There’s Never Been a City Council Candidate Like Lewis Conway Jr.
Grassroots organizer, convicted felon eyes Ora Houston’s seat
Monday afternoon on a sidewalk in East Austin's Craigwood neighborhood, where he grew up, Lewis Conway Jr. kicked off his run in next year's District 1 race for City Council. Roots in Craigwood are a point of pride for Conway, now a criminal justice coordinator for Grassroots Leadership. They're what the native Austinite is planning to build his run for Ora Houston's seat upon. "Oh, today we lay hold to the pebbles of divisiveness; the stones of despair and poverty; the bundles of racism and brutality," he told a crowd of supporters, colleagues, friends, and family. "We take hold of those stones together. We lay the foundation for these streets of hope, these streets of change, together with your help."
Conway's other building block is his experience in Texas' criminal justice system, which began when he was 21 years old and lasted two full decades. He detailed how a 1991 argument over drugs and money ended with Conway fatally stabbing another man. It was as a police detective snapped his mug shot that he began to process the consequences of his actions: "It's a photo of a 21-year-old who realizes his life has just been flushed down the drain. I was a scared kid in over his head, playing a game. ... I had no idea what the rules were." Conway was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, for which he served eight years in prison and another 12 years on parole.
For years after his release, he says he was disengaged from politics because it seemed divorced from the realities of staying out of prison and providing for his family. He pursued careers as an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and author. It wasn't until helping kick off Second Chance Democrats in 2015, and going to work last year to secure the city's Fair Chance Hiring ordinance, that he experienced a change of perspective. "I realized: Not only can we alter these politics – not only can we determine our politics – but without us it's not going to move."
Conway believes Houston's current leadership is leaving the district without a coherent voice on big-ticket items like transportation and CodeNEXT. And some of the wins she does have, like eliminating the Central Urban Redevelopment zoning that spurred development on the Eastside, he considers low-hanging fruit. Moreover, he believes he has a shot because of his story, not in spite of it. "There's never been a candidate like me before," he boasted.
Which raises the question of whether Conway is even legally permitted to run. Conway filed his campaign treasurer appointment form in early September, but has yet to officially file with the City Clerk as a candidate. He said Monday that his attorney Ricco Garcia assured him he's in the clear, but a city spokesperson told us Wednesday that because he hasn't officially filed (and indeed, there never has been a candidate like Conway before), the city hasn't yet determined whether or not a convicted felon is allowed to run – and isn't currently aware of whether an opinion would be formed at the city or state level.