Marwan Barghouti has decided to run for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority, even though he’s serving five life sentences for murder. The popular Fatah leader stands a good chance of beating the more moderate Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO’s current chairman. If Barghouti does win the election on Jan. 9, he will have to govern from prison, since there’s zero chance that Israel would allow his release. How many politicians have won elections while in the clink, or actually carried out their governmental duties while incarcerated?
Very few, but it’s not unprecedented. Running for office from prison, of course, isn’t quite as rare, though jailbirds typically don’t make appealing candidates. Most recently, imprisoned ex-Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. tried to regain his Youngstown, Ohio, seat in 2002. (He ran as an independent and garnered just 15 percent of the vote; at least he gets to keep his congressional pension.) Perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche ran his 1992 campaign from prison, and Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs did the same in 1920. Needless to say, neither man came within sniffing distance of the White House.
But some imprisoned candidates win. During the nation’s infancy, fiery Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon won re-election in 1798 while serving a four-month jail term for violating the Sedition Act. He made his way to Washington upon his release, and he eventually cast the deciding vote in the House of Representatives that gave the presidency to Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
A half-century later, an anti-Catholic crusader named Joseph Barker was elected mayor of Pittsburgh while serving a yearlong sentence for inciting a riot. The severity of Barker’s sentence scandalized the city, and he quickly became a popular candidate for mayor. Fortunately for Barker, he didn’t have to govern from behind bars: The night of the election, a mob of his supporters stormed the city jail and threatened the sheriff until he OKed Barker’s immediate release. It soon became apparent to Pittsburghers that they’d elected a paranoid crackpot, however, and Barker was turned out in the next election.
The most fitting example from American history might be James Michael Curley, the popular and corrupt Boston politician often credited with coining the winking phrase, “Vote early and often.” He won an alderman’s seat in 1904 while serving time for impersonating a friend and taking the civil-service exam. Then in 1947, in the middle of his final term as Boston’s mayor, he was convicted of mail fraud. When he went to jail, he refused to relinquish the mayor’s office, although it’s unclear how much day-to-day influence he exerted over the city during his incarceration. Curley served just five months before President Harry Truman pardoned him; the president was responding in large part to a petition listing the names of over 100,000 Boston residents.
Overseas, incarcerated politicians have had good luck in India of late. Two current members of Parliament, from the northeastern province of Bihar, are in prison for a host of alleged crimes, including murder and kidnapping. Mohammed Shahabuddin, the more famous of the pair, was re-elected this past spring and was even allowed to go to Delhi to be sworn in as an MP. (The judge who granted bail to Shahabuddin has since been sacked.)
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, currently incarcerated in the Netherlands as his war-crimes trial moves forward, won a seat in Serbia-Montenegro’s parliament last December. However, his Socialist Party decided not to assign him a seat; the parliament’s rules stipulate that members must be able to physically attend the first session. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party has promised that, in the event Milosevic is acquitted and allowed to return to his homeland, they will vacate a seat for him.
Several Republicans from Northern Ireland have won seats in British Parliament despite being imprisoned; one was noted hunger-striker Bobby Sands. All have refused to actually take their seats, though, because they believe the body has no legal authority over Northern Ireland.
There are several more minor examples that Slate managed to unearth, such as Taiwanese legislator Yen Ching-piao and Antonio Jose Ortega, mayor of Saravena, Colombia. But as with any exercise of this nature, an exhaustive list is difficult to compile on short notice. If you know of any inmates who spent their terms planning victorious political campaigns rather than pounding out license plates, please let us know.