This week Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, for the eighth time, shepherded through the state House of Representatives a measure to allow voters to change the state constitution to permit the automatic restoration of felons’ voting rights.
Kentucky remains one of only three states which do not automatically restore the vote to those who’ve paid their debt to society. The Kentucky constitution presently requires them to petition the governor for that privilege.
Crenshaw’s bill has always failed in the Republican controlled state Senate and Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, indicated Thursday it may not succeed this time either, although he left open the possibility. Many Republicans believe ex-felons are inclined to vote Democratic.
Coincidentally, this week, a federal judge nominated to the bench by a Republican U.S. Senator sentenced to prison a former Republican Agriculture Commissioner who misappropriated tax money while in office.
“You owe us a debt to society and you need to pay that debt,” Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove said to Richie Farmer. “But once you’ve paid that debt, then you are debt free and you can hold your head high.”
Two days later, as Crenshaw asked colleagues to show some compassion to others who’ve paid their debts to society, I recalled Van Tatenhove’s comments and concluded he is correct.
So apparently did 33 of the 46 Republicans in the House who voted with Crenshaw and Hoover who co-sponsored the bill with Crenshaw. Hoover urged its passage on the floor, but conceded he had “mixed feelings” — not because of reservations about the bill but knowing Crenshaw won’t seek re-election this year. This is Crenshaw’s last chance and he deeply wants to see it pass this year’s General Assembly.
Following custom, Hoover referred to Crenshaw by his district.
“If there’s ever been an example of a legislator showing persistence and showing commitment to an issue, it’s the gentleman from Fayette 77,” Hoover said as the entire House rose and gave Crenshaw a sustained ovation.
Crenshaw was born on a farm in Metcalfe County, just over the county line from my home Barren County. I didn’t realize that until I met him eight years ago when I came to Frankfort to cover the legislature — but I should have known it.
Crenshaw is only five years older than I but that’s a much bigger gap than it sounds. Those years formed the bridge between the era of segregation and integration. He graduated from the all-black Ralph Bunche High School in Glasgow. I went to an integrated Glasgow High School with his brothers, Braxton, Larry and Michael. But it says something about me and that era that I know Jesse better than his brothers.
But I’m glad I got to know Jesse. He is a gentle and dignified man who carries himself with grace. But as he demonstrated to me and another reporter this week, he can quickly become very passionate about things in which he deeply believes.
We all owe a debt to a society which allows us to succeed on our own merits. That opportunity was denied Crenshaw for many years in the Jim Crow era and in some ways continues to be denied to some today. It’s a better era but one which still hasn’t completely delivered on its founding promises to every person of every color.
It would be good if the Kentucky lawmakers made a payment on the debt our society owes to good people like Jesse Crenshaw. Passing his bill would be a small but good start.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.