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  • Nick Woods

Prison Inmate and Presidential Candidate? It’s more common than you think.

Eugene V. Debs, twice convicted, ran for President five times

More than a year and a half before Americans return to the polls to decide democracy, the cacophonous drum of another Presidential campaign beats in Washington. In the early-voting states, candidates coalesce around county fairs and donor retreats, chomping corn and slinging mud.

It’s impossible to ignore the specter of Donald Trump in recent proceedings. The twice-impeached former President faces mounting legal challenges, intensified opposition, and is attempting to reclaim the office when only a quarter of the American population favor him. He is the front-runner for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2024. Thanks to the Electoral College, he will be a coin-flip away from the Presidency, again. He might be running in a jumpsuit.

Trump faces criminal charges for his cover-up of an alleged affair with pornstar Stormy Daniels in the days prior to the 2016 election; his fascist cosplay in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election in Georgia; his role in a coup d'etat against the U.S. Government on Jan. 6th; and his hoarding of government secrets at his golf resort in Florida. There is a strong chance that one or more of these crimes will result in a sentence, and pundits have begun to speculate what a campaign could look like if he runs behind bars.

However, this is not the first time an alleged criminal has run for office. In 1920, convicted organizer, trade unionist, and political activist Eugene V. Debs ran as the Socialist Party’s candidate from his Georgia prison cell. The circumstances of these separate cases, however, could not be more disparate.

The purpose of this article is not to compare and contrast the candidacies of these diametrically opposed ideologues. One galvanized the masses as a skilled orator, draped in unionist rhetoric and skillful syntax. The other, not so much. One paid a heavy price for ‘radical’ positions; advocating for the abolition of child labor, equal pay for women, and the introduction of pensions for workers. The other walks free, spouting stylistic smoke, seeking the death penalty for drug dealers and rhetorically ripping up the Constitution. It would be a fool’s errand to equate a debased grifter to a virtuous socialist. In a time of civil strife, contentious politics, and national uncertainty, it is important to remember the power of a person who has the bravery to challenge the status quo, and the desire to forge ahead no matter how difficult the consequences.

Eugene Debs began his first brush with the national spotlight some three decades before his time as a Georgia convict. In 1894, a newly-industrialized America was the height of its Gilded Age, and saw its marginalized exploited by the mechanisms of the one percent. These ‘robber barons’ raked in massive profits and spurned necessary regulations on their employees by generously lobbying elected officials to ignore the problem and accept widespread corruption. Sound familiar?

In new industries, in oil fields, and on railroad tracks, relations between the profiting few and the marginalized many worsened. Commodified workers, many of them new immigrants from Western and Central Europe, found an unlikely hero in the favorite son of Terre Haute, Indiana.

Debs founded the American Railway Union in 1893, amassing some 150,000 members in over 125 chapters. When the nation’s premier railroad car manufacturer, the Pullman Company, cut wages without decreasing the rent that contracted workers paid to live in the factory city, Debs led a massive boycott, and work halted for 18 days as over 125,000 walked off the job, only stopping when U.S. President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops into the midwest to quell the tensions as violence ensued. Debs received his first prison sentence, for violating a court injunction, and was sent to jail for six months.

His views hardened, and in 1900, he founded the Socialist Party of America, running for President on the values of women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, and equal pay. He ran for president three more times, in 1904, 1908, and 1912, when he received 6 percent of the popular vote.

Debs, with burgeoning popularity, was fervently opposed to U.S. involvement in World War I, proclaiming in a 1918 speech that “The master class has always declared the wars. The subject class has always fought the battles.” Days later, he was arrested for 10 years in prison under the newly passed Espionage and Sedition Acts, which seeked to target “disloyal” citizens who spoke out against a country barelling toward conflict.

Debs campaigned from prison, only allowed to make one public comment a week, which he published to news wires. The campaign was a protest against the unconstitutional imprisonment of the lifetime labor leader. Over 910,000 Americans cast their ballots for the incarcerated Debs in November. No longer a threat and of old age, his sentence was commuted by Warren Harding on Christmas Day 1921, who invited the famous political prisoner to the White House. The President greeted him “I have heard so damned much about you Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally.”

While there is talk of charging Trump with the same crime as Debs a century later, the memory of a man who stood up to titans for the grievances of others serves fonder than the wannabe tyrant who cares only about his own. As the media continues to oscillate around the criminal escapades of man who lethally told us that ingesting bleach would be effective in stopping a deadly virus, let’s instead remember the man who gave us Labor Day, inspired women’s suffrage, and brought the rights of the working many into the mainstream.


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