This is part of a series on voting in America.
David Sadler wants to be the next state senator representing the 25th District of Alabama, a stack of three counties in the southern part of the state that includes the capital, Montgomery. He is handsome, charismatic and passionate, and speaks in the apolitical language of unity and justice. He’s running as a Democrat but doesn’t strongly identify with any political party.
He probably won’t win — the 25th District is overwhelmingly Republican and white — but don’t tell him that.
“We’re going to win,” Mr. Sadler said on one unusually cool evening late last month, as he hunkered down on the general-admission lawn at the Montgomery Biscuits’ minor-league ballpark. His 5-year-old son, Dennis, sat curled on his lap, wrapped in a thick yellow Biscuits blanket.
Mr. Sadler, who is 45 and runs a car service in Montgomery, recounted a recent conversation with one of his regular clients, a political pollster. “You cannot win. Flat out. You cannot win,” Mr. Sadler recalled him saying. “But then, within five minutes of talking to me, he said, ‘You know what? Let me take that back. If anybody can win, you can win.’ ”
You’d think that Mr. Sadler would be the kind of citizen-politician who would define the American system, fulfilling its ambition to be a participatory democracy. But it’s only through his own extraordinary efforts to break down the system’s barriers against him that he can even vote, let alone run.
Mr. Sadler grew up near Pittsburgh as a clean-living, law-abiding kid in a family of drug dealers. Shortly after starting college, he was charged with attempting to sell a small amount of crack cocaine to an undercover informant. It was a case of mistaken identity, he said. But he agreed to plead guilty — he was young and afraid, and his court-appointed lawyer told him it was the only sure way to avoid prison.
In 2000, Mr. Sadler moved to Orlando, Fla., with plans to play professional football in the arena league. At the first workout, he ruptured a tendon in his knee. He gave up sports and applied to a master’s program in international business at the University of Central Florida, but his request for financial aid was denied. “And that’s how I found out I was a convicted felon,” Mr. Sadler said. “I had no clue.” The consequences, he quickly learned, were not limited to financial aid. He couldn’t get jobs other than menial labor, and — along with about six million other Americans with a criminal record — he couldn’t vote.
Felon-disenfranchisement laws have had a huge and largely unnoticed impact on American politics, including possibly altering the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Most were passed in the late 1800s explicitly to keep black people from the ballot box, and today they continue to hurt minorities disproportionately. But lately the tide has been turning, as many states have made it easier for people with criminal records to vote again. In Florida, which disenfranchises more people with criminal records than any other state, voters will decide in November whether to restore voting rights to as many as 1.5 million of their neighbors. And New Jersey lawmakers are considering whether to join Vermont and Maine as the only states to allow people to vote even while in prison.
For Mr. Sadler, the only way to regain the right to vote was a pardon from the governor of Pennsylvania. So he did what anyone with limitless energy and a very good pair of shoes would do: He hand-delivered a clemency petition, walking from Orlando to the governor’s office in Harrisburg. Over 32 days in the dead of summer, he walked 1,178 miles, dawn to dusk daily, sleeping on benches and subsisting on whatever food he could afford along the route. He grew a beard and lost 25 pounds. “That walk was like my pilgrimage to manhood,” Mr. Sadler said. “I looked like Forrest Gump.”
The governor denied his petition. But his walk earned him publicity and the attention of a veteran civil-rights activist and political organizer in Alabama, Jerome Gray. Mr. Gray convinced Mr. Sadler to move to Alabama and lead a push to restore voting rights to the more than quarter-million disenfranchised Alabamians. Mr. Sadler took the job, and traveled around the state in support of a 2004 state law that made it easier for people with a criminal record to regain the right to vote.
When Mr. Sadler tried again for a pardon, Mr. Gray gave him some advice: “Don’t make any noise this time. Don’t walk; don’t do anything.” Instead, Mr. Gray said, lie low. In 2011, it worked. “I say it’s my rebirth,” Mr. Sadler said. “It took me 16 years, but I got it.”
Since then, Mr. Sadler has gotten married and started a family — he and his wife, Destiny, have three young children. Last year, he helped push for another significant reform of the state’s infamous “moral turpitude” law, a Jim Crow-era relic that has blocked hundreds of thousands of people from voting.
He also has a streak of showmanship, an instinct for virality and a desire to connect with people that could serve him well in public office, but which have so far manifested in a series of increasingly bold and disarming public actions, beginning with his long-distance trek. In 2016, Mr. Sadler stood blindfolded outside the Biscuits’ stadium and offered free hugs — “to prove to people,” he said, “that it’s not the same old South.” Fans of all colors and ages took him up, and a video of the event has gotten more than six million views on Facebook.
Last July 4, in response to the shootings of unarmed black men around the country, Mr. Sadler staged his own hanging in the heart of downtown Montgomery. The holiday crowd stood and gawked, but the police left him alone. A sign taped to his body said “Dear D.O.J.: Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death.”
That’s not a political platform, exactly, but it speaks to Mr. Sadler’s basic message, which is, he said, “to restore hope and self-worth through faith.” His hope, in the immediate future at least, is to energize the tens of thousands of eligible voters in the 25th District who don’t usually turn out — many of whom may be able to vote for the first time since having a criminal record, thanks in part to his efforts. (He’s not giving up the stunts, though: he said his campaign plans to carry a sofa to cities around the district and invite voters to sit down and talk.)
Jerome Gray, the political organizer, has no illusions about the challenge Mr. Sadler faces, but he declined to count him out.
“He came to Alabama with no car, and now he has a transportation service,” Mr. Gray said. “He owns his own home. He has a fleet of cars. That guy, I don’t write him off, because he won’t go away.”
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