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Meet Some Floridians With Felony Convictions Fighting For Right To Vote

September 26, 2018 6:01 a.m.

I spent the last three months reporting a story on how hundreds of thousands of Floridians with felony convictions are disenfranchised under Gov. Rick Scott’s clemency process. In phone interviews and in-person conversations in Orlando, I heard fascinating, moving stories from people caught up in the system. The consequences of actions made five and fifteen and twenty-five years ago continue to reverberate through their lives.

Below, we provide more details on their backgrounds that we didn’t have room to capture in the piece.

David Ayala, organizer at Latino Justice

(Photo courtesy of FRRC)

How he got a conviction: Ayala was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived with his Puerto Rican mother and her abusive boyfriend. In his telling, he often got trouble in school for acting up, and his mother, who spoke and wrote no English, was coerced into signing him over to live in a group home. It was there that he learned the ropes of the drug trade. Between the ages of 12 and 33, Ayala moved in and out of detention facilities throughout New York and Florida, on charges ranging from possession to intent to sell to conspiracy to sell.

Where he is now: Ayala managed to get a job as a trainer at an L.A. Fitness shortly after leaving prison in 2011 because the application form asked only if he’d been convicted of a felony in the last seven years. “I’d been in jail so long, my conviction was older than that,” Ayala said.

At the gym, he met a woman named Aramis, and the two eventually married and had two girls. Aramis Ayala pushed her husband to graduate from college and get an office job at Sprint, while she embarked on a run for state attorney. Two weeks before the November 2016 election, reporters called her campaign to say they’d learned about David’s criminal history.

“I felt it the night that it actually aired on the news,” Ayala said. “The way they talked about it: the woman who wants to be a top prosecutor is married to a convicted felon. I started realizing there are people in my life that don’t know about my past and they had to find out this way.”

Ayala withdrew, dreading the stares he received from coworkers in the lunch room. He confided only in the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s Desmond Meade, who he’d met over Facebook. That experience made him realize he “really didn’t want to work in corporate America anymore,” and he became an activist full time.

What he says about voting rights: “I think under the current administration, it’s a control factor,” Ayala said of the Scott clemency process. “We had a federal judge out of Tallahassee that said the system is broken, it’s unfair, it’s arbitrary, it all depends on how the governor wakes up that morning. He can do what he wants with someone’s life.”

“I’ve been out for 12 years now,” Ayala continued. “I’ve maintained employment, I’ve paid my taxes, I obey the laws, I go to Tallahassee and lobby and advocate for certain bills. But I can’t vote. If you can’t vote, they silence you. You don’t exist to senators, to representatives. Because if you can’t vote for them, why should they listen to you?”

Susanne Manning, reentry coordinator at the FRRC

(Photo courtesy of FRRC)

How she got a conviction: Manning was arrested in the early 1990s for embezzling $400,000 from her former employer, a medical manufacturing company. She spent the money on luxuries like a “cherry apple red Jeep Cherokee,” a Jet Ski, stereo equipment. Sentenced to 30 years in prison, she spent 19 years behind bars. While she was incarcerated, her only child passed away.

“I’m at a stage in my life where I have to accept responsibility,” Manning said, fighting back tears. “I’m totally embarrassed by it — ashamed that I would even do it. Sometimes I look back at my life and I see what I did, and it just seems so foreign to me now that I would do something like that.”

Where she is now: After getting out, Manning had to learn how to use the Internet and find a job through work release. She ended up at a 24-hour answering service, where she worked her way up to a daytime supervisor job, fielding angry calls from clients and complaints from her bosses. In her spare time, she baked cakes for events and tried to help other acquaintances leaving prison reintegrate into society. Through that work, she met Meade.

One day, Meade asked her to send him photographs of her best cakes because, he said, “you’re a returning citizen and you’re doing very well and I want to promote your business.” Manning burst into tears and told Meade how much she hated getting up in the morning to go to the call center, even though she was “grateful to have a job.” Meade offered her a position at the FRRC.

What she says about voting rights: According to Manning, “no one ever told” her she would lose the franchise over her conviction. She learned this only through her work with the FRRC.

But the fact really hit home one day when she was babysitting her great-niece, she said. The girl was acting out, and Manning told her to sit on the couch for a time out.

“She turned around says Aunt Susie, are you going to punish me forever?” Manning said. “And that just kind of knocked me backwards. Because for her, those 10 minutes were forever. And for me, possibly not getting my voting rights back is forever.”

Neil Volz, political director at the FRRC

(Photo courtesy of Volz’s Facebook)

How he got a conviction: In 2007, Volz pleaded guilty to fraud charges for his central role in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that TPM closely covered. Volz worked as chief of staff to Republican Rep. Bob Ney before becoming a well-paid lobbyist for Abramoff. In that role, he offered Ney and his staffers trips, free tickets and meals in exchange for promoting legislation beneficial to Abramoff’s clients.

Volz agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors and divulge details of the scheme. He was stripped of his civil rights, but did not serve prison time.

Where he is now: After the scandal blew open, Volz lost his house and got divorced from his wife. Struggling to find work and avoid the ghosts of his Capitol Hill past, Volz eventually moved to Fort Meyers, Florida, where a deceased relative had left behind a condo apartment. He started volunteering at a local homeless organization and attending church regularly, which he found helpful. But steady employment remained a challenge. Volz worked briefly at a beach hotel’s gift shop, where he met the woman who became his second wife, and then as a janitor at a local restaurant. He self-published a memoir, “Into the Sun,” which was received skeptically by the D.C. press.

“That’s a humbling process, from having a view of the White House out of my office to scrubbing toilets,” Volz said.

He married Pam, a pink-haired artist, at a ceremony in his native Ohio. For their honeymoon, the couple went to Indiana to ride horses.

After meeting Meade at an event in 2015, Volz got involved with the FRRC. Meade “knew I had some political experience,” Volz said, and they teamed up to push for Amendment 4’s passage.

What he says about voting rights: “We do our best to stay focused on people first, not politics,” Volz said. “Whether someone can vote, not how they vote. We just kind of stay in that lane and we do our best to not get into some of the hypotheticals.”

“For us its just about trying to stay right in that spot of: do you think this is the right thing to do?”

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