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5 Felons Seek Redemption and Chicago Council Seats : Politics: Marion Barry victory sets precedent. They’ll be testing a state law barring them from running.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a city where politics is often played as a game of organized revenge and human frailty is not something one tends to advertise, an unlikely new theme is being bruited about by hardened operatives--the politics of redemption.

Taking a cue from the strategy that swept Washington Mayor Marion Barry back into office last fall despite his federal misdemeanor cocaine possession conviction, five Chicagoans with criminal histories are now seeking their own public salvation, vying for seats on the City Council.

They have declared their intentions despite a new Illinois state law that seeks to block felons from running for municipal office. But a respectable body of legal opinion in the state suggests that the law may prove unconstitutional because it provides a stricter standard for municipal offices than it does for statewide offices.

The felon candidates will learn how the state will react today as 278 rivals for 50 council seats play a municipal lottery to determine their positions on the Feb. 28 ballot.

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The former convicts’ noisy insistence of their right to run has become the talk of a town long accustomed to seeing its politicians become felons, but now startled by the attempt to reverse the process.

“If Barry can do it, why can’t we do it?” said Tom Hendrix, a Democratic candidate for alderman who served four years in federal prison for conspiracy to solicit murder for hire. “I made my mistake, like a lot of people do. But are we supposed to pay for it, over and over, the rest of our lives?”

It is a question posed, too, by Wallace Davis Jr., a former alderman who served four years on corruption charges and now owns a catfish restaurant on Chicago’s West Side. Davis said he wants to return to the council because he “got a call” from his constituents--just as Marion Barry did.

One of Davis’ rivals is Walter Burnett Jr., a convicted armed robber who told the Chicago Sun-Times: “I was a kid. Everyone makes mistakes in life.”

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In the 3rd ward, two other council rivals share a criminal past. Tyrone Kenner, yet another ex-alderman who served time on corruption charges, faces Wallace (Gator) Bradley, a convicted armed robber and burglar who has been a prominent spokesman for 21st Century V.O.T.E., a rising political action group with ties to the Gangster Disciples, one of Chicago’s most notorious street gangs and narcotics organizations.

Reformers who have spent years clamoring for tougher laws and government action against corruption insist that the state law barring felons from running is one of the few institutional checks against graft that works in a political culture with a poor collective memory.

“Seems to me we should applaud having come up with a way of ensuring that if you’re convicted of a felony, you’re out,” said Terry Breuner, a former federal prosecutor and now president of the city’s reform-minded Better Government Assn. “We shouldn’t be going in the other direction.”

Illinois is now one of 21 states that have laws barring felons from running for office. Most of the laws have been on the books for generations, reflecting a traditional American sternness toward the rights of criminals.

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“We’re only doing what a lot of other places do,” said Andrew Raucci, a lobbyist and attorney who specializes in election law.

The Legislature made the law apply to municipal elections in Illinois, but was careful to exempt all state elected posts--allowing one of their own colleagues, state Rep. Coy Pugh, once convicted on car theft, shoplifting and heroin possession charges, to continue running for office.

Steven B. Snyder, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer who has researched the history of state laws barring felons from running for office, said the exemption “might well be looked at by the courts as a constitutional weakness.”

And if voters show a strong preference for a candidate with a criminal past, Snyder said, “in a democracy, who the hell are we to argue?”

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Roderick Sawyer, a lawyer representing council candidate Bradley, complained Tuesday that the law was an attempt to derail the growing political muscle of groups like 21st Century V.O.T.E. and others that cater “to the disenfranchised. Let the people decide.”

That is the message Tom Hendrix plans to bring to voters in Chicago’s 1st Ward if he gets the chance to run. “I think redemption is very important,” he said. “You can’t try us again for something we already paid for.”

As a teen-ager, Hendrix, now 37, held a patronage job working for a Polish-American neighborhood political machine organization. But he quit in anger during an argument with the local ward boss and several years later, was arrested and convicted on federal charges after talking with an undercover informant about killing a witness who was planning to testify against his brother in another criminal case.

At the time, Hendrix explained, “I was addicted to cocaine and alcohol and I had no control over myself.”

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Now on leave from his job as director of operations for a security firm, Hendrix rekindled a passion for politics in--of all places--Chicago’s 1st Ward, a downtown neighborhood with a 60-year reputation for corruption stretching back to the days of Al Capone.

One former law enforcement official noted drily that Hendrix “might be a considerable improvement” over such 1st-Ward characters as Fred Roti, a former 23-year alderman convicted in 1993 on bribery charges, and John D’Arco, a former ward boss long tied to organized crime by police investigators.

Even if he were to win, Tom Hendrix or any of the other felon candidates might find themselves faced with a new problem. The state law barring felons from running for office appears to also prevent them from serving, said James Scanlon, a legal adviser to Chicago’s Board of Elections.

“There’s a question whether they could hold office even if the voters elect them,” Scanlon said. “That’s something we’ll probably only find out in court.”

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