In November 2013, Kennard Ray got the job as deputy chief of staff to then-Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra.
But less than one day after his appointment, Ray withdrew his nomination for the position under pressure from a mayoral administration that claimed it knew nothing about Ray’s decade-old criminal record until a local newspaper started asking.
Ray recounted the controversy around his brief 2013 Hartford City Hall appointment on the latest episode of “Criminal Justice Insider” with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant.
Ray said that his experience losing a job because of his criminal record despite Hartford’s ban-the-box laws has motivated him to run for a Hartford General Assembly seat this year.
“I believe there aren’t enough true voices at the state legislature,” he said, “that actually represent what the people go through and experience every day.”
That experience, he said, especially for city residents like the ones he hopes to represent in Hartford’s fourth Assembly district, includes struggling through a cycle of poverty, crime, arrest, prison, and unemployment.
“All the little boys I grew up with all have met their fate either in jails, institutions or the graveyard,” he said.
Five years after his own high-profile, first-hand experience losing a job because of a distant criminal record, Ray said he now wants to bring his and his neighbors’ stories and experiences to the General Assembly to better represent people he sees as consistently pushed to the margins of society.
Ray, now 37, said that he had not even sought out the job of deputy chief of staff back in 2013. Instead, the former political and legislative director of the Connecticut Working Families Party said, the Segarra administration courted him.
Ray said that he told the administration about his past felony convictions during the appointment process.
According to the Hartford Courant, Ray was convicted of selling narcotics in 1997, when he was just 16. He received a narcotics possession conviction and a conviction for carrying a pistol without a permit in 1998, as well as a conviction for criminal possession of a gun in 2004.
“They had conducted a background check,” Ray said about the Segarra administration. “It wasn’t even of interest to them.”
Ray said that his less-than-a-day appointment started crashing all around him when a Courant reporter called City Hall and asked for a comment on the new deputy chief of staff’s criminal history.
“Once the Courant ran their own check, that administration freezed up,” Ray said. “They were stuck on how to respond to it.”
Segarra’s office issued a statement saying that the mayor was not aware of Ray’s decade-old criminal convictions.
Within 24 hours of his appointment, Ray withdrew his nomination for the position, which he had been scheduled to start the following week.
Ray said that Hartford’s 2010 ban-the-box law prohibits the city from asking about criminal records of people applying for public employee jobs. The city can conduct background checks after it has presented an applicant with a provisional offer for a position.
Advocates for the law argue that bans on pre-offer background checks encourage the city to hire based on an applicants’ qualifications rather than on his or her past convictions.
Ray said that, even though the city did not violate the ban-the-box laws in his situation, he still feels as if the city missed an opportunity to celebrate, rather than chafe at, employing someone with a decade-old criminal record who had made a career as a local community organizer and political activist.
Five years later, he said he is looking to bring that message, and his story, to his own campaign for Hartford’s fourth assembly district seat.
He said he represents a “voice of reason that speaks exactly what the people are saying.” He said his background growing up in one of the poorer areas of the city allows him to provide real insight into the actual impact that a low minimum wage and cuts to Medicaid and Medicare would and do have on low-income residents.
He also said that he has doubled down on his efforts to secure Connecticut parolees the right to vote in the years since his almost-employment at Hartford’s City Hall.
“You’re not a full citizen without the democratic right to vote,” he said.
He said that during the most recent legislative session he drafted a bill that would restore voting rights to parolees as part of his leadership of the Full Citizens Coalition Campaign to Unlock the Vote.
That bill was trumpeted by progressive members of the state legislature like Hamden State Rep. Josh Elliott.
But it never got called to the floor of the House when Democratic party couldn’t line up enough votes to get the bill passed.
So this summer, he said, his Full Citizens Coalition organization has run voter registration drives in conjunction with its advocacy for the restoration of parolee voting rights. He said his group has also collaborated with the Harriet Beecher Stowe House on a lecture series on the history of disenfranchisement.
That on-the-ground work, he believes, is what’s needed to educate the electorate on criminal justice history in this country, which in turn will put pressure on the state legislature to act on the criminal justice reform needs of its constituents.
“It’s definitely chess, not checkers,” he said about the politics of passing legislation. “And hope is not a strategy.”
“Criminal Justice Insider” airs every first and third Friday of the month on WNHH FM at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Listen to the full interview by clicking on the Facebook Live video below.
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