hagen lingers outside the church for almost two hours, even after the crowd moves inside when lunch is served. She’ll talk to anyone — criminal record or not — including people at nursing homes or at a Richmond bus transfer station.
“They don’t think I’m looking down my nose at them,” she said. “They don’t think I’m trying to do them a favor. People get a sense that I understand where they are, because I’ve been there.”
Former felons in Virginia face so many battles, Hagen said, that letting them vote shouldn’t be another one.
“Nothing can stand in the way of this mission,” she said. “This is about democracy.”