Demetrus Coonrod rises from convict to councilwoman

Chattanooga native has her rights restored after serving prison term for felony

New city councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod is photographed in the Times Free Press studio on Friday, April 28, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Standing before a federal judge more than a decade ago, Demetrus Coonrod knew she was about to lose everything - her job, her two youngest children, any hope at a career.

U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier seemed to understand, too.

"Young lady, I see so much more potential in you than going to prison," Coonrod recalled him saying.

On that September day in 2003, Collier sentenced her to seven years for conspiracy to commit armed robberies. Before her 30th birthday, Coonrod was sent to Tallahassee, Fla., where she would be sexually assaulted by a corrections officer and only know her children through pictures and phone calls.

Early last month, in a remarkable turnaround, Collier swore Coonrod in as the Chattanooga City Council's representative for District 9.

Chattanoogans who live outside of her district have learned a lot about the 42-year-old T-Mobile employee since she was elected. The political underdog who ousted District 9 incumbent Yusuf Hakeem is a franchise owner, a poet, a mother of five and a convicted felon.

Her rap sheet includes child abuse and neglect charges, assault and disorderly conduct and theft, and the conspiracy to commit armed robbery conviction in federal court. But activists and local political leaders pointed to an attitude shift among local voters against the status quo that led to her win in the election.

What many people don't know is, to get here, Coonrod had to shed everything: Family, friends and an upbringing in an atmosphere of crime and poverty.

"My family, a lot of them, have been in and out of jail. My parents got hooked on crack cocaine. We were on an impoverished trail. And every community we moved to was the same thing: No guidance," said Coonrod, who is black. "The kids were basically left to rule themselves, and that led to a path of promiscuous behaviors, mischievous activity and getting involved with the wrong kind of people."

Experts say it's not an unfamiliar narrative to Chattanoogans who are poor, minority or clustered in neglected neighborhoods that never received a nod during the city's revitalization efforts. Many live in precincts of District 9, which includes Missionary Ridge, Eastdale and Glenwood.

Including other areas such as Alton Park and College Hill Courts, "70 percent of Chattanooga's black population lives in [those] neighborhoods," said sociologist and historian Clark White, a 67-year-old Chattanooga native. "We have a very small middle class. You must also remember, there is no historically black college in Chattanooga. If you look at any city in the South, all cities that have had (historically black universities) also had a stronger middle class and more disposable income."

Coonrod said her criminal record was born out of desperation - and compounded by a courts system that disproportionately affects black men and women, according to records.

She isn't the first felon to be elected to a city office. Judge Russell Bean, who was convicted of felony theft in the 1980s, ran for City Court in 2000, news archives show.

But Coonrod's advocates say her experience with racial inequality and poverty could serve as a beacon to anyone caught in the cycle of debt or constant policing.

"I don't think it's going to change the whole city or every problem we have," said Anthony Byrd, the District 8 council member who ousted another incumbent, Moses Freeman. "But it's not going to paint with such a broad brush."

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Coonrod was born Dec. 30, 1974, one of four children, to a nurse and a military veteran.

Chattanooga was then an industrial city with several foundries and black-owned businesses on Ninth Street, now M.L. King Boulevard.

"You would think life was better back then," Coonrod said.

Still, making ends meet was a daily challenge, and as the economy shifted and foundries closed, blacks had to overcome significant hurdles just to find work.

Coonrod said the challenge landed on her shoulders at a young age when her parents became addicted to crack in the 1980s.

Welfare checks and food stamps disappeared. Coonrod and her siblings often went without clean clothes, shoes or full stomachs to Orchard Knob Elementary and Middle schools. The teachers would make a list every morning of the children who needed basic necessities. "We were on that list every given time it came around," Coonrod said.

Coonrod's childhood was tossed aside when she had a baby at age 12. She found work at Pizza Hut at 16, making $5.13 an hour and bringing home leftover pies for her parents, siblings and her baby. Few family members completed high school, and none before her went to college, but Coonrod strived for a degree.

"Can you imagine being a teen mom, trying to stay in school to complete high school, raise a kid, and take care of yourself and your siblings because you don't have any parents?" she asked.

She was kicked out of schools in Brainerd and Hixson before transferring to City High, where a teacher taught her to channel her anger into poetry. A few years before her 1993 graduation, the state moved Coonrod and her siblings to a foster home. From there, she alternated between a life in the streets, a job as an EKG tech, and time in the courts system, struggling to pay off debts, save money and provide for her five children.

"I was in survival mode," Coonrod said. "And the ultimate result for a lot of people is, 'Well I know I can sell drugs because I can make this quick dollar, and then I don't have to worry about my kids having shoes and clothes for the moment.' A lot of crime is inspired by that."

Her abuse charge, for instance, stemmed from an argument she had with her oldest daughter, who was fighting Coonrod inside their home in 1999. Someone called police and Coonrod was arrested, she said. She eventually pleaded guilty to the class C misdemeanor and was sentenced to 15 public work days in county jail and supervised probation, records show.

The stakes increased in 2003 when Coonrod admitted to the prosecution's charge that she helped Jason Davis, Jonathan Travis, Kevin Wooten and others in armed holdups at Popeye's restaurant and a plasma center by letting them drive her car. She was sentenced to 84 months behind bars in U.S. District Court.

Inside the prison walls in Florida, Coonrod was sexually assaulted by a corrections officer, who was convicted after multiple women testified against him in court. As a result of testimony, a judge shaved 21 months off her sentence.

Homeless and owing $12,000 in court fees, Coonrod said she returned to Chattanooga in June 2008.

In that time, her oldest daughter went to college, got a cosmetology degree and now professionally braids hair. Her second daughter had four children and works at Shaw Industries in Chickamauga. Her only son, Trayvon, lived with his father's mother to escape some of the impoverished conditions. And her two youngest daughters didn't know her.

They were rock-bottom years: Coonrod struggled to trust men, violated probation at the Salvation Army halfway house, and watched a boyfriend get gunned down in a Kanku's parking lot on Wilcox Boulevard in 2010.

She worked at Pilgrim's Pride, the chicken manufacture plant, because few other companies would hire a convicted felon. She enrolled at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and got to know her daughters. They spent long hours drawing at the kitchen table and went to a Paula Deen show at Chattanooga's convention center in 2009. Coonrod realized that she'd never stopped to appreciate certain skills.

"As old as I am, you would think I have the skills to cook, but I was too busy in the streets," Coonrod said. "So I have a 10-year-old cooking for me and I was wowed. It was very humbling."

Restoring citizenship rights

If a person does find the money, they must contact the prosecutor on their case, attorney John Cavett said.“What you basically say is, ‘I’ve been contacted by this person and they would like to have their rights restored.’ I’ve been doing this for years, state and federal,” Cavett said. “I’ve yet to have any prosecutor object to it.”A person must also attach two affidavits from neighbors of the court — a probation officer, for example — and any proof that shows a reformed life.“A convicted felon can get his voting rights only restored without resorting to this procedure,” Cavett added. “The only way Ms. Coonrod could run for office is if all her rights were restored according to the procedure we have been discussing.”

photo New city councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod is photographed in the Times Free Press studio on Friday, April 28, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

* * *

As a felon, Coonrod could no longer sit on a jury, own a firearm, run for public office or serve in the military. But as she cut ties, she developed an interest in politics and served as vice chairwoman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party from 2014 to 2016. She also became a franchise owner with Jan Pro Cleaning Systems in Chattanooga in 2014.

Convicted felons can petition a judge to have their rights restored after completing their sentence. But in Hamilton County, it's rare.

Coonrod was among just 11 people in Chattanooga who had their rights restored between January 2014 and now. In the same time period, nearly 2,000 people pleaded guilty or were convicted of felonies. About 45 percent were black, even though blacks make up roughly 20 percent of the population in Hamilton County, census data and court records show.

Coonrod, who spent about $700 on the restoration, thinks most community members don't understand the process of getting their rights restored or can't afford it.

A person typically owes money to the court after a criminal case. But it can take years to pay back as they juggle food, rent, child care and collectors, who have the power to revoke their driver's license if they fail to make any payments within a year, some attorneys say.

"By the time you've been convicted of a felony, often times the last thing on your mind is voting," defense attorney Gerald Webb said. "You're thinking about housing, food, a job. Those considerations come first. It's difficult, it's hard. The first thought process is pure survival. The court costs are a factor, too."

Though Coonrod paid her costs for the felony conviction, she still owes about $2,900 in Hamilton County's Sessions and Criminal Court, records show. This does not violate city charter section 3.1, which says a person is ineligible for popularly elected city government positions if they owe money to the city. Most courts are state- or county-run. Most people would like to pay court costs but simply can't, Coonrod said.

"It has a negative impact," Coonrod said, "because it just keeps people in that impoverished condition, that cycle. And if you don't pay, you go to jail, or they take your license. So now you can't drive, can't get to work, and aren't heard. It's a domino effect that causes you to spiral down into a black hole. And a lot of people just say, 'You know what? Forget it.' Because that's better than trying to beat the odds."

Studies say that cycle creates generations of poverty and that people living in poverty are more likely to end up in a criminal justice system that city leaders view as the solution. Coonrod and her advocates believe that as an elected official, she can effectively address this as a result of her experience.

"Keep in mind, this is not solely an African-American problem," Dr. Ken Chilton wrote in a 2015 report called the "Unfinished Agenda" for the Chattanooga NAACP. "The rise in childhood poverty at the county level suggests that class differences are hardening and widening to include more Hispanic and White children."

Coonrod said she restored her citizenship rights before the deadline in December 2016 to run for Chattanooga City Council.

She dropped a flexible, $40,000 job at UnifiEd, a nonprofit on McCallie Avenue dedicated to public education reform, started working at the T-Mobile call center on Lee Highway and campaigned on the weekends.

Coonrod works there five days a week still.

Every day is an exercise in leaving her publicized past behind but also using it to help people, Coonrod said. Whenever the pressure becomes too heavy, whenever the memories are too sharp, she turns to her old outlet of poetry:

"The things I do endanger my soul, I know,

So I'll do as much as I can before I go."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.