For Baltimore man with criminal record, first time voting provides hope

A Baltimore felon, voting for the first time: "That felt good!"

As Will Suggs pushed his son's stroller out of the polling station at the Enoch Pratt Free Library at Pennsylvania and North avenues in West Baltimore on Tuesday morning, he put one fist in the air and smiled.

"First time voting!" he said. "That felt good!"

Until recently, Suggs, 28, didn't think he could vote. He has a long criminal record and two assault charges pending, which he thought precluded him from the political process.

But then he started hearing other guys with records in the neighborhood talking about a new law passed in Annapolis that cleared the way for them to take part, he said.

"I know a lot of people who can't vote who are felons, and they were saying, 'I can vote this year,'" Suggs said. "So I said, 'Oh OK, well then I'm going to vote, too.'"

Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly narrowly overturned a veto from Gov. Larry Hogan to pass a bill extending voting rights to felons before they complete probation and parole. The law opened the polls this primary election to an estimated 20,000 former inmates in Baltimore and 40,000 statewide. Organizations that advocate for former inmates trying to reintegrate into the community have been working to spread the word in Baltimore and elsewhere ever since.

John Comer, co-director of Communities United, said his group found that many former inmates in Maryland feel as though "larger society doesn't want to forgive someone who's been incarcerated, so they expect punishment to loom over their head." Along with those felons empowered to vote under the new law, the group found others who could already vote but didn't think they could, he said.

Technically, Suggs was one of the latter. He said he has a felony assault conviction, though his criminal record in Maryland online court records only shows assault acquittals, dropped charges and guilty verdicts for minor offenses and misdemeanors. Felon or not, he's not currently on parole or probation.

Still, he had a deeply ingrained notion that he was barred from the political process — which was enough to keep him away from the polls until Tuesday, when he became a proud first-time voter.

"They've been not giving us the right to vote for so long, we felt like we didn't matter," Suggs said. "Now we feel like we matter."

That sense of hope was always core to the legislative push, as was clearing up confusion for those in Maryland who were unsure about their ability to vote.

Although opponents of the bill, including Hogan, said it improperly restored rights to people who had not yet paid their debt to society, supporters promoted the legislation as a way to help tackle what they called the systemic disenfranchisement of large portions of Baltimore's population — including in some of the neighborhoods that rose up last year following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody.

They touted it as a way to remove one more barrier to former inmates turning their lives around, participating in the system and feeling hopeful about their future.

For Suggs — whose polling place was directly across the street from the CVS pharmacy that burned down during the worst of the rioting after Gray's death — that vision was spot on.

"In one word, it means hope," he said. "That's all you can ask for is hope."

Last year, as the rioting erupted, Suggs' wife Shada Williams was carrying his son, Denor. Holding his son, now 11 months old, on Tuesday, Suggs said he felt obligated to vote in part to "make things better for him."

"I know that my vote is in the percent that's going to get counted, and that makes me feel good," he said. "After the riots, we need some more structure."

Suggs voted for Sheila Dixon for mayor — "She needs to come back and restore order in her city. This is her city," he said — as well as Hillary Clinton for president. He also voted for Chris Van Hollen for Senate, he said, because Van Hollen "was actually out here in the streets in neighborhoods like this" during his campaign.

Voting felt empowering, he said — just like getting a job and caring for his son has felt empowering. He is currently working in a furniture warehouse making $9 an hour, and hopes his progress in recent months will help show the judge at his May 2 trial on one of his pending charges that he's "not still doing the same stuff I was doing."

Suggs said he knows now that doing better in his personal life is up to him, and that he's up for the challenge. "It's baby steps," he said.

He also knows that helping the city improve is a team effort, he said, and voting Tuesday made him feel like he — and others with criminal records — can be a part of that effort for the first time.

"I feel as though I'm a part of something that's going to lead to change. Like, Baltimore City needs change drastically. It's not getting no better, it's getting worse," Suggs said, holding his son outside the polling station. "I feel like if I go vote, I can tell the next felon to go vote, the next felon can tell the next felon, and it can just be a domino effect.

"All the felons that didn't vote, we have a voice now, so we can do something about all the things that are messed up in the city."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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