Renee Jefferson-Smith, who trailed Cynthia Bailey by 168 votes in unofficial returns, sued the city of Houston and Harris County Thursday, contending that Bailey’s 2007 conviction for forging a $14,500 check makes her ineligible to appear on the ballot.
The Texas Election Code says candidates are eligible to run for office if they have not been “finally convicted” of a felony from which they have “not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” though the law does not define “resulting disabilities.”
In the state district court lawsuit, which seeks an injunction and temporary restraining order to bar Bailey from appearing on the ballot, Jefferson-Smith also argued that Bailey may have committed perjury by affirming in her candidacy application that she had not been convicted of a felony.
Though the law appears to prohibit convicted felons from seeking office, candidates with felony records successfully have reached the ballot in Houston, Austin and San Antonio, and the law has yet to be thoroughly tested in court.
For now, Bailey is set to face Tarsha Jackson in the District B runoff. The district, which covers several north Houston neighborhoods including Fifth Ward and Acres Homes, currently is represented by term-limited Councilman Jerry Davis. Jackson finished atop the 14-candidate field with 20.8 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s election.
In the petition filed Thursday, Jefferson-Smith also contended that Bailey’s criminal record “will guarantee a victory for the other runoff candidate and deny voters in District B a real choice.”
Replacing Bailey in the runoff, Jefferson-Smith argued, would give voters “the opportunity to choose between two eligible candidates for the position of Council member for District B, thus ensuring that District B voters are not disenfranchised.”
Jefferson-Smith declined to comment through a spokesperson, though she posted about the lawsuit on Facebook Thursday.
“I had a decision to make, and believe me it was extremely tough, so please understand; this lawsuit and fight is not about me, it’s about the people in District B,” she wrote.
Jackson said she was disappointed Jefferson-Smith filed the lawsuit, and argued that Bailey should not be kept off the ballot.
“I’ve spent my whole life fighting for criminal justice reform and fighting for people to have a second chance. All the candidates knew she had a criminal record when the story came out,” Jackson said, referring to a Chronicle story published last month. “She finished second despite the story, and I think she should be able to finish the race.”
As you well know, I Am Not A Lawyer, so I have no idea what the courts will make of this. I expect we will get a quick decision, likely followed by a quick appeal to the 1st or 14th Court of Appeals, which in turn will either rule or refuse to take up the matter in short order.
Bailey’s status was reported by the Chron in October in a story that was primarily about residency requirements. You will note that three other candidates who were on the ballot were in the same boat, though none of them came close to advancing. You may also recall that former Geto Boy Willie D decided not to file in District B over concerns about his own status. I wonder what he’s thinking right now.
I don’t have a problem with the filing of the lawsuit, especially if one believes that Bailey would be prevented from taking office in the event she won because of her status. We don’t know that would happen, but it could and it seems likely that someone would take legal action to force the question. I would have preferred to adjudicate the question before the actual election, precisely to avoid issues like this, but the courts in their wisdom prefer to only get involved after elections. I’d also prefer for people like Bailey and Willie D to be able to run for office after they finish serving their sentences, but at the very least the law in Texas is unclear on that. I’ll keep an eye on this and we’ll see what the courts have to say.