Apr 22, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Exonerated man running for Congress against California Republican

Franky Carrillo, who spent 20 years in jail, embraces his grandmother after being released in 2011. Image: Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

A man who was wrongfully convicted of murder after being arrested as a 16-year-old is running for Congress, hoping to unseat Rep. Mike Garcia (R-CA) and flip the district blue to help Democrats take back the House in 2024.

Why it matters: "The laws in that were in place to protect me failed me," Francisco "Franky" Carrillo told Axios in a phone interview about his candidacy. "And I realized it was less about the laws and more about those implementing the laws."

  • Carrillo — who was exonerated in 2011 after being convicted in 1992 — is running for office at a time when crime and criminal justice are dominating elections and reshaping party identity.
  • Carrillo could be part of a growing trend: One of the wrongfully convicted teenagers in the Central Park Five case, Yusef Salaam, is running for city council in New York.

The big picture: Mayoral races in places like New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta showed a real-time transformation of how Democrats are adapting to crime-related issues that voters care about, particularly in larger progressive cities.

  • Most recently, Brandon Johnson's win in Chicago's mayor race offered a new data point for how a progressive candidate who pushed for significant police reform can also lead the party on these issues.

Zoom in: Carrillo believes his unique perspective will not only inspire voters, but inform policy that he said he would intend to find bipartisan support if elected.

  • He’s the chairman of the Probation Oversight Commission of Los Angeles County, and also a Policy Advisor for the LA Innocence Project.
  • Earlier this year, he was elected to the Los Angeles County Democratic Central Committee of the 51st Assembly District.

Garcia is backed by former President Trump and has made comments about the U.S. Capitol Police and President Biden, but he represents a district that Biden won by 12 points.

The backdrop: Some Dems think this race could be a bellwether for their chances of winning back the House, and the Cook Political Report rates it as one of the most competitive toss-up races in the country.

  • The congressional seat in California's 27th district is a top target for Democrats this cycle. They flipped it in 2018 with Katie Hill, who was elected in a cycle that welcomed a wave of women to Congress.
  • But Democrats later lost the seat in a 2020 special election that was called after then-Rep. Hill (D-CA) was forced to resign.

What to watch: Democrats have been trying to reclaim the crime debate after being tied to liberal calls to “defund the police,” and as violent crime spiked across the country after the pandemic.

  • Now they see an opportunity to flip the script on Republicans and paint them as the true foes of law-and-order.
  • They’re specifically calling out Trump’s calls to “defund” the DOJ and the FBI in retaliation to their investigations of him.

Go deeper: Carrillo's story was featured in a Netflix documentary series called "The Innocence Files."

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