Last April, Governor McAuliffe began the fight to overturn the Commonwealth's antiquated system of voter disenfranchisement. While Republicans have demonized more than 150,000 returning citizens, it's stories like Lenny Sweet's from Winchester that illustrate why Democratic leadership is essential to our progress expanding democracy in Virginia.
The Winchester Star
March 5, 2017
WINCHESTER — More than five years after he found himself at rock bottom, life is good for Lenny Sweet, owner of Steamy’s Cafe at 38 E. Piccadilly St.
Though his success has been hard-fought, the 32-year-old convicted felon received some good news in the mail last month from Gov. Terry McAuliffe. It was a letter notifying him that his civil rights had been restored by the commonwealth.
“It just showed up,” Sweet said. “I had to read it three times.”
He can once again vote, serve on a jury, hold public office and serve as a notary public — things he hadn’t been able to do since he was convicted of his first nonviolent felony more than a decade ago.
“This is great, I’m a member of society,” Sweet said recently.
Three years ago, Sweet took over Steamy’s. The cafe is open seven days a week and closes at noon. Most mornings, the business is filled with customers enjoying homemade baked goods and coffee.
Married for three years with a 21-month-old son, Larry, and a second child on the way later this month, Sweet has turned his life around — something that wasn’t certain when he came to grips with his dependence on alcohol when he was in his 20s.
“Every single one of them, I was drunk,” Sweet said of his three nonviolent felony convictions, which resulted in him serving 31/2 years behind bars. “I hit a bottom. I was 27, in a hotel room, life was bad.”
For a long time, Sweet told himself it wasn’t the booze, that he didn’t have a problem. “I eventually came around, because it was the drinking.”
He’s now five years sober, something he has achieved through attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and yoga.
He also runs a successful business, selling one of his homemade bagels every four minutes during peak hours at the cafe.
“He is the bagel master,” said Ferris Hollinger, a Winchester resident and student at Lord Fairfax Community College who works at Steamy’s part-time. “It seems like he’s been doing the right thing for a long time.”
In April, McAuliffe announced his plan to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 nonviolent felons.
Sweet said he “absolutely” plans to vote in November. He hasn’t cast a ballot since he was 18 and plans to vote to re-elect Winchester Sheriff Les Taylor.
The letter from the governor states that Sweet is to be removed of his “political disabilities,” except for the right to own firearms.
While being able to vote again is exciting, Sweet said he is most intrigued by the idea of running for office someday. For now, though, he’s busy running his business, raising a family and working on a book about his life.