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Wednesday, August 18,2010

Political rehabilitation

How a Lansing Community College student leader is coping with a criminal past

by Andy Balaskovitz

Antonio Manning was 19 years old when he was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct in 2003. He had a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old when he was 18 and attending Lansing Eastern High School.


After serving 5 1/2 years in Ingham County jails, Manning was released on parole. Two of the conditions were that he was not to use any device with Internet capabilities and he was not to look at sexually suggestive material. Manning said his girlfriend at the time of his release gave him a Blackberry phone that had photographs of her in a bikini on it. This landed him about another year in jail.


Manning spent about five months between his first prison sentence and his second getting back into local politics, which he had been involved in since high school. Those efforts were to be put on hold.


But Manning, 26, is back and allowed to use the Internet. He is vice president of the Young Democrats student organization at Lansing Community College with hopes to set a new tone for this election year, centered on getting young people to vote. And he has the backing of a former state representative and the leader of the LCC Young Democrats.


“Prison, believe it or not, is a very humbling experience. It changes you. For some people, the change is negative,” Manning said at a coffee shop in dress slacks and a tie. “I think this will be a positive experience.”


Manning is forthright with his story, not ashamed to hide any details of it. In the political realm, he believes this makes him unique. He regrets his “immature” actions as an 18-year-old, and instead of calling it a mistake, calls it a poor decision: “When you say it was a mistake, it’s a way of negating responsibility.”


Some of his hardships since leaving prison are being denied scholarships and facing criticism from some LCC colleagues.


He spent most of his prison sentence in the library, he said, avoiding a road that many prisoners choose instead. He studied the state criminal justice system and analyzed the importance of helping ex-convicts re-enter society. He touts the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative for helping him get back involved with the community.


“It’s a 50-50 crap shoot. Either you will go to prison and sit around and eat noodles all day, watch TV and be pacified,” he said. “Or you’re going to be in the library and try to get your life straight, and that’s what I did.”


Manning grew up in Muskegon Heights before moving to Lansing, where he was in and out of foster homes. He never knew his father, he said.


Former state Rep. Paul DeWeese, a Republican-turned-Democrat who served the Williamston area, met Manning when he was a young legislative aide in his office. Manning was an ambitious high school student at the time, DeWeese said.


“He was pretty involved with the community at that time. I offered to him to come volunteer in the office just to gain experience,” he said. After a weekend trip to Traverse City together for one of DeWeese’s speeches, they got to know each other even better.


DeWeese was shocked when Manning called him after being sentenced.


“He is a good person, with good instincts and sound values,” he said. “Antonio has that drive to have a positive impact on a broader community.”


Because of the nature of the charges, DeWeese knows the road ahead of Manning, at least professionally if he stays in politics, will be bumpy. Since his release, DeWeese has paid for Manning’s textbooks and other routine costs of being a student, like clothes, a bicycle and a computer. Though Manning told him it could be political suicide to do this, DeWeese does it anyway because he sees Manning’s potential.


“Life has so much more meaning when we invest time and resources in other people. To give them a jump start is really a wonderful thing,” he said.


DeWeese thinks it is important Manning stays involved with the community and works aggressively to positively impact the system, rather than becoming “a political liability.” It will take time to build education credentials, which he thinks is an important first step.


Chad Guerrant, a second-year political science major and president of the LCC Young Democrats, welcomed Manning back into local politics. Together they want to set a "new tone" in Lansing. With Manning as vice president, they seek to bridge the gap between college-age Democrats and Republicans, MSU students and LCC students.


Last year, Guerrant said about 45 people were involved with the Democratic student group at LCC, even though it was formally inactive. During this election year, they plan to activate the group and raise membership to 120 people.


Guerrant said he had no hesitations welcoming Manning back and setting a new tone for the LCC Young Democrats.


“Keeping a person’s past at the forefront all the time and blaming them is bad not just for business, but for ethics and the way you treat a person,” he said. “Everyone has their fouls, and if you focus on those, you will never get the good out of them.”


Manning dreams of being a congressmen. He
plans to attend law school at either MSU or Cooley and work his way up
local politics thereafter. One of his heroes is Clinton Canady III, who
rebounded substance abuse and a drunk-driving arrest to build a
successful law practice and become a candidate for Circuit judge in
Ingham County this fall.


His prison sentence has made him see goals with a little clearer vision.


“I now have a realistic approach to life.


Not
everything will be peaches and cream. There will be people who don’t
want you to succeed. But you have to deal with that,” he said. “You have
to become a stronger, wiser and better person because of that.”

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