A well-known Colorado Springs minister who was convicted of murder as a youth and has spent his adult life battling juvenile crime claims he is the target of discrimination and racism, and is accusing the city of unfairly banning him from running for the City Council.
Less than two months ago, the City Council quietly adopted a provision that prohibits Rev. Promise Lee, 42, from running for local office in the upcoming April election because of his record. A quarter century ago, when Lee was 15, he was convicted, along with four others, for his role in the murder of a Fort Carson soldier.
"I was outraged to hear about the new ordinance," said Lee, who, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, is challenging the city's new election code. "In my opinion this is really an indictment on Colorado Springs and an illustration about how far we have not come. We seem to be regressing, going into the new millennium with a 1950 attitude."
Lee plans to submit the necessary paperwork this week stating his intent to run for a seat on the City Council to challenge incumbent Linda Barley and Sallie Clark in District 3. The newly drawn district encompasses the Broadmoor, Skyway and Cheyenne Meadows neighborhoods, as well as portions of the West side, North End and Hillside.
"A pure coincidence"
The Colorado Springs Charter specifies that to hold office, a candidate must be at least 25 years old, must be a U.S. citizen and have lived in the district for at least one year before the election.
A separate portion of the Charter states that, if an elected City Council member or the mayor is convicted of a felony, they would be forced to leave office.
In November, City Attorney Patricia Kelly and City Clerk Kathryn Young recommended that the City Council extend that restriction to anyone who has in the past been convicted of a felony offense. The eligibility requirement change was unanimously approved without discussion or any public debate by the City Council, of whom three members are seeking re-election in April. Councilman Bill Guman was absent during the vote.
Kelly said she interpreted the charter to mean that anyone who has ever been convicted of a felony cannot hold office, and she was merely trying to save candidates time and money from running, potentially winning an election and then not being able to hold office.
She called the timing of the election code change a "pure coincidence."
However, at least one candidate calls the change "the Promise Lee Ordinance."
"It was obvious that they were directing it at Promise Lee, and I think it's unfortunate," said Charles Wingate, who is running so far unchallenged to represent District 2, the seat currently held by Guman.
"Everyone in that room knew what that ordinance was designed to do," said Wingate, who was in attendance when Council passed the ordinance. "Everyone knew what went down that day."
Guman called the timing ironic.
"A candidate can always appeal something like that, especially if it doesn't fall within the guidelines that are generally accepted at the state or federal level," he said. "Even as a home rule municipality, as Colorado Springs is, 9 out of 10 times we try to ensure continuity and that our laws fall within same guidelines."
In Colorado, once they have served their time, convicted felons are restored their right to vote. In addition, convicted felons are not prohibited from running for state or federal offices.
"If it were me, and I felt strongly enough that I was the one that the ordinance was devised for, and particularly if it's not in keeping with state or federal law, then certainly I would challenge it," Guman said.
Seeking Lee's advice
Lee called the Council's actions a slap in the face to the work he, and other community activists and minorities have accomplished in recent years. He is both saddened and disappointed, he said, particularly because every sitting City Council member has in the past called on him for advice and for support.
"They must have been asleep at the switch to let this take place," Lee said.
In addition to his ministry, Lee has played an integral role in cleaning up the previously crime-plagued Hillside neighborhood, earning Colorado Springs a prestigious All-American City designation from the National Civic League.
"When we were decreasing crime by 80 percent in that neighborhood, when we were traveling getting the All-American City award, no one from the city raised a red flag and said, 'he shouldn't be doing this, he's an ex-felon,' " Lee noted.
"I'm good enough to give advice, but not good enough for them not to exclude me. It's discriminatory on several different realms."
A "very, very severe crime"
Lee suggested that Councilwoman Barley initiated the ordinance and voted knowing that he planned to oppose her candidacy.
Barley denied any direct involvement, and said that she had no idea that Lee planned to run at the time of her vote. She fully supports the measure that prohibits him from holding office, however.
"I think a felony is a very, very severe crime and there should be severe consequences," she said.
But Councilman Ted Eastburn isn't so sure why a convicted felon should be prohibited from holding public office. Would it be a danger? An embarrassment to the city?
"I hadn't really thought about it," Eastburn said. "If the state constitution isn't prohibitive and the federal constitution isn't prohibitive, that leaves us up to home rule authority. Our City Charter is vague and the City Attorney has rendered an opinion that I'm not necessarily uncomfortable with."
Wingate, however, believes the voters should ultimately decide who they want to represent them.
"I don't know the Promise Lee who committed that act, I know the Promise Lee who is a stand-up guy, a stand-up citizen, who has paid his debt and is a minister spreading God's word, who has helped turn around the Hillside neighborhood," Wingate said. "From my perspective he should be judged in totality of his life, and that [felony] conviction is not the sum total of who he is."