Dwight DeBerry is off the Democratic primary ballot for State Representative District 91.
Early voting in the state House District 91 Democratic primary opens Wednesday, Sept. 18. The next day is election day in Arlington and Lakeland municipal elections, as voters begin deciding 11 elections between now and Thanksgiving.
(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)
The Shelby County Election Commission removed DeBerry’s name last week from the list of candidates it certified earlier this month for the Oct. 8 special election primary.
DeBerry was convicted of aggravated robbery and aggravated assault in 1992 and indicated on his voter registration form and qualifying petition to run for office that he was never convicted of a felony.
Based on that and state prison records of his conviction, Tennessee Elections Coordinator Mark Goins advised the commission to remove DeBerry’s name from the ballot unless he could produce a court order by the special election commission meeting on Thursday, Sept. 12, showing a court had restored his citizenship rights.
DeBerry asked for more time at that meeting.
“Give me the adequate time,” he told the commission. “Things are just moving so fast.”
DeBerry claims he is related to the late state Rep. Lois DeBerry, whose death in July prompted the special elections – primary and general – ordered by Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.
“I’m a consecrated bishop. My religion doesn’t allow me to be in politics,” DeBerry said, adding he was running out of a family loyalty. “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican.”
Election commission attorney Monice Hagler said that with early voting in the primary opening Wednesday there was no time for a delay.
“He cannot be a candidate for office based on Tennessee law,” she told the commission.
Goins indicated in his Sept. 9 letter to the election commission that even without the election preparations, DeBerry wouldn’t have made it onto the ballot. The election commission, Goins wrote, had to “determine that the disqualification was removed by court order before the qualifying deadline for the special primary.”
That deadline was Aug. 29.
DeBerry acknowledged the conviction, but he argued that his attorney at the time told him any record of the conviction would be expunged because he was 16 at the time of the robberies and was tried as an adult.
“I can’t even get my record right now,” he said. “I’m asking at the mercy of the election commission … if you will give me another week.”
Getting such a record expunged is not the same legal process as having citizenship rights restored, Hagler said. She and election commissioners also acknowledged that promises of expungement pose some legitimate questions.
But election commissioner Steve Stamson, the former Shelby County Juvenile Court clerk, said DeBerry’s attorney should have explained the legal complexities. And he said DeBerry should have answered the written question about whether he had ever been convicted of a felony by checking the “yes” box and then either producing the legal paperwork to show he had his rights restored or had obtained the court paperwork.
DeBerry said he didn’t think he had to do anything to get his rights restored.
Hagler said the law is clear on who holds the burden in such instances.
“Typically, citizens are bound to know the law and act accordingly,” she said. “We cannot be responsible for their lack of knowledge.”