Community organizer Tammie Hagen helps Lyndon Williams fill out a voter registration form. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
It’s 8 a.m. Tuesday, and under a rain-threatening sky, Tammie Hagen is working the crowd at the GRTC transfer plaza on Ninth Street downtown. She greets me while talking with Lyndon Williams, a 48-year-old Chesterfield County resident who’s waiting to catch a bus. He tells us he served 18 months after a felony conviction as a habitual offender for driving infractions, but he learned that as of Sept. 2, his civil rights have been restored.
Hagen, a full-time community organizer with the nonprofit New Virginia Majority, helps him fill out a voter registration form.
“Do you believe you’re going to get your registration card?” she asks, noting that some people are dubious after the Virginia Supreme Court revoked the rights restorations announced by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in April and then challenged by Republicans in the General Assembly.
Williams says his voter registration application was rejected twice in the past six months, once because of the Supreme Court’s July decision, and before that, because he was not eligible. In August, McAuliffe announced he had re-restored rights to nearly 13,000 Virginians whose voter registration had been canceled by the Supreme Court action and vowed to continue reviewing and restoring the rights of those who have completed their sentences and are no longer under active supervision.
“I have to have faith,” Williams says. “I feel like a person again. I feel like I count, I matter.”
Like many in his shoes, he faces an uphill battle to regain his life. Transportation, finding a job, making enough money to live on — all those necessities are more challenging after you’ve served time.
“It’s not just the process of being locked up,” Williams says. He was released from jail in August 2006, and now does occasional work for a local moving and storage company but would like to find a full-time job. “Everywhere you go, it follows you. The deck is stacked against you.”
Tammie Hagen, a community organizer with the New Virginia Majority, spends a lot of time talking with potential voters at the GRTC bus transfer plaza. (Photo by Jay Paul)
As someone with her own felony record from drug-related convictions, Hagen, 51, knows that feeling all too well. She tells of checking her bank balance a few days before Christmas one year, when she was preparing to buy groceries for the holiday dinner, and seeing that she was $37,000 in the red from child support enforcement charges that accrued while she was incarcerated. More recently, she had to put her pursuit of a college degree — psychology, with a minor in religious studies — on hold because she defaulted on her loan.
Hagen had her rights restored on Sept. 2, the same day as Williams, and she’s waiting to receive her voter registration card. This year’s election will be the first time she’s ever voted, and she feels driven to help as many people as possible register before the state’s Oct. 17 deadline. If they’ve lost their right to vote because of a criminal conviction, she shows them how to apply for restoration or check their status.
“I don’t ask about who they’re going to vote for. Some express that they’re not crazy about either candidate,” she says of major party presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “I encourage people to study the candidates for mayor, council and School Board. We need a lot of change in the city.”
Having a vote means having a voice, being able to ask questions, she says: Why can’t people get a bus into the counties? Why are there food deserts in impoverished neighborhoods? Why do some kids from East Richmond claim West End addresses so they can attend better schools? Why can’t we expand Medicaid to address the need for programs to aid with addiction and mental health care?
From early morning until as late as 10 p.m., Hagen visits college campuses and libraries, drug treatment centers and feeding programs, festivals and events — anywhere she might be able to reach potential voters. She’s become a regular presence at the transfer plaza. On a day like this, she says, she’ll talk to a couple hundred people and have conversations with 30 to 40.
“People know who I am,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Are you the lady who does the restoration?’ I love it — I get to be shoulder to shoulder with another human being. I want to lift them up. ”
Two other men approach her as we talk. One introduces himself as King Sha of the New Black World Order. The 45-year-old Richmonder (also known as Lawrence Robinson) recently had his rights restored, but he’s skeptical about participating in the political process. He says that Hagen and her colleagues helped persuade him to register to vote. “They kept gnawing at me,” he says. “They broke down my wall.” Who knows? he says. He might even run for mayor one day.
Community organizer Tammie Hagen talks about voting with Richmonder King Sha, aka Lawrence Robinson. (Photo by Jay Paul)
“I believe that voting works, but we’ve got to know how to vote,” he says. “We’ve got to apply ourselves.”
King Sha sells incense, natural hair products and scented body oils nearby at the corner of Ninth and Clay. He also carries a collection of “Meltrek” videos — animated lessons to teach children about the history, culture and contributions of African-Americans, using hip-hop music as a teaching tool. “I like to set up to show people they don’t need to go in there,” he says, nodding at the Richmond Social Services building.
Later, John Dantzler, 50, who lives in Richmond’s Fulton neighborhood, spots Hagen and asks her to check his rights restoration status. She enters his personal information on her phone and shows him the answer he’s hoping for: “Granted.”
He breaks into a big grin, hugs Hagen and laughs with joy.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” says Dantzler. “I used to vote and work at the polls [before] I got myself in trouble. It took a long time to get my life back. I started giving up and was thinking they weren’t going to grant it.”
John Dantzler hugs Tammie Hagen after finding out his rights have been restored. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
It’s moments like this that make Hagen’s long hours of pounding the pavement worthwhile. This is when she sees the fulfillment of her mission, one person at a time.
“Oppression is hard to break through. It’s not going to be solved overnight,” she says. “Getting restoration of rights is just the beginning.”