Tacoma - Until a few years ago, Jesse Miller's past kept her from voting, let alone running for office.
But the hip-hop producer from Tacoma is now running for the Legislature, and she’s not hiding the drug conviction that dogged her for years after she had served her time.
“I think I’m an example of what a felon is. It’s a person who made a mistake, and has done the best they can with that stigma, and continued to be a law-abiding and respectable citizen,” Miller said.
Felons running for office could become more common under a state law Miller championed, which made it easier for felons to have their voting rights restored.
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The law passed in 2009 over the objections of many Republicans, including all of them in the House. Today, though, Miller is running for the House as a Republican.
Her party choice makes her a long shot to beat Rep. Steve Kirby, an incumbent Democrat representing a traditionally Democratic district.
But the East Side resident, a mother of eight children and stepchildren from 21 down to 3, has built relationships as a community activist and as a businesswoman who manages rappers like Da Ghetto Baby and Skirt Digla out of a downtown studio. It’s not unusual to hear Miller, known as “Ms. Jesse,” rap on a track.
Her record label is a nod to her and her artists’ pasts: Felony Entertainment.
Miller, 37, spent 15 months in prison on a conviction for delivering cocaine. She calls it a 19-year-old’s mistake.
“That’s why I work with kids,” Miller said. “Not every kid has a choice of where they grow up, and I grew up in the midst of the Hilltop when it was at its Mecca of drug dealing.”
For years after she left prison, she didn’t think she was eligible to vote. Even though she had paid her fines, she said she never received paperwork restoring her voting rights.
By the time it was straightened out, she was pushing for full voting rights for all felons who are out of prison and finished with community supervision.
The law at the time withheld voting rights for any felon who hadn’t paid court fines or restitution to victims.
The 2009 law changed that, but Rep. Christopher Hurst, a Democrat who opposed it, said lawmakers may not have realized they were also opening the door for more felons to run for office.
“I think that should be a lifetime disqualifier,” said Hurst, of Enumclaw. “There are plenty of other people who could run for public office.”
The GOP would seem an odd choice for a former leader of an advocacy group for the poor that has lobbied in Olympia for universal health care and tighter regulations on payday lenders.
“It wasn’t an easy choice. It’s not a popular choice. I’m a woman of color running as a Republican” Miller said. But she shares the party’s emphasis on family values, government waste and education, she said.
Kirby, now Miller’s opponent, was a key player in the payday lending fight, and he ended up pushing through a compromise measure that many Republicans opposed but didn’t go far enough for Miller.
Pierce County GOP Chairman Bob Lawrence speaks with excitement about Miller’s candidacy.
Republicans may not agree with her on everything, like on the need for regulation on payday lenders, but she fits perfectly with the district’s voters, Lawrence said.
As for the effect of Miller’s conviction, Lawrence said: “That’s something the voters are going to have to decide,” he said.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 firstname.lastname@example.org, blog.thenewstribune.com/politics