The unexpected primary victory on Monday in Kansas by progressive Democratic challenger Aaron Coleman should have been a political fairy tale. Coleman is a first-time candidate at the age of 19, and was outspent by more than 10-1 by his entrenched, corporatist incumbent-opponent, seven-term state Rep. Stan Frownfelter. Yet he narrowly eked out victory to become the Democratic nominee in a heavily blue district with no Republican on the ballot.
Yet now Coleman is engulfed in controversy based on serious misconduct from middle school when he was 12 and 13 years old. In an exclusive 30-minute video interview with The Intercept, his first since allegations about his past emerged, Coleman addresses the controversies surrounding his victory, his life story that led to his past acts as a child and his current candidacy as an adult, and his unusual political outlook generally. The video interview, which is quite illuminating, can be viewed on the player below or on The Intercept’s YouTube channel.
Inspired by the populist-left movement and working-class coalition that emerged during the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, Coleman’s worldview is composed of several core beliefs that are virtually nonexistent in Kansas electoral politics: universal health care coverage, raising the minimum wage, state-funded trade schools, a Green New Deal, full reproductive rights for women, and the legalization of cannabis, with new revenue from marijuana sales going to public schools and to create free trade schools. Frownfelter, meanwhile, supports none of that. He joined with the GOP majority to restrict abortion rights and generally supports a corporatist agenda favored by his large-money donors.
Even more extraordinary are the conditions of Coleman’s childhood and life story: ones extremely common in contemporary American life yet, revealingly, vanishingly rare to see among elected political officials. Raised by a father who could not work due to severe mental health disabilities and a mother who is an under-employed teacher, Coleman’s childhood was one of poverty, at times not knowing where his next meal would come from. After dropping out of high school, he enrolled at a local community college in Kansas City to obtain his GED, and now splits his time between community college classes and his job as a part-time, hourly-wage dishwasher.
But far from a fairy tale, a dark cloud has quickly descended over Coleman’s improbable victory. The Kansas State Democratic Party has vowed to heavily finance an organized write-in campaign on behalf of Frownfelter. In a very negative New York Times article on Coleman’s win, leading state Democratic officials are quoted as pronouncing him unfit for office, vowing to pour whatever resources are needed to reelect the incumbent with write-ins. “Aaron Coleman is not fit to serve in the Legislature,” a spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly told the Times, while the Democratic House minority leader said of Frownfelter’s write-in campaign: “I hope he can pull it out so I don’t have to deal with this kid.”
Democratic leaders deny that their contempt for Coleman is due to his unseating of their longtime friend or his progressive agenda. Instead, they insist, they find him appalling because of serious misconduct in which he engaged when he was 12 and 13 years old as a middle school student. Specifically, as a middle school student, Coleman bullied several of his female classmates, including one who says that when they were in sixth grade, she attempted suicide due to his incessant mocking of her physical appearance. The worst event was when Coleman obtained from the internet a nude photo of one of his middle school classmates, and demanded more photos from her upon threat of publishing the one he had, which he made good on when she refused.
That middle school behavior is horrific, and several of the the girls say, credibly, that they suffered greatly. During the campaign, Coleman, when confronted with the accusations, immediately acknowledged that they were true, said he was deeply ashamed of what he did when he was 12 and 13, characterized his actions as the behavior of a “sick boy,” and says that as an adult he has reformed and evolved past the pathologies he suffered and is no longer the child from a very troubled and deprived background who did that. He cites the fact that there have been no similar accusations lodged against him in the past five years since he left junior high.
Coleman says he has reached out to his victims from middle school to make amends, though they have not responded, and says he is eager to speak to them should they wish so he can do what he can to repair the damage he caused. He also insists that society bears the burden along with him of repairing similar damage — by better funding public schools so that impoverished kids like him do not end up lost and abused by a failing system, and by providing services to victims of school bullying and other forms of childhood abuse to obtain the help they need.
All of this raises profound and important questions about whether adults should be judged by the actions they undertook when they were a child, particularly when they have apologized and expressed remorse. 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. There is a reason courts are divided into adult courts and juvenile courts, and that many states bar minors from being tried and judged as adults even when they commit savage murders.
Just this week, the Democratic National Convention hosted as a speaker a convicted murderer named Donna Hylton, who committed one of the most gruesome crimes imaginable not as a junior high student but as an adult: She participated in a group that over the course of 15 days kidnapped, tortured, starved, raped and then murdered a man for ransom. She spent her prison time becoming a criminal justice advocate, and the DNC gave her a platform at their convention based on the belief that we should affirm the right of human beings to be rehabilitated even when they commit the most barbaric murders and rapes as an adult, let alone as a young child.
In 2018, after University of Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray won the Heismann Trophy at the age of 21, a USA Today reporter unearthed tweets he had posted when he was 14 and 15 that hurled ugly and bigoted anti-gay slurs. Murray apologized, insisting he no longer thinks the way he did when he was 15. A consensus quickly emerged that the journalist had engaged in shameful conduct because what someone does when they are young teenagers should not be held against them as adults.
How these long-standing liberal principles governing rehabilitation and childhood misconduct should be applied to Coleman’s election victory as an adult present interesting and important questions. So, too, does his background: If we say we want more candidates from working-class and impoverished families running for political office — as we should — do we make allowances for the fact that deprived childhoods often produce aberrant behavior as a child that are not common among those from more privileged backgrounds? After all, the British Journal of Psychiatry documented in 2014: “Poverty or low socioeconomic status (SES) during childhood is a well-known distal risk factor for subsequent criminal and substance misuse behaviours.”
How do we weigh various character flaws? If misogyny is the issue, how does Frownfelter’s anti-choice voting record as a fully grown adult weigh against Coleman’s abusive behavior as a child? When does remorse matter? Frownfelter has never expressed any, while Coleman has and continues to. If an unremorseful George Bush is welcomed in decent company after committing war crimes, implementing a worldwide torture regime, and destroying Iraq; if an unremorseful Bill Clinton is welcomed to speak at the Democratic National Convention after his longtime close friendship with pedophile Jeffrey Epstein and multiple women who accused him of rape and assault and harassment; and if Joe Biden is fit to serve as U.S. president despite numerous women complaining of inappropriate touching as a fully grown adult, why does Coleman’s actions as a 12-year-old render him unfit for a much less influential office?
It is vital to have consistently applied principles to ensure that these serious issues are not exploited and weaponized for partisan gain or other petty forms of of self-interest. And it is very difficult to locate such principles in the reaction to Coleman’s candidacy, to put it mildly.
Whatever else is true, nobody should form judgments about a person’s character and fitness without at least having the decency to hear from them in their own words as they discuss their actions, their life that led to those actions, and their sentiments about their past. It is in that spirt that I sat down today with Coleman for a 30-minute interview that I found very worth listening to and very enlightening in numerous respects.
Last night, I hosted a live chat on The Intercept’s YouTube channel to take questions from readers and viewers about a wide array of topics, including the Democratic Party convention, the Alex Morse attacks, the possible pardon of Edward Snowden, the latest Russiagate collusion “bombshell,” this article about Aaron Coleman, and several other issues. We also showed exclusive, never-before-seen video of an extraordinary and morbidly hilarious protest this month by Direct Action Everywhere against Smithfield Foods, one of the world’s worst companies, at a Virginia planning commission located next to the company’s headquarters.