A criminal record won’t prevent Danielle Stella’s bid for Ilhan Omar’s congressional seat

“Land of the free.”
“Land of the free.”
Image: Reuters/Scott Morgan
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Minnesota congressional representative Ilhan Omar has only been in office since January. But already the Somali-American lawmaker, who made history by wearing a hijab during her swearing-in, has a challenger for her seat: a 31-year-old special education teacher named Danielle Stella who promises to be tough on crime but herself has a criminal record and a pending felony theft charge.

On June 19, Stella filed a statement of candidacy (pdf) with the Federal Election Commission despite her own legal woes. Stella was twice charged with theft this year, once in January for allegedly stealing 279 items worth more than $2,300 from a Target store. After she failed to appear in court on that charge on April 4, a warrant was issued for her arrest. That warrant was executed on April 28, when Stella was caught purportedly shoplifting $40 worth of items from a grocery store, including tick spray for cats.

“I am not guilty of these crimes. In this country I am innocent until proven guilty and that is the law,” Stella told the Guardian recently. “If I was guilty of crimes, I would never run for public office, putting myself in the public eye under a microscope to be attacked by all political sides.”

Stella’s response is technically correct—she is innocent until proven guilty under American criminal law. But it doesn’t reflect the full extent of her liberty. Even if she is proven guilty and convicted of a felony, the conviction wouldn’t bar her from running for or ultimately holding the federal public office she seeks.

“A felony can’t prevent someone from being on the ballot for a federal office because the constitution doesn’t say anything about felonies,” Minnesota secretary of state spokesperson Peter Bartz-Gallagher tells Quartz. He points out that the state is already familiar with similar situations because “perennial” candidate Jack Shepard, convicted of criminal sexual conduct and drug possession after a 1982 arson charge, ran for Congress and the presidency before fleeing US authorities to Italy.

However, a felony conviction would prevent a Minnesota resident from voting in the state while their sentence was being served and, accordingly, the crime would also bar holding state or local office while the sentence was pending. In theory then, Stella, if she was both convicted of a felony offense and won the congressional seat, could represent Minnesotans in congress even if she couldn’t vote in her home state.

Felon voting rights differ from state to state, and states determine their own qualification rules for local officials. But these cannot trump federal laws when it comes to holding a federal office.

Indeed, a convicted felon can campaign for and become a member of the US Congress even while serving prison time. In 1798, hot-tempered Vermont representative Matthew Lyon—who once brawled on the House floor with Roger Griswold of Connecticut—ran for Congressional reelection from prison and won. He assumed his seat after serving four months for violating the Sedition Act by libeling president John Adams. House members tried to expel Lyon from office but failed and Lyon later represented Kentucky in the House.

In Stella’s case, however, a felony conviction could put a damper on her campaign efforts. She has been critical of Omar for advising immigrants—the Twin Cities is a hub for Somali immigrants—on how to avoid Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officers, saying that failure to uphold the rule of law should be a basis for ejecting public officers from their positions. She also falsely claimed that crime in Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, jumped by 80% in the past year.

This preoccupation with the law could ring somewhat false to voters given Stella’s personal record. Apart from the current charges, in 2009 she faced felony charges for driving while intoxicated and fleeing a police officer. She pled guilty to a gross misdemeanor.