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From Murder Conviction to City Council Win

Wantwaz Davis, who served nearly 20 years for murder before being elected to the Flint, Mich., city council in November, sees his background as an asset -- not a liability.

After serving 19 years in prison for second-degree murder, Wantwaz Davis was elected to the Flint City Council in Michigan earlier this month.
After serving 19 years in prison for second-degree murder, Wantwaz Davis was elected to the Flint City Council in Michigan earlier this month. Mccarus
Wantwaz Davis knows that his background is atypical of most politicians. But the newly elected city councilman from Flint, Mich., says he's more interested in representing his constituents than following a typical career path.

Indeed, Davis -- a leader in what may be the most dangerous city in America -- has had a firsthand view of the impact of crime on his community from a unique vantagepoint: the inside of a prison cell.

Flint's newest elected official has spent the better part of the last 20 years incarcerated for second-degree murder.

Yet Davis says he sees his background as an asset, not a liability. One of Flint's biggest problems, he says, is unemployment. Currently, it hovers around 17 percent, and about 40 percent of residents live in poverty. He believes those figures are directly tied to the large number of residents who have criminal records and are unable to get work as a result.

"They're treated as if they were subhuman, like second-class citizens when it came to any sort of employment," says Davis, who is married with a child and has a job as a custodial worker. When those people can't find work, they're forced to turn to crime -- which, in turn, can land them in prison again. It's a cycle he constantly witnessed while behind bars.

As an elected official, he says he wants to work to do whatever he can do help people with criminal records find work.

That goal is one of the things that motivated Davis, who was elected in November, to run for office. He felt residents in his community had lost hope in the city's leadership and didn't have a voice, a situation he called "unjust."

After his release from prison, he got involved with the effort to repeal the state's controversial  emergency manager law, known as Public Act 4, which strips locally elected officials in Michigan of decision-making power and transfers it to state-appointed officials. Flint is one of a handful of cities where the state is using that authority.

He joined groups that collected signatures to put the issue on the ballot and spoke with state representatives about the topic. He also started discussing it at city council meetings. Then, he decided to take his foray into politics a bit further and run for office.

As he campaigned, Davis acknowledged his criminal past rather than run away from it. "I felt compelled to let them know who I was and what I went to prison for," Davis says. "I didn't want them to feel like I was deceiving them."

During the primary and general elections, he says, he personally spoke to more than 3,000 of the 10,000 people who live in his district, and he knocked on every door. He refused to let anyone campaign on his behalf, since he believed voters would be more likely to choose him if they had the chance to speak with him directly.

The result was incredible: Davis, a convicted murderer running for office for the first time, managed to unseat an incumbent. "It's proof you can change your life," Davis says. "It's given people a lot of hope."

His victory comes on the heels of a troubled past. Davis' life changed forever on Aug. 3, 1991 when he confronted Kenneth Morris, a man he believed had sexually assaulted his mother.

At the time, Davis was just 17 years old. His mother, he says, had been raped by Morris and went into hiding for fear that he and his associates would attack her in an effort to keep her from testifying. "She wouldn't tell the family where she was at," Davis says. "It got to the point where I felt compelled to speak to this man."

The situation was even more traumatic given the family's history. At the time of the assault, Davis had recently learned from his mother that he himself was the product of a rape she suffered when she was just a teenager. The assault, Davis, said, "took her back 17 years... to what happened when she was a kid."

Davis went to confront Morris, but the end result was more than just a talk. Davis put two to three bullets in Morris and left him for dead.

As Davis tells the story, he had no intention on shooting Morris but brought the gun because he wanted protection from a man 10 years his senior. When Morris reached for his pocket, Davis responded with gunshots.

Davis, who pleaded guilty to second degree murder in order to avoid first-degree charge, repeatedly told the court "I just wanted to talk to him," according to transcripts.

But Judge Judith Fullerton didn't buy it, pointing out that Davis must have known someone had the potential to get hurt or killed when he brought a gun with him. In response to Davis' repeated arguments that Morris had assaulted his mother, the judge responded, "we have no idea if that's true" because Davis denied law enforcement and prosecutors time to figure out the details.

"Now, I appreciate it if you could understand everyone would be concerned about their mother, but the police have to do the investigations, and it is not up to us to take the law in our hands and go out as the old days in the wild west as a vigilante posse and try to apprehend wrongdoers and perform justice on the spot," the judge said. "That's not the system that we operate in this country."

Davis was sentenced to 22 to 50 years but eventually was released in 2010 after serving 19 years.

"I defended my mother," Davis says. "I'm not saying that was the right thing to do. Had I gone back then -- with the mindset I have now -- it would have never come out that way."

Today, Davis dismisses the notion that, after almost two decades away from the community and stuck in prison, he lacks the experience to be a good lawmaker. He says he has friends and mentors who have served on the council and caught him up to speed.

Interestingly, it wasn't until Davis actually won that the local Flint Journal newspaper reported on his criminal history. The move was a huge embarrassment to the publication, which media observers criticized in the wake of its gaffe.

Critics of the paper noted that it wouldn't have even required a thorough background check to find out Davis' past. In fact, a simple Google search would have done the trick. One of the top results on a search of Davis' name is an article from a legal publication about a lawsuit he won against the state related to second-hand smoke damage he suffered while incarcerated.

"We didn’t do good enough," editor Marjory Raymer wrote in an apology, saying that the paper only learned about his murder conviction the day after the election.

Davis, for his part, is convinced the newspaper knew all along but didn't bother to report on it because the staff didn't consider him a serious candidate.

He emphasized that he didn't try to hide his past, and at a candidates' debate moderated by the NAACP in October, he says, his conviction was even mentioned during his introduction.

After news about the Journal's shortcomings were revealed, Davis' story briefly drew national attention. "Flint, Michigan City, Elects 2 Felons To City Council, Including A Convicted Murderer" read a Huffington Post headline, alluding to another councilmember with an assault conviction.

Flint Mayor Dayne Walling says some of those types of stories were a "predictable, superficial response by the media."

"I think the best city council is one that has a diversity of perspectives and life experiences," Walling says. "I see Councilman Davis bringing extraordinarily unique perspective that speaks directly to one of Flint's biggest challenges, being violence."

Walling says Davis had been a prominent community advocate before running for office, engaging in meetings where the city crafted its comprehensive master plan and showing a passion for education, economic development and public safety.

"His personal story and how he's taken personal responsibly but also pointed out the conditions that led to his criminal indictment are vital for the community to understand," Walling says.

Davis says his ward is mired by crime and a shortage of employment opportunities, which he wants to address. One of his earliest acts as a councilman, he says, was helping to drum up publicity for a slew of muggings in his ward that led to TV coverage and a faster-than-usual police response.

But Davis -- like most lawmakers -- says the city's most important issue is jobs. "We're suffering from a lack of revenue, and the only way we can get revenue is to get people off the street and get people working," Davis says.

As he sees it, for years General Motors was the dominant employer in town, but the result was the stifling of any entrepreneurial spirit that might have sprung up. Today, he says, he wants to encourage entrepreneurs to consider Flint once again.

Given the city's perilous financial condition, it's unclear how seriously businesses will look at Flint. It's also unclear whether Davis will even have the authority to accomplish many of his goals, given that state-appointed emergency manager Darnell Earley wields most of the power in town, not the city council. Davis says he will work with the emergency manager despite his opposition to the laws that put Earley in place.

"I lived in my ward for a long time," Davis says. "I'm born and raised in my ward. I just want people to know I'm a loyal servant to the community."

Communications manager for the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute and former Governing staff writer
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