“Where are you from? What have you done?” a tiny 80-year-old woman demands, peering out from the doorway of her Jersey City home. “I’ve never heard of you.”
Aaron Fraser is standing on the woman’s wide wooden veranda, asking if she will sign a petition in support of adding his name to the ballot for U.S. Congress in New Jersey’s 10th District. He needs 200 signatures from Democrats registered in the district by March 31, but Fraser is aiming to collect at least five times that many, in case his opponent challenges their validity.
The woman knows, if only by name, the man Fraser is running against: Donald Payne Jr., her congressional representative and the son of Congressman Donald M. Payne. Payne Jr. assumed the office his father had held for 24 years after Payne Sr. passed away in 2012. She doesn’t recognize the distinguished-looking black man with the broad smile and shiny bald dome, standing nearly six feet tall on her doorstep in a full suit and immaculate midnight-blue overcoat with silver cuff links peeking out from its sleeves.
He stumbles a little at her frankness. “Well, I think my academic experience . . .”
“What do you mean, ‘academic experience?'” she snaps.
“I have an MBA in media management,” Fraser offers, hopefully. The woman looks unimpressed, but he presses on, speaking in broad terms about how he would like to change this neighborhood for the better.
She grumbles incredulously but signs the petition anyway, neatly fitting her name and address into one of the 10 slots provided, then hands the clipboard back. “I’m 80 years old. I don’t care,” she shrugs, shuffling back inside. The door slams shut behind her.
By half past two on this Saturday afternoon in late February, Fraser has knocked on more than 60 doors. He has gone up and down Jersey City’s Randolph and Arlington avenues, sidestepping, in his dress shoes, the dog poop and trash that have spent weeks obscured by several feet of snow. It is sparklingly sunny, warm for the first time in weeks, and the gutters of every row house are dripping. Fraser has shaken dozens of hands, asked after his neighbors’ concerns, and promised to attend at least one church function the following Sunday. He has climbed 16 flights of stairs in two apartment buildings, and after almost two hours he has a total of 18 signatures.
The old woman’s home is the third-to-last door he will knock on today, and she is the only one who has asked him who he is — beyond the polite, well-dressed, soft-spoken man with an impressive business card (red and blue, featuring a photo of himself and a string of silver stars), declaring his intention to be her next congressman.
That’s probably just as well; Aaron Fraser has yet to put the finishing touches on his 30-second elevator pitch.
His spiel could go something like this:
Aaron Fraser grew up in Harlem, the eldest of six kids, son of a minister’s daughter and a Guyanese immigrant. He attended Julia Richman High School on the Upper East Side and later graduated from Mercy College. He holds two master’s degrees (one from Mercy, the second from Metropolitan College of New York) and is three credits shy of a fourth degree in theology. Now 43 years old, he is a published author many times over.
Fraser has also, at various times in his life, been a robber, a drug dealer, and a con man. He has been convicted in three states, has seven felony counts to his name, and has spent, all told, close to a decade and a half behind bars.
It is possible that these details might make voters in New Jersey’s 10th District less inclined to elect him to a seat in Congress. Then again, it’s slightly refreshing that a New Jersey politician might reveal himself to be a criminal before he’s elected.
New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District has been gerrymandered into a crushed, crooked “Y”: It looks a little like a broad-shouldered man with a wide stance and a jaunty cap, about to stomp on a puddle (Upper New York Bay).
It includes parts of Essex County (whose former executive James W. Treffinger pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and mail fraud in 2003), and Hudson County (whose former executive Robert C. Janiszewski pleaded guilty to extortion and tax evasion in 2002), as well as the cities of Newark (where, in 1970, two-term mayor Hugh Joseph Addonizio was convicted of conspiracy and extortion, and, in 2008, Mayor Sharpe James was convicted of five counts of fraud) and Jersey City (where, in ’71, Mayor Thomas J. Whelan was convicted for collecting millions in kickbacks, and, in ’92, Mayor Gerald McCann was convicted of fraud for his role in a savings-and-loan scam).
District 10 voters are 100 percent urban and 52 percent black. It is the poorest district in New Jersey, with 20 percent of residents living below the poverty line. It is also overwhelmingly Democratic: Eighty-seven percent of voters supported Obama in 2012.
In a one-party district, it’s the primary election that counts, and in the 2012 primary, Donald Payne Jr. demolished his closest competitor by a margin of more than three votes to one. He received 60 percent of votes cast, but, statewide, fewer than 10 percent of registered voters participated.
“Donald Payne Jr. ran on name recognition,” Fraser says. “Donald Payne Jr. didn’t have a platform whatsoever. He banked on the ignorance of the community.”
Some might say name recognition — specifically, his lack of it — is one of the best things Fraser has going for him. He doesn’t see it that way. That is why he starts every conversation with a potential constituent by saying, “I’m Aaron Fraser, and I’m running for Congress. I want to earn your vote.” Then he hands over a business card with his face on it and urges potential supporters to visit his website and read his platform before making a decision.
It’s also the reason he agreed to be interviewed. He sees it as a way to get out in front of a story that will inevitably focus on his criminal past. At least this way instead of a mug shot he might get the chance to pose for a nice portrait, like the one Nicky Barnes had on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1977.
In 1977, back when Barnes, the head of an infamous Harlem heroin ring, was still known as “Mr. Untouchable,” he was the subject of a Times magazine profile for which he was photographed wearing a tailored denim suit and smoky, oversize eyeglasses.
Posing for that photo didn’t end well for Barnes. It is widely reported that after seeing the photo, and the smug air of infallibility it captured, Jimmy Carter ordered his attorney general to throw the book at Barnes. (He was sentenced to life in prison without parole but later released into the witness protection program after testifying for the government in a string of related cases.)
It is quite possible that putting himself out there in this way won’t end well for Fraser, but he’s willing to roll the dice. He assumes, come primary time, that Donald Payne Jr. will drag all of the skeletons out of his closet anyway. (“I’m banking on it,” he says.)
He is also betting that the voters of New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District are forgiving types. “I hope people identify with my struggle. Not everyone is some ex-con,” Fraser says with a slight edge in his voice, but there are elements of his story he hopes might translate. “I’m someone who still believes in the American dream despite living the American nightmare.”
Aaron Fraser was born at Harlem Hospital on November 4, 1970. His father, Joseph Fraser, was sent to prison when Aaron was just six years old, and he was raised by his mother, Janice. He says he has three brothers and two sisters by his mother, and more siblings in Guyana, where his father (now deceased) was from, and where he was deported after serving 24 years in prison.
Fraser grew up in Harlem’s Lincoln Projects, which he characterizes as “the wrong side of the tracks.” He went to P.S. 133, where he met his girlfriend, Telka Christian, in the second grade. Back then Fraser was “the life of the class,” Christian says. “Very outgoing, very rambunctious, very outspoken — that hasn’t changed.”
Ask Fraser what kinds of things he did as child, he will tell you bluntly, but with a friendly chuckle: “We grew up doing crime — we grew up doing stickups and robberies and a lot of drug deals, and eventually we got caught.”
When he was 14 years old, Fraser held up a check-cashing store on Eighth Avenue near 125th Street with his friend Kevin Saxon. Police officers took their gun, but the owner didn’t press charges. “It was a catch-22,” Fraser says. “Because when you get arrested, caught, and there is no real punishment, you tend to continue on and on and on and on, until you get caught for the big one and they don’t let you go.”
Saxon was caught for the big one in 2002. He’s now serving a life sentence for murder, attempted murder, and sale and possession of narcotics.
Fraser got caught for the big one (the first big one, anyway) in 1990, in Frederick, Maryland.
In the early ’90s, Frederick was the crack cocaine capital of the U.S., or at least that’s what D.A.R.E. officers told kids when they visited school to extol the virtues of clean living. In the housing projects an hour outside of Baltimore, dealers could get four times the price they could get in New York for a bag of whatever they were slinging. That’s what Biggie was talking about when he raps on Ready to Die: “Figured out nicks went for 20 down south.”
Whether Fraser figured out the same thing, and, like Biggie, “had the master plan, I’m in the caravan on my way to Maryland, with my man Two-Tecs to take over this projects,” or if he was (as he maintains) in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was arrested at the Sagner housing projects in Frederick on January 20, 1990, for cocaine distribution.
On December 4 of that year, a month after he turned 20, Fraser pled guilty to the drug charges. “I was convicted in all of, like, 10 minutes — all-white jury,” he says. He was sentenced to 10 years and shipped off to prison in Napanoch.
He’d served a shorter sentence, six months for robbery, in a juvenile facility at Rikers Island, but this was his first stay in prison. In prison, Fraser says, “You’re dealing with animals, the worst that society has to offer.”
He was stabbed three times in as many stints behind bars. “Once here,” he says, pointing to a taut scar on his right cheekbone. He rolls up his pant leg to reveal another scar: “Once in my leg while in my cell — someone ran up on me and stabbed me.” And once in the arm while serving time in Napanoch. He had to have his elbow replaced for that one.
“In prison they are playing for keeps,” he says.
When he got out, 10 long years later, Fraser got to work making up for lost time. He married a woman he met days after being released. “Because I was so young and I’d spent so many years in prison, I felt like I was missing something when I got out and I wanted to play catch-up,” he explains. They later divorced. Fraser blames himself. “I was going to clubs every night, I was doing everything that I thought I had missed.”
With a felony on his record, he struggled to find a job that would support the life he felt he’d been missing. He went on interview after interview after interview, until finally, he says, the Salvation Army hired him as a caseworker in Brooklyn.
“I was coming in that Monday morning for work, and they said, ‘We’re going to have to fire you because of your felony.’ I said, ‘But I don’t understand, you asked me did I have a felony and I told on you on the application.'” The experience is still seared in his mind.
After that, Fraser says, “I just said to myself, if the Salvation Army, which is a Christian organization, decided that I wasn’t worthy of a second chance, then I really didn’t have any chance whatsoever.” (The Salvation Army maintains that it does not have a policy against hiring former convicts. “The Salvation Army is an organization of second chances,” says Major George Polarek, community relations and development secretary for the organization. Polarek says the responsibilities of a specific job and the type of crime of which an applicant was convicted would be taken into consideration and could affect whether that person is offered a job.)
Fraser says his experience with the Salvation Army was a turning point. “I was so depressed that I couldn’t get a job. I went into, like, a deep depression.”
It spurred him to strike out on his own. He began writing, and sold the rights to his first book, Homo Thug, to Brooklyn’s Black Print Publishing. The novella, which he published under the pen name Asante Kahari, relates the story of young Michael Fraser, who contracts HIV in prison and ultimately passes it to his wife on the outside. The book came out shortly before another book, On the Down Low, by J.L. King, on the subject of closeted gay sex in the black community, was published; King’s book became a New York Times bestseller after Oprah Winfrey promoted it on her TV show.
Perhaps because of reflected glow from On the Down Low, Fraser says, Fox 5’s Christine Persichette did a 20-minute segment on him and his book, in which they toured the projects where he grew up. (A representative for Fox 5 was unable to locate the interview in the station’s archive. Through a representative, Persichette, who now works for Verizon’s FiOS1 News, tells the Voice she has no memory of the interview.)
Homo Thug is still available on Amazon.com — it has 39 reviews and a three-star rating — and at least one copy is in circulation at New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Fraser followed up by self-publishing several more books, all under the pseudonym Asante Kahari: Murder Inc., Hustlers Paradise, Harlem Gangstress, Homo Thug II, and, fatefully, The Birth of a Criminal.
The cover of The Birth of a Criminal is a bold knockoff of the iconic black-and-white poster for the movie Scarface, except in this version Aaron Fraser’s head sprouts from Al Pacino’s body. On Fraser’s website, a federal prosecutor would later tell a U.S. District Court, the book was described as “the new autobiography from Asante Kahari.”
In The Birth of a Criminal, Kahari outlines a scheme he dubs “the sweetest hustle in the world”: He uses a computer program to make counterfeit checks, but instead of depositing the checks himself, he loiters in chat rooms in America Online’s “Love” section, gains the trust of women he meets there, sends them the checks to cash, and flies out to collect the money.
It was in October 2001, in a similar AOL chat room, when Fraser met Rebecca Hugg, a 27-year-old Michigan woman to whom he would FedEx four counterfeit checks worth $38,929.39 in all. Hugg had her mother and teenage sister endorse the checks and cash them. Fraser then flew from New York to Grand Rapids, where he checked into a hotel with Hugg, went on a shopping spree, wired $6,000 to his other girlfriend, and, on his way out of town, handed Hugg $1,200 to get her car repaired.
When the case went to court in 2004, the U.S. Attorney had videotape of Fraser shopping with Hugg, a Northwest Airlines ticket from New York City to Grand Rapids in his name, and evidence of the Western Union wire transfer sent from Grand Rapids to Fraser’s girlfriend.
The most damning evidence, though, according to Judge Richard A. Enslen, were excerpts from The Birth of a Criminal, which included, among other striking similarities to the case, a passage in which Kahari writes: “I would get on line, meet a broad and be mailing her the check the next day. . . . I saw damn near 50 states in just taking planes, picking up money. I would have my money in my ass, my shoes, and I would always shop wherever I went so if I get busted with the money, at least I got some clothes.”
Paul Denenfeld, who at the time was a public defender in Kent County, Michigan, provided Fraser’s legal defense. Via email, Denenfeld (now a judge) says he “vigorously represented” Fraser at trial.
“At the trial, portions of a book he had written was allowed into evidence over my objections, and that evidence was extremely damaging to our case,” Denenfeld writes.
The jury found Fraser guilty of bank fraud, mail fraud, and four counts of counterfeiting. At his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor called out Fraser out for the “callous disregard” he showed his victims, while Fraser’s attorney asked for lenience, explaining how his client had been in and out of homeless shelters since age 13, how his stepfather was abusive, and how, other than a recent moving violation, “he’s been out of trouble for some time.”
The judge sentenced Fraser to 21 months in prison and five years’ supervised release; he was ordered to pay $38,929.39 in restitution and $4,600 in fines. (Fraser’s lawyers appealed his conviction, arguing that the judge never should have allowed The Birth of a Criminal into evidence, but the court upheld the original ruling.)
Michael MacDonald, the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case, says he remembers Fraser. Though he declined the Voice‘s request for an interview, he did ask, “He’s a convicted felon. Doesn’t that bar him from holding office?”
The laws that govern whether a convicted felon can vote vary from state to state. In Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa, for example, felons are permanently disenfranchised. After they are convicted, they can never vote again. In Vermont and Maine, by contrast, no one is ever barred from voting, not even while serving time in prison. Most states fall somewhere in between, permitting felons to register to vote after they’ve finished their term. (In New York, a convicted felon must complete parole before becoming eligible to vote.)
There are, however, no laws barring a felon from running for or holding public office. In fact, least one congressman has served from prison: Matthew Lyon, a Revolutionary War hero who ran for re-election in Vermont’s First District while serving a four-month sentence for maligning the government and defaming President John Adams in his newspaper, The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth. (In 1956, Thomas Lane was also re-elected to Congress after serving four months in prison for tax evasion.)
Fraser argues that prison uniquely prepared him for office, conferring skills that will translate to Congress. “I learned to adapt to situations, and in Congress you’re going to have to learn to go across the aisle and deal with people that you may not necessarily want to deal with — not because you don’t like them, you deal with them because this is the right thing for the greater good of your constituents.”
Some are inclined to agree with him. Reverend Oliver Coleman grew up in the Bronx, not far from where Fraser grew up, but the two didn’t meet until both landed at Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institute in New Jersey, where Fraser was doing time his time for fraud and Coleman was serving 108 months for a drug conviction.
He remembers being impressed by Fraser almost immediately. “He was educated — really well educated. That’s why I was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Because I ran the streets. Did this and that,” Coleman remembers. “He was like, ‘Yo, man, I messed up. I messed up. I wrote a book.'”
In Coleman’s eyes, the prosecution was wrong about The Birth of a Criminal. It wasn’t all braggadocio — the book warned readers against committing crime. At his sentencing, Fraser tried to tell the court, “The whole message [of The Birth of a Criminal] was you can’t escape justice, and eventually you will get caught.” (During his appeal, the court conceded the book’s second edition “encouraged other youths not to engage in criminal activity.”)
When Fraser wrote the book, says Coleman, “He was at the point of making
a transition in his life, and he was like, ‘Listen, this is the way that you shouldn’t do it.’ But somebody took the positive and turned it into a negative. And that was the reason of his incarceration.”
Coleman, who preaches at Greater Bethel Baptist Church in Newark, says Fraser would make a great leader on issues like helping prisoners make the transition back into society. “Who’s better to speak about the penal system than we are? One thing that I know he can do, he can help with the re-entry; he can stop the recidivism.”
Don Miller agrees. Miller lives in Georgia, where he owns a pair of restaurants, but before straightening out, he used to run with Fraser’s crew. He believes if Fraser were elected, he’d make a powerful role model for teens who, like the two of them, made mistakes.
“The best person to have for the job is the person who lived that experience, and who can adapt. And who certain people will respect. And who they can look at and say, ‘Hey! He was once like me.’ You know — he used to wear his pants sagging, he used to do this, he used to do that, and now this is what you became? They’ve allowed you to succeed to this level?”
For Fraser — who says he has accumulated more than $100,000 in student-loan debt from his four degrees and is unemployed — another central issue would be passing legislation regarding student-loan debt forgiveness.
He has a long way to go, though. First he needs to get those signatures — he estimates he has collected more than 400 at this point — authenticated. A campaign will follow, and that will require fundraising.
Fraser and Payne are the only two 10th District Democrats to file paperwork with the Federal Election Commission. (The Payne campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) As of December 31, Payne had raised $248,143 and had $69,576 cash on hand. Fraser had raised $0.
But he’s looking to change that. “It’s a necessary evil,” Fraser says of fundraising. “It’s something that you’re definitely going to have to do, especially if you are talking about commercials and things of that nature. So I definitely need to do that quickly, fast, and in a hurry.”
He doesn’t foresee it being too big an issue. He has Square, the small device that plugs into your smartphone and processes credit card transactions.
“Most people say, you know, ‘I don’t have cash on me,’ — well, we can take plastic now,” he says with a smile, and an only slightly unnerving twinkle in his eye.