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Elections

The Left Deserves Better Than Aaron Coleman

Public office is something that is earned, not an inherent right

If you haven’t heard about the short, contentious career of Kansas State House candidate Aaron Coleman, here is a condensed version.

Coleman is a 19-year-old community college student and outspoken socialist who narrowly won the Democratic primary for Kansas’s 37th State House district. Since the district is solidly blue, this made him the likely winner of the general election. Shortly after his primary win, however, multiple women came forward with allegations that Coleman had abused them while they were all minors. Coleman confirmed the allegations, which included telling a girl to kill herself and blackmailing another by distributing a nude photo he had obtained of her. Most of these incidents happened when Coleman was 12; he is now 19.

When Coleman’s past became public, many leftists quickly defended his right to seek public office, characterizing the argument in the point that children should not be tried as adults, nor have their childhood transgressions follow them into adulthood.

Here’s Glenn Greenwald, who was certainly not alone in these takes but was perhaps the highest-profile person espousing them:

The argument generally follows that children should have a chance at a full adult life, in which they can demonstrate growth and genuine remorse for the pain they caused while underage.

This is true. Coleman’s behavior as a minor should not disqualify him from running for public office, and indeed it has not: technically, he is still the Democratic candidate for the seat, and right now appears to be still actively campaigning. (Kansas’s Republican party, which did not even register an opponent to the Democratic primary winner, is now looking to put someone on the ballot if Coleman withdraws.) But it’s a perfectly valid reason to not vote for him. Public office is something that is earned, not an inherent right.

Defenses of Coleman tended to center around his stated politics, which are largely in line with the major platforms of socialist and progressive left candidates of the past few years, and around his wider personal background, which he says includes years of trauma and abuse. His political stances are commendable, and his background is tragic, but neither of those things should automatically earn him the support of progressive voters.

And these things matter when choosing our political leaders. Politicians have a disproportionate amount of power in a society based on representative democracy. It follows that they should be held to a disproportionately higher standard. It’s not “canceling” or “destroying” Coleman to refuse to support his run for office if his moral judgment is questionable. Coleman is 19. The violence he admitted to was in middle school, which for him was only 7 years ago. He has been an adult for less than two years. Members of the voting public are free to make up their own minds as to whether that’s a sufficient amount of time to grow from mistakes he made as a childhood; to me, it seems clear that it is not.

The initial defense of Coleman was likely amplified because it came so soon after the attempted hit job against Massachusetts congressional candidate Alex Morse over his supposed personal misconduct.

The allegations against Morse were much thinner, centered only around incidents of consensual sex between adults, and were quickly exposed as a bad-faith smear campaign by supporters of his opponent. The claims against Coleman, on the other hand, are much more grave, and he has never disputed them, instead offering varying degrees of apology for his conduct. But the fact that the initial accusations described crimes Coleman committed as a minor created a similar initial murkiness as to the correct moral response.

If you’ve been following this story at all, you know how it ends. On Tuesday, after a day of rumors swirling online, the Intercept’s Ryan Grim published a reported story containing new, extremely credible allegations of abuse by Coleman, this time committed while both parties involved were legal adults. Coleman’s ex-girlfriend, Taylor Passow, alleges that he choked, slapped, and verbally abused her while they were dating. The verbal abuse was intensely graphic: according to screenshots provided to Grim and GEN’s Jessica Valenti, Coleman repeatedly urged Passow to commit suicide during arguments and once told her he hoped she would be raped and murdered while hitchhiking. You can blame trauma and environmental factors for Coleman’s conduct as a child, but it’s apparent to me that whatever demons made him this way have not yet relinquished their grasp. This is not a man who has changed.

The lesson I take from this is that the left deserves better. Coleman’s campaign followed a successful electoral strategy that has seen numerous progressive challengers like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman topple established incumbents in safely-blue districts of the U.S. House and state legislatures alike. It’s clear that there is a growing constituency for the overall policies that Coleman represents; the left should do everything it can to facilitate this strategy.

But policy goals are not a guarantee of good representation. Voters, activists, and political strategists in all of these districts owe it to themselves to nominate and elect candidates that can both talk the talk and walk the walk. We must demand more of our leaders than cursory support for the ideology we believe in: as basically any woman who’s participated in far-left online and in-person communities can tell you, a deep and sincere commitment to Medicare for All does not preclude someone from being a creep. Coleman, like every person who has committed a crime, deserves a chance to rehabilitate and remake his life into something better. But there’s absolutely no reason he should get to do it from the Kansas State House.

Screenshot: YouTube