The Tales of Little Pavel: Episode 24: Little Pavel and the Orange Jumpsuits

Political Satire:  Having trouble surviving these times?  You’re not alone.  Join us in columnist John F. Di Leo’s exploration of an alternate universe, where we imagine the impossible:

An idealistic teenager, living in the 51st ward of a fictional city in middle America, volunteers at the local party headquarters, and learns a lesson or two about modern urban politics.

In this episode, young Pavel returns to 51st Ward Party HQ for a deep question: should felons be able to vote?

Little Pavel and the Orange Jumpsuits

By John F. Di Leo

Pavel Syerov Jr. had been away at college, so he hadn’t stopped by the 51st Ward Party Headquarters in quite awhile. But he was home for the weekend, doing errands for his folks, when he found himself driving past Headquarters, and noticed that he had time to kill. He had a daunting essay to write for his Comparative Political Science class the next week, and writer’s block had hit; perhaps stopping by to see Pockets and The Boss might give him some ideas?

So he parked, covered up his purchases with a spare jacket and blanket that the family kept in the car for this very purpose (this is the Big City, after all; no need to tempt fate), locked the car, and walked over to the familiar mid-block storefront.

Just as he approached, he saw three unusual-looking characters departing.

Not to say that he hadn’t seen unusual characters at Headquarters before, of course; back in high school when he volunteered there regularly, he saw all sorts of things, and all sorts of people. But these guys looked particularly rough, so, his curiosity surpassing his revulsion, Pavel walked on in, after first stopping at the liquor store to buy a bag of pretzels and a six-pack of Guinness. After such a long absence, some small tribute would be expected.

Nothing had changed since the last time he was there – the yard signs and bumper stickers taped to the glass, mostly filling the window (mostly the same names, for the same offices, as the Machine had kept it for decades), so that those inside could easily see out through the gaps, but making it difficult for an outsider to see inside.

To the right, behind the window, the big collating table, where there was usually a gathering of the old ladies of the neighborhood, mothers or wives of patronage jobholders, “volunteering” by collating literature, running the envelope printer, stuffing envelopes.  They’d organize the bundles for the precinct captains to distribute door to door, organize the mailings in the third-class bundling process, rubber-stamp the headquarters’ info on literature that had been printed without it:  “Courtesy of the 51st Ward Party Headquarters, Bill Marcy, Committeeman.”

Behind that, the row of shelving units, full of various literature stacks and campaign button boxes, new and old, and the coffee machine for the old ladies.  Behind the shelving units was another table, and more chairs, and more stacks of printing, and more boxes.  And a refrigerator that held the soda for the old ladies, the mixers for the Boss’ guests’ mixed drinks, and of course, a good supply of beer for Pockets and the precinct captains.

To the left when you entered headquarters, that too was as it had always been.  First, the cluttered array of old-fashioned desk, modern computers (a tablet too, next to the desktop CPU? That was new), and stacks of papers and booklets, and printouts and notebooks, some of them clearly decades old.  This little corner of the world looked like a mess, but its owner knew every scrap of paper in every cubbyhole.  This was the office of the legendary old Deputy Committeeman of the 51st Ward, the Boss’ right hand man, his real name long forgotten, known simply as Pockets to one and all.

But the corner was unoccupied, though it looked recently in use, so he put two and two together and figured Pockets must be in conference with the Boss, in the next office, the opulent soundproofed, bug-proof room that took up the lion’s share of the left side of the place.  The door had a one-way window so the Committeeman could see out, but prospective visitors couldn’t see in… and an intercom so that the Boss could tell you to come in, or to cool your heels by helping out at the collating table until he had a minute for you.

In the old days, this parade of patronage jobseekers was a major source of activity and “volunteering” at Headquarters, but not anymore.   The unending recession that began in 2007 had left the city with one of the nation’s highest unemployment numbers for seven years now; even the doctoring of such statistics that’s now common practice couldn’t hide the truth in this city.   So the Boss had let it be known that there are no more city, county, or state jobs to be had.    There were, of course, but he had better control of who he passed them out to, this way… he could make sure that jobs only went to allies, or the vassals of allies.  The Boss, as they say, “didn’t want nobody nobody sent.”

 

Pavel walked up to the window, tapped once on the dark glass, waived, and held up the sixpack for the Boss to see.   He heard the familiar click, and let himself in.

Sure enough, Pockets was in there with the Boss, most likely discussing the thuggish characters that Pavel had witnessed departing a moment before.  Pockets brightened right up on seeing his face, and said “Guinness?  For me?   Good to see ya, Paully!  Welcome home!”

Pavel started to blanch at the prospect that he had could ever have thought of this den of iniquity as “home,” but caught himself and kept his game face on, as the Boss spoke.

“Good to see you, Pavel. Back for spring break?  We have a lot of precincts to walk this week; we’ll keep you busy!”

“No, Boss, sorry, more’s the pity,” replied Pavel. “I’m just in for the weekend.   Had a funeral to attend yesterday, a neighbor, so I’m going back to college in a few hours.  But I was in the neighborhood, and thought I’d say hello, if you had a minute?”

Pavel had a more cordial relationship with the old pols than the average volunteer or supplicant, because he had spent so much time at Headquarters at Pockets’ side when he was in high school, helping with mailings and learning the trade from the best.  When Pavel arrived that first day, he thought the only kind of vote fraud was the occasional illegally-registered tombstone, but he soon learned to his horror that the Democrats had invented more ways to steal elections than any “good government minded” voter would think possible.  He kept coming back to help, despite his growing disapproval, for the educational value of the visits… but it got harder and harder to keep up the act that he had drunk the kool-aid like everybody else in the building.

He was glad to go away for college so he’d have an excuse for leaving without burning such a potentially valuable bridge; he was majoring in Chemical Engineering, but minoring in Political Science and American History.  This very quarter, in fact, he was studying the Tammany Hall gang in 19th century New York…

Pockets licked his lips and said “We’d be poor friends indeed, Paully, if we couldn’t take a minute to share a fine Irish brew with an old friend, eh Boss?”

The Boss just nodded and smiled, and said “I could use a drink myself, after that.  Is it cold?”

Pavel handed them each a bottle and sat down, opening the bag of pretzels.

“Honey Wheat Braids!” exclaimed Pockets.  “You never forget.  Thank ya kindly, Paully!” he added, shoveling a couple pretzel sticks into his mouth and greedily opening the bottle.

Seeing his chance, Pavel asked “So what’s gotten you guys so thirsty?  Those tough characters I saw leaving as I walked in?  What’s up?”

The Boss started to straighten up, then relaxed.  “Ah, I guess we can talk about it.  There’s no secret, now that Eric Holder’s made it a big public push.”  The Boss took a swig, and continued. “Are you familiar at all with the issue of the felon vote?”

Pavel answered “Sure.  Some states allow felons to vote after they’ve done their time, and others ban felons from voting for life, once they’re convicted of a felony.   The Attorney General is leading a new election-year push to eliminate the ban nationally, right?”

“Exactly, Pavel,” said the Boss, nodding his head.  “Once a guy has served his time, the theory goes, he should be able to get all his rights back, and become a full member of society again.  It’s not fair to say, we’ll strip you of your freedom for just twenty years, but your voting rights for life.  And as you know, Pavel, our party believes in fairness.”

As Pavel nodded supportively, Pockets wiped his mouth on his sleeve and chuckled. “An’ it’d be good for millions a votes, too, right Boss?”

“Well, yeah, Pockets, that too,” nodded the Boss, smiling.  “It would be good for millions of votes.”

“But… “ stammered Pavel, “how can you be so sure?  Wouldn’t it be a mix?”

The Boss had just started a pretzel, so he pointed to Pockets to field that one.  Pockets took a swig to clear his mouth, and answered.

“Nah, Paully, it’s not much of a mix.  Dah felon population is mostly our kinda voter, almost entirely.  Not to say dere ain’t a few Republicans in dere too, maybe a few embezzlers or drunk driving types.  But not dat many.”  Pockets took another quick gulp, and continued.   “If people  wanna go around startin’ fights, robbin’ stores, dealin’ drugs, runnin’ gangs… dee odds are pretty good dat we’re talkin’ about our kinda voters.   It ain’t even close.”

Pavel nodded, understanding the point.  It made sense.  “But how can Attorney General Eric Holder have anything to do with it?  I mean, I see why he wants it changed, but aren’t election rights totally the province of the states?  How can the federal government dictate on this?”

The Boss fielded this one. “Well, there’s two ways, son.  One is the bully pulpit.   AG Holder thinks of himself as the nation’s main advocate for fairness under the law, so he’s trying to push for Democrat candidates, especially Senate incumbents because of the statewide coverage they get, to advocate for it in the US Senate and in the press…”

And without skipping a beat, Pockets added “And dee udder way is dat he’s pushin’ state AGs and local law enforcement to take dah position dat dere’s no obligation to enforce a discriminatory law… and dis one’s discriminatory!”

Pavel ‘s head turned back and forth as he looked expectantly at each of them, and said “But it’s NOT discriminatory!  I mean, not under the Constitution, right?  You can’t deny the vote on the basis of color or gender, but the Constitution doesn’t say anything about denying voting rights on the basis of people being convicted criminals!  Does it???”

Pockets smiled proudly and directed his next line to the Boss.  “See!  Told ya dis one’s a good student.  Gonna be an alderman someday, you mark my words!”

The Boss smiled, and returned to the subject. “You’ve been at college too long.  What did we teach you about the Constitution?”

Pavel thought back for a moment, then remembered.  “What it SAYS in the Constitution isn’t what matters.  What matters is what we SAY it says.  Right?”

“Exactly, Pavel,” said the Boss, proudly.  “If we can get people to believe that it’s unconstitutional to deny the franchise to ex-felons, then we’ll have millions more votes every election, even before we actually change the real law!”

“And” added Pockets, between swigs, “THAT’S the beauty of controlling public opinion!”

Pockets raised his beer in a toast, and the Boss followed suit.  Pavel, having no drink of his own, raised his pretzel stick in support, and took a bite as they took a gulp.

Pavel smiled and said his thanks, then said “I’d better be on my way now.  A couple quick errands before I get home, and then I’m on my way back to college tonight.”

“Don’t be a stranger, Paully!” said Pockets.

“See you in the summer, son,” added the Boss.  “We have a lot of work to do – gonna be a tough election this year.”
As Pavel walked away, he heard Pockets shout after him “And at least SOME of dah votes gotta be real!”

 

When Pavel got home from his errands, he sat down to discuss the visit with his parents.

“For once, I left headquarters actually thinking they had a point.  You know, these felons have served their time; they’ve ‘paid their debt to society’ as they say…  maybe we SHOULD reinstate their voting rights.”

Mr. and Mrs Syerov exchanged a glance, and sat down at the kitchen table with their eldest son.

“Yes indeed, it does seem to make sense, doesn’t it?” said his dad.  “But the logic is flawed.  Remember, voting rights aren’t the only rights that you lose for good after your sentence is up.  There’s plenty of precedent for losing other rights as well, permanently, regardless of the sentence, depending on the crime.”

His mom joined in. “Exactly.  Too many drunk driving convictions, and you lose your driver’s license for good, even after you’ve paid off your tickets.”

His dad volunteered “Molest kids, and you can be banned from a host of jobs for life, from teaching to clergy to working in stores that kids would frequent, like toy stores and children’s clothing stores.  You can’t even live within a block of a school, even if it’s the only apartment you can afford.”

“And think of the professions,” his mom added. “Embezzle from a client, and you may only go to jail for a few years, but you lose your law license or CPA license for decades, or even for life.”

“Import/export privileges too,” his dad said.  “If you get caught selling arms to terrorists, or facilitating some international criminal enterprise through money-laundering or violate the FCPA by bribing a foreign government official, you may only get a couple years in jail, and pay a fine… but you can be stripped of your export privileges forever.”

“So you see,” his mom explained, “the claim that it’s ‘unfair’ to continue one penalty, like denial of voting rights, after the main penalty, like fines or incarceration, are done with, is completely disingenuous.  There are a thousand precedents for staggering or compounding the punishments for a crime, depending on what the crime is, and what continued risks the perpetrator will pose to society when he is eventually released.

Pavel sat back for a moment to let all this soak in, and then he got up to get them all an orange juice, since they were still seated together…  he’d bought cherry and strawberry paczkis while he was out, so he served them and distributed the napkins, then asked his last question.

“One idea I’ve heard was that you could base it on the crime they were convicted of, and the full sentence they were SUPPOSED to receive.  Let’s say they were convicted of murder, and given 20 years in jail, but then were paroled after only eight.  How about you restore the voting rights after the full twenty years, so that even if the incarceration is abbreviated, the voting restriction stays true?  What do you think of that proposal?”

His dad smiled, and said “A good, thoughtful approach.  Philosophically rational.  But surely you see the flaw, don’t you?”

Pavel shook his head.

“Maybe you’ve been in the ivory tower of academia too long,” chuckled his mom.  “What were we talking with Uncle Bob about last Christmas dinner?”

Pavel’s Uncle Bob was in Human Resources at a large manufacturing plant, and at Christmas dinner, he had complained about how you never can tell from an ex-con’s resume what they really did.  He wanted to give people a second chance, but not ALL people.  Minor offenses, sure.  But there are some people you just don’t want to bring into your company, especially since it means you’re choosing them over other candidates who would be better choices.

Out loud, Pavel replied “Yeah, I remember now.  He said that prosecutors are so overloaded, they don’t have the resources to spend on difficult prosecutions, so they let the perpetrators plea bargain down to lesser offenses that are easier to win convictions on.”

“Exactly, son,” said his mom.  “So a person might be guilty of armed robbery at a bank and shooting two guards, which should merit life in prison, but he could plead down to just the robbery and lesser weapons charge and resisting arrest, so that it’s a certain conviction.  The sentencing will be far less than it ought to be, but the prosecutor is happy because at least this lets him move on to the rest of his caseload.”

Now his dad joined this argument. “So for that example, son, if he were convicted of his actual crime, he might be in jail for life, never getting the franchise back… but under the scheme you just proposed, he’d be able to vote in a few years… not because it’s really fair to do so, but because the intended remedy failed to take into account the reality of our warped criminal justice system.”

Pavel shook his head.  “So there’s really no way to make it fair.  I see your point, but it’s depressing.  There HAVE to be ex-felons out there who deserve to have their voting rights restored, but you’re right, the proposals floated don’t take reality into account.”

His dad started clearing away the empty plates.  “Yup.  As long as we’re convicting people of crimes that are far milder than what the felons actually did, it wouldn’t be intellectually honest to water down the votes of law abiding citizens by further infecting the electorate with known lawbreakers.  There are some rights that you give up by bad choices in life.  The right to vote SHOULD be one of them…   Good paczkis, by the way, Pavel.  That’s a great bakery!’

“And as for the good, decent, truly reformed people among that ex-felon pool,” added his mom, “you do know there’s still something they can do, even if they can’t vote, right?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what did your brother Nico do the summer he was 16?”

Pavel thought for a moment, then saw the light.  “He volunteered all summer with that campaign in Wisconsin when he stayed with our cousins in Milwaukee.   He walked precincts, answered phones, collated literature… didn’t he also come up with one of their bumper stickers for them?”

“Exactly,” she replied. “He was too young to vote, so he did other things that he could legally do, to help a good candidate get elected.  He had infinitely more of an impact in that election as a volunteer than he could ever have had as just a voter on election day.  He probably won his candidate a couple of hundred votes, through all his hard work.  That’s a lot bigger deal than just having the vote.  He didn’t complain that it was unfair that he couldn’t vote at 16; he just found some other way to make a difference.”

Pavel was convinced.   “Good point, Mom.  I guess that’s where I’ll come down on the issue too.  You folks make sense.   Felons have surrendered their right to vote for good, at least, as long as the criminal justice system is as warped and inscrutable as it is today.  Maybe someday we can find a way to draw lines of demarcation, but not now.  For the few who were truly innocent, or have truly reformed, it’s a pity, but they can make a contribution in other valuable ways if they really want to.”

Mr. and Mrs. Syerov smiled, and raised their orange juices in a toast.  “A good day, and a good lesson, eh son?”

“Yes indeed.  Thanks!  And best of all… now I know what I’m going to write about for my Poli Sci class this week!”

Copyright 2012-2024 John F. Di Leo

This is a work of fiction, and any similarity with any person, living or dead, is unintentional. The Tales of Little Pavel were originally published in serial form in Illinois Review, from 2010 through 2016, and the full collection of stories about Little Pavel and the denizens of the 51st Ward is available in paperback or eBook, exclusively from Amazon. Republished with permission.

John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation and trade compliance professional and consultant.  A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009.  His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available only on Amazon, in either paperback or eBook. His latest book, “Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volume Three,” was just published in November, 2023.

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