Star Power: Frank M. Conaway Jr. Won an Election, Baggage and All

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Oct. 25, 2006

State delegate candidate Frank Melvin Conaway Jr., who with 5,889 votes was the top vote-getter in the 40th District Democratic primary in September, doesn’t want this story published. His father, Baltimore City Clerk of the Circuit Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., doesn’t either. In separate interviews, both used the same, emphatic words: “You don’t have to write the story.”

The story, though, may be of interest for 40th District voters, who on Nov. 7 will decide which three of the four candidates will go to Annapolis to represent approximately 110,000 city residents living from Pimlico and Rosemont to Woodberry and Mount Vernon. Simply put, Conaway Jr. isn’t a delegate yet, but he likely will be soon–despite having a decidedly thin résumé and embarrassing problems: a drug convict chairs his campaign committee, and his wife swore in 2003 that Conaway Jr. is mentally ill and abusive, prompting Baltimore County courts to step in for her protection.

Conaway Jr.’s campaign-finance committee is chaired by Adonis Sanchez Johnson, 26, who in 2003 was convicted for possessing six quarter-sized chunks of crack cocaine with a street value of several hundred dollars. He received an 18-month suspended sentence and 18 months of supervised probation. At his sentencing, court records show, Johnson was an unemployed community-college student who previously worked construction.

Conaway Jr.’s longtime wife, Latesa Elaine Thomas, 44, has had a Baltimore County domestic-violence protective order against her husband for more than three years. The order, dated Aug. 25, 2003, states that Conaway Jr. “threatened to kill” Thomas, placing her “in fear of imminent serious bodily harm,” and that “one year ago [he] pushed her face through back door window.” Thomas also convinced the court that Conaway Jr., 43, was a threat to himself and others as a diagnosed sufferer of bipolar disorder who had stopped taking his prescribed medications, so the court ordered police escorts to deliver Conaway Jr. to two emergency hospital evaluations in the summer of 2003. Thomas is in the process of divorcing Conaway Jr.

“We knew this day would come,” Conaway Jr. says. It’s an unseasonably warm early-October afternoon, and he’s standing at the foot of the Battle Monument, in the middle of Calvert Street between the two circuit courthouses. “Somebody’s going to ask that question,” he remarks, “and it’s none of your business.” At the time, City Paper did not know what had happened to prompt the protection order.

Conaway Jr. dismisses the drug conviction of his committee chairman by asking, “Can’t a guy get a second chance?” He remarks that “in order to be one of the people, you have to help the people. I gave a person a chance.”

Conaway Sr., when asked about Johnson’s criminal record and committee chairmanship, says simply that “it is what it is.” Attempts to reach Johnson were unsuccessful.

Bringing up Conaway Jr.’s own court record prompts the candidate to assume a don’t-go-there attitude. “My children’s mother is a decent woman,” he says. “That’s all you need to know. People understand that things happen between man and woman and the rearing of children.”

Conaway Sr., interviewed later over the phone after his son’s domestic violence record had been examined, says, “I don’t know about [Conaway Jr.’s] diagnosed disorder.” He adds that he doesn’t “get into [his children’s] marital affairs” and therefore was unaware of the domestic-violence issues. He cautions that his son once took his wife to court, too, so “you should take what she says with a grain of salt.”

In addition to the injuries described in the protective order, Thomas, in her sworn statement in the case, mentioned a “tooth chip” and “bruises all over the body.” She wrote that Conaway Jr. was “having a bi-polar accident. He has not taken his medicine for several months.” She asked the court to help, writing that she and the three children she’s had with Conaway Jr. are “living in fear” because “he is bi-polar and I can’t deal or control his behavior,” which she described as “unstable,” “talking threats, keeping son in garage in fear. My entire family is afraid. He is in a manic state and is unreasonable.”

Bipolar disorder, which is also known as manic-depressive illness, is described by the National Institute of Mental Health as “a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function” that “can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide.” It estimates that 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population suffers from the biochemical illness. In September, the Harvard Medical School published a NIMH-funded study that found that the economic impact of bipolar disorder is measurable: “each U.S. worker with bipolar disorder averaged 65.5 lost workdays in a year.” But it is treatable with medication–as long as sufferers stay on their medication.

Keeping on the medication, Thomas swore to the court, was what Conaway Jr. failed to do. The result was abuse allegations severe enough for the court to order him to stay away from his wife, children, and in-laws, and their respective homes, schools, and workplaces, or be charged with a misdemeanor crime that could bring jail time.

In the ongoing divorce case, Thomas no longer alleges abuse by her husband, and asks for divorce on the grounds that they’ve been separated since July 2003. Conaway Jr., though, brought up the issue of violence himself, writing in his response to her divorce filing that Thomas “failed to list when she was charged with domestic violence.” That occurred in 1993, when Conaway Jr. swore out a complaint against her for assault, but prosecutors dropped the charge.

Conaway Sr., when informed of his daughter-in-law’s sworn statements, says quietly, “I don’t believe these things. I don’t think he would lay a hand on her. And I know him.”

Thomas initially said she would meet with a reporter for this article but then stopped returning phone calls. “I’m just an ordinary woman looking out for my children,” she said during a brief phone conversation.

Conaway Jr. is a mail clerk in the Baltimore City Municipal Post Office, a job he says he’s had for about three years. For about six or seven years before that, he says he worked for his father’s travel agency. Back in the 1980s for three or four years, he says he had an insurance broker’s license while working for Conaway Sr.’s now-defunct insurance business. In the meantime, Conaway Jr. says he received an education–three years at Howard University, one year at Morgan State University, then three years at Sojourner-Douglass College, graduating in 1999 with a degree in business administration. He also wrote books, and started a replica kit-car business called “F” Dreams Inc. The business fell victim, he says, to the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. His book Baptist Gnostic Christian Eubonic Kundalinion Spiritual Ki Do Hermeneutic Metaphysics, which combines biblical theology and martial arts, was published in 2001, and was followed by the ’04 release of his The 20 Pennies a Day Diet Plan. Both are available online.

Conaway Jr.’s political committee, which was formed in May, raised and spent exactly nothing to get him elected in the primary. Yet at the polls he bettered all others–one well-liked, well-funded incumbent (freshman legislator Marshall Goodwin) and a number of other challengers with serious jobs and respectable campaign kitties. How? Conaway Jr. explains it this way.

“I have been in this community all my life,” he asserts. “I was raised up to have respect for everyone, to greet people every day–police officers, teachers, businesspeople–so every day I say good morning to people. I speak to people in the supermarkets, gas stations, whatever. That’s how I know people. That’s how I pulled it off, because I’m one of the people.

“I covered the whole district,” he continues, defensive at the suggestion that he was a no-show candidate, often missing at primary-season events. “I went door to door, I gave out toys, I gave out whistles, I gave out brooms, I spoke at forums. I tried to tell the truth. I tried to give a different answer than just rhetoric. I separated myself from the pack, because most of the people I was running against, they sound the same. You know, they sound good, but there are no answers [when they speak]. I spoke my mind.”

Conaway Sr. fills in the rest. “Everybody that gets elected gets elected by name recognition–everybody,” he proclaims, explaining that voters tend not to vote for people whose names they don’t know. “If you don’t have it, you have to buy it, and it just so happened that [Conaway Jr.] didn’t have to buy name recognition because his name was well-known.”

The Conaway name has graced Baltimore ballots since the 1970s, when Conaway Sr. was himself elected a state delegate. He rose to chair the Legislative Black Caucus before his star arched into a scandalous investigation of his insurance business. By 1982, he’d vacated his seat in Annapolis and declared bankruptcy. The same year, his wife, Mary Conaway, was elected the city’s register of wills, a position she’s held ever since–though she’s made stabs for other offices, including for Congress and mayor. Since Conaway Sr. gained the clerkship of the city Circuit Court in 1998, he’s run for mayor, too. Conaway Jr.’s sister Belinda Conaway is the 7th District’s city councilwoman, and just ran and lost for state Senate in the 40th District. Conaway Jr. himself tried for a City Council seat in 1999. That’s a lot of Conaways on a lot of ballots over a long period of time.

In order to keep the family legacy going, Conaway Sr. started Three Bears Slate, the campaign committee that raises and spends money on any and all of the family’s races for public office–including Conaway Jr.’s primary victory. Formed in July 2005, it had raised nearly $60,000 and spent nearly $50,000 as of late August.

“All of those votes for four people with so little money,” Conaway Sr. says, admiring the electoral efficiency of the family machine. “It’s not for power,” he insists–though he allows that another organization he formed this year with a bevy of local political and business leaders, Metro Political Organization, is “about power–what else would it be?” But when it comes to the family slate and public service, “I’m in it to help people,” he says.

In this case, Conaway Sr.’s help came in the form of Conaway Jr. The son, since he hasn’t followed former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Doug Duncan’s recent example of withdrawing after confessing to a mental-health problem, is on the November ballot along with fellow Democrats Barbara Robinson and Shawn Tarrant. Green Party candidate Jan Danforth is on the list, too. While Danforth’s vote-drawing potential is as yet untested, she has made a name for herself by fighting vocally in recent years against Loyola College’s decision to develop forestland in Woodberry and serving on the boards of the Greater Homewood Community Development Corp. and Jones Falls Watershed Association. If Danforth, 56, comes in fourth, Conaway Jr. will be elected, making his father proud.

“He’s not going to do anything bad,” Conaway Sr. predicts of his son’s likely future in the state legislature. “He’s fine. He’s going to be a star.”

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