A Window on the Politics of Redemption

Convicted murderer Henry Price runs for a City Council seat in Hartford, Conn

'YOU registered to vote?" Henry Price demands of a man standing in bus shelter in downtown Hartford. The man shakes his head. Mr. Price, running for City Council, is incredulous. "If you can't vote, how can you make change?''

The garrulous Price likes to talk about change. As a convicted murderer turned politician, it's a subject he knows well.

A year ago, he was 12 years into a 40-year term at Somers Correctional Institution for for shooting a reputed drug dealer. Today, he is on the Nov. 7 ballot - a free man, pardoned and preaching redemption in the streets he once terrorized.

"In my community, the African-American community, a lot of people are on the brink of giving up hope,'' says Price, who announced his independent candidacy in January, two months after his release from prison. "I'm trying to deliver a message of hope. A guy like me, I was in the garbage can, and I was able to turn it around. I want people to know: you don't have to live that way. I'm the proof.''

Like Washington Mayor Marion Barry (convicted of cocaine possession) and Chicago Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. (convicted of armed robbery) before him, Price is running on, and not from his criminal record. Rehabilitation, he says, is evidence of his character. Perhaps not so surprisingly, his message finds a constituency here.

Going back to the earliest days of the Republic, American voters have selectively penalized or forgiven the moral behavior of candidates. President Clinton, Sen. Bob Packwood, and former Sen. Gary Hart are among the more recent examples of candidates who have had to face accusations of unethical or immoral conduct. But it's clear the convict-turned-candidate is a phenomenon in cities that may become more common as recent cases show an urban constituency willing to forgive or even embrace lawbreaking politicians.

"Voters who feel that they have been oppressed may identify with a Marion Barry as a victim of the same system that has victimized them,'' says John K. White, a political scientist at Catholic University in Washington. "When the candidate focuses on his redemption, it becomes a powerful story.''

"[Price] is our Marion Barry,'' agrees Steven Harris, a Hartford fire captain and member of the State Democratic Central Committee. "The American ideal is that no matter where you come from or what you've done, you can dust yourself off and pick yourself up. Bubby has done it.''

A product of Bellevue Square, the most notorious public housing project in Hartford's impoverished North End, Henry Lloyd "Bubby'' Price grew up on violence and drugs. From early adolescence to age 30, he amassed more than a dozen felony convictions, most of them robberies and assaults to support drug and alcohol addictions.

"It was a cesspool,'' Price now says of his life. In 1982, he hunted down and shot a man he says had sold him bad drugs.

Price was caught and convicted of felony murder. The first night in his prison cell, he fell to his knees and appealed to God. He was, he says, reborn.

Corrections workers grow jaded about jailhouse conversions, but Price spent hours in counseling to treat his addictions and his behavior. He earned a high school diploma and a college associate's degree. He began to volunteer for and initiate social service programs. He led the inmate choir and prison Bible study group.

In 1991, the state Board of Pardons trimmed 10 years from Price's sentence and transferred him to a day-release facility in Hartford. While still locked down at night, he completed the Black Ministerial Program at the Hartford Seminary, became a substance abuse counselor and was appointed to chair the city Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

In November 1994, Price's sentence was commuted and he was released. He now divides his time between the Blue Ridge Center, where he is a substance abuse counselor, and the Connecticut Prison Association, through which he runs programs for inmates.

Price is campaigning primarily in the public housing projects, the homeless shelters and the parks of the North End. He is registering voters and outlining positions that include a residency requirement for city employees, hiring more minority teachers for schools and expanding community development and social service programs.

"A lot of people have lost faith in the system, says Mr. Harris. "They've seen the politicians come and go, and their lives haven't changed. When Henry talks, you can see from people's expressions that they believe him.''

It is the constituency Barry captured to retake the Washington mayoralty, White says. When Barry first was elected mayor, he was more popular among middle-class white voters than poor black voters. But his six-month federal prison term for drug possession reversed his appeal; his support among black voters broadened as it evaporated among whites.

White says the convict-as-candidate phenomenon is related more directly to social and economic class than to race. He cites James Michael Curley, who was elected mayor of Boston in 1945 by a loyal, working-class Irish constituency while in prison for mail fraud.

Back at the bus shelter, George Dillon, a maintenance worker, has filled out his voter registration form - and selected his candidate. "Henry Price knows the issues of the streets better than someone who hasn't been there." says Mr. Dillon. "He knows what needs to be done. He's got my vote.''

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