Politics

Nobody Is Entitled to Be an Elected Official

It’s not cancel culture to demand a would-be teen legislator demonstrate maturity.

In a campaign video still, Aaron Coleman, wearing a button-down shirt, stands in front of a chain-link fence in a residential neighborhood.
Photo illustration by Slate. Still by Aaron for Kansas House 37/YouTube.

Update, Aug. 25, 2020, at 5:43 p.m.: Tuesday, Aaron Coleman announced that he was reversing his decision to drop out of the race and would remain on the ballot.

On Aug. 4, 19-year-old Aaron Coleman eked out a surprise win in the Kansas Democratic primary against incumbent Stan Frownfelter, capturing his party’s nomination to represent the 37th District in the state House of Representatives. This was Coleman’s second bid for office, counting a run for governor as a write-in candidate in 2018. Back then, Coleman said he preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton and talked up Rand Paul as much as Bernie Sanders. This time around, the teenager styled himself as a progressive Democrat in favor of “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. It was an odd focus for someone aspiring to the Kansas state Legislature, seeing as these are federal policies, but it captured the imagination of lefty journalists who were eager to write about a plucky noob edging out a corporate Dem.

With no Republican opponent, Coleman seemed almost certain to ascend to office. However, Coleman announced on Sunday that he was withdrawing ​ from the race. Officially, he’s quitting because his father is sick, and a severe illness in the family is one of few reasons a primary winner can be taken off the ballot in Kansas. Everyone knows Coleman is really quitting because of the backlash to his self-confessed sexual extortion of a 13-year-old girl when he was 14 years old, as well as his stalking and bullying of two other underage victims, one of whom says Coleman berated her about her weight and her teeth until she attempted suicide.

Coleman’s most serious offense is often described as “revenge porn,” which is practically a euphemism for what he did: Coleman found a nude picture of his victim online and threatened to send it to her friends and family unless she sent him more nudes. She refused, so he made good on that threat.

Coleman’s allies argued that his misdeeds should not count against him electorally because he had been at such a tender age himself when he sexually extorted a child. The popular shorthand his defenders use is that he was being punished for what he did at age 12. This is factually incorrect; Coleman has confessed a pattern of abusive behavior that spanned from age 12 to 14, describing his actions as those of “a sick and troubled 14-yo boy” in his initial apology, also noting that they had occurred “only digitally.”

This disclaimer that the abuse was only electronic was one of several things Coleman did to cause people to doubt the sincerity of his subsequent apologies. The Kansas City Star also reported, in an editorial about Coleman’s misbehavior, a recent and callous social media exchange he had with one victim’s aunt, telling her that she needed to let her niece’s victimization go for her own good, and that “[t]hey call the past the past for a reason.”

Coleman’s defenders were nevertheless outraged that some people refused to accept at face value their candidate’s insistence that he had reformed.  

“It has long been a staple of liberal philosophy that humans can and should be rehabilitated, not eternally condemned for bad acts, particularly those committed when they were very young,“ wrote Glenn Greenwald of the Intercept, in an impassioned defense of Coleman. Greenwald described Coleman as a true son of the working class who was being oppressed by bloodthirsty liberals seeking to condemn him utterly and forever.

Comic and podcaster Sean P. McCarthy predicted dire consequences for democracy itself if Coleman were to suffer electorally for sexually extorting a child.

“If you can hold 12 year olds accountable for their actions in perpetuity you’ve got a ready made playbook to undo democracy for every primary candidate that manages to slip through a ludicrously rigged system,” tweeted McCarthy.

These arguments conflate criminal punishment, or the specter of lifelong ostracism, with someone’s electoral fortunes. Coleman’s critics weren’t arguing that he should be locked up, as a 14-year-old or today. No one was even suggesting he be taken off the ballot against his will. All they were saying was that his recent history of abuse—and lack of meaningful remorse, reflection, or restitution—meant he shouldn’t hold a position of trust and responsibility this cycle​​.

Deciding that a candidate is currently unfit for office is not a punishment, let alone a punishment in perpetuity. Coleman is still a teenager. If he were to run again at age 30, his middle school misdeeds wouldn’t loom nearly so large—especially if he had a substantial record of accomplishment and good behavior to point to. At this point, his main accomplishments are winning a low-turnout primary by 14 votes and a stunt campaign for governor.

Most 19-year-olds aren’t qualified to hold higher office. So teen candidates need to prove they have superior character and judgment for their age. That’s tough even for those who don’t have a history of serious sexual misconduct. Coleman, by contrast, showed terrible judgment throughout the campaign.

Coleman sat down with Greenwald last week to discuss his history of abusive behavior. It’s hard to say who​ came off worse: Coleman, who made the rookie mistake of trying to lie his way out of trouble by claiming that nobody had accused him of mistreating women since middle school, or Greenwald, who let his lie go unchallenged.

Greenwald asked Coleman what proof he could offer that he had changed since middle school.

“The fact I have such a compassionate platform shows I’ve changed,” Coleman replied, as if he’d never considered that a bad person could have decent politics.

This was clearly not the answer Greenwald had in mind. He tried again: What had Coleman done in his life, besides​ having good politics, to prove that he’d changed?

“If I was a bad person this [pattern of allegations] wouldn’t just disappear as soon as I left middle school,” Coleman replied, “The fact that nothing came out when I was in high school […] that’s evidence that I’ve matured. There would be evidence from two days ago if I haven’t changed.”

As a matter of fact, a recent harassment allegation had come out, but Greenwald didn’t ask Coleman about it: The Star editorial had revealed that Coleman stood accused of harassing Brandie Armstrong, his rival’s campaign manager, during the campaign. Armstrong told the Star that Coleman showed up at her house. Coleman’s behavior was allegedly so erratic and inappropriate that a friend even suggested that she get a temporary restraining order against Coleman (which she didn’t ultimately do). “I was afraid of what he might do in regards to the campaign. I was really concerned,” Armstrong told the Star.

Coleman couldn’t even make it through his primary without racking up yet another harassment allegation. Whatever he says about being sorry, his behavior shows that he still struggles to treat women with respect, whether it’s his victim’s aunt or his rival’s campaign manager. This guy can’t turn it off.

Coleman was not ready to occupy a position of public trust. That much should have been obvious to the adults who defended him. To add to the ignominy of the situation, Coleman apparently lifted the text of his bizarre concession announcement, in which he blamed feminism and name-checked Donatism, from a Facebook commenter called “John LeCoque.”

Faith that people can change is not evidence that a particular person has changed. No matter how sorry Coleman says he is, or how attractive his support for Medicare for All may be, he has proved himself unable to reckon honestly with his history and unable to explain how he has changed for the better. We all deserve the chance to be forgiven, but forgiveness must be earned. Dropping out of the race could be the first step for Coleman to eventually redeem himself.