Can an Ex-Felon Run for Elected Office? Dealing with Skeletons in The Closet

martha-stewart felon run for office

One of my favorite ex-cons!

Every once in a while I like to skim through the keyword searches in my Google Analytics that end up leading people to  Sometimes there are some really interesting things in there.  This morning, however, was definitely a first.  At the top of my keywords column was the phrase, “can an ex felon become a mayor?”

After doing my own Google search, I found a few stories of felons who had run for office, some facts on felons currently in office, and a clever New York Times story on a Chicago con-turned-politician (although that doesn’t surprise anyone in Chicago).

Apparently, the answer is yes, you can run for mayor, Mr. Google searcher.

This post is for that one guy out there who’s persevered enough to turn his life around and now wants to make a real difference as the mayor of Small Town, USA.  It’s also for anyone who’s ever done anything embarrassing that could potentially be discovered by the media.

How does an ex-felon run for elected office?  And should he even try?

Should a convicted criminal run for office?  Of course he should!  Who doesn’t love the reformed sinner?  The prodigal son?  Someone who has become an upstanding citizen after a few mistakes is a gem in the political sphere, because the voters can identify with him.  People love the fact that G.W. Bush was an alcoholic, became a devout Christian and completely changed his life.  Heck, people even love the remorseful Bill Clinton, who did seriously embarrassing stuff while he was president.

Believe it or not, your sketchy history could make you the city’s darling favored candidate.

But how do you sell that story?  Here’s where it gets tricky.  In order to frame your own story for the voters, you must balance between not hiding your ‘secret’ but not putting it center stage either.

  • Step one – use the long-version biography on your website to mention the incident briefly without too much detail, and quickly use it as a springboard to describe how it made you ‘see the light’ and launch your turn-around story.
  • Step two – do not mention the incident in speeches, interviews, conversations with voters.  It is a piece of your past.  It is part of what made you who you are, but it does not define you entirely.
  • Step three – IF a reporter or (if you’re lucky) your opponent publicly attacks you with accusations, you must:
    • Remain calm.  You are totally prepared for this.
    • Admit your mistake. “Yes, 20 years ago I was arrested for drug possession/robbery/arson/drunk-driving.”
    • Tell the voters – not your opponent – “And it changed my life.”  Go on to describe how you’ve turned your life around, making certain to mention first your activism in programs like “Just Say No” or “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” as evidence that you are trying to help others like yourself.
    • Repeat your campaign message.  Now that your constituency is hanging on your every word, turn the conversation back around to your issues with a “that’s exactly why I’m running for mayor” type of statement, then segue into your top campaign issue (or issues).
  • Step 4 – Watch the newspapers and evening news and see how the story spins.
  • Step 5 – Leave it alone.  Whether the media spin is in your favor or not, you shouldn’t need to address it any further for the duration of the campaign.  It won’t come up again unless you give them more to report.  Let the issue die and get on with your campaign exactly as you had planned to before.
There you have it!  A step-by-step guide to skirting around your criminal history in a political campaign.  Given how many criminals we have running around in Congress, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this post get a lot of hits from DC…
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3 thoughts on “Can an Ex-Felon Run for Elected Office? Dealing with Skeletons in The Closet

  1. The only way a convicted felon could be an “ex-felon” is if they received a pardon, or a new trial and was found not guilty. (Or had their record expunged). A convicted felon is a felon for life under most circumstances. So for the most part, there is no such thing as an “ex-felon”.

  2. Everyone deserves an opportunity to contribute successfully to their community. And just because someone made a mistake or two, should not preclude them from actively participating in decision making in the country they live in.

    Convicted felons pay taxes and also distribute their income within our economy just as any of the rest of us do, so why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote as well?

    We’ve got to get past this clearly misguided notion that a judgmental error means someone should be punished forever over it.

  3. I am a student completely determined on getting into Politics and i have a criminal history with two comvictions on my record. One a felony but both are now just misdameanors after some effort. This article was some serious encouragement. I am very determined to be a example of change and growth in my community..

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