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Sebastian man runs for City Council from jail cell

Damien H. Gilliams, former city councilman, speaks to WPTV by phone
Posted at 1:00 AM, Nov 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-08 01:03:50-05

SEBASTIAN, Fla. — Voters in the city of Sebastian had the opportunity to vote for a man sitting in a jail cell Tuesday afternoon.

Damien H. Gilliams was running to become a city council member for the city of Sebastian after he was recalled in 2020. The 63-year-old man is currently in the Indian County River Jail for violating Florida's public meeting law, according to jail records.

"It's a little unique and kinda different," Gilliams told WPTV's Ethan Stein about the situation during a telephone call from jail Tuesday evening.

Gilliams said he's still running his campaign from his jail cell with 20 other inmates, who listen to him make calls to his campaign staff. He said he has access to a tablet and tries to get other inmates to vote.

"They kinda think I'm outta my mind when I talk to my staff," Gilliams said. "When your hands are tied, you have to get creative."

He said it's been frustrating and challenging to raise funds, make debates or simply campaign.

"You can't get out and shake somebody's hand, look them in the eye and tell them I can help you," Gilliams said. "...I've been doing this for many years because I care about this community and not being able to do that [campaign] and have to do that from a jail cell, it hurts."

Damien Gilliams jail photo, Sebastian City Hall

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He said he's been able to make social media posts by talking to his son, Damien L. "Junior" Gilliams, who was also running for a seat on the City Council.

Gilliams Jr. said he was running for City Council because he believes the current council spends money on the wrong priorities. He believes the city should spend fewer resources on law enforcement, specifically new vehicles or boat slips, and spend those resources directly on the people.

"The most frustrating part for me is that the citizens of Sebastian don't get out and vote," Gilliams Jr. said. "It's always such a low voter turnout, and not just a voter turnout but a low candidate turnout."

Although Gilliams Jr. said the two weren't running as a pair, they were two of six candidates running against three incumbents on Sebastian's City Council.

Fred Jones, who is the current vice mayor of Sebastian and a candidate for office, said the race has been "interesting" because of the amount of misinformation spread on social media. He said he's trying to ignore the candidate, who is in jail.

Sebastian Vice Mayor Fred Jones speaks to WPTV about Damien H. Gilliams
Sebastian Vice Mayor Fred Jones says he's tried to focus on "being positive" during his reelection campaign. He was one of six candidates for City Council along with Damien H. Gilliams.

"I try to not focus on anything negative," Jones said. "You know, my whole image is being positive for the community."

Leslie Rossway Swan, who is the supervisor of elections for Indian River County, said Gilliams was eligible to run because he was convicted of a misdemeanor, which doesn't start the process of removing his voter registration.

Gilliams said he hoped his campaign would remind other people to stay involved in local government, but he was not likely to vote in this election. He said he's struggled to gain the proper paperwork to vote while incarcerated in the Indian County River Jail, which is overseen by the county's sheriff's office.

Damien Gilliams speaks to WPTV by phone from Indian River County Jail
Damien H. Gilliams speaks to WPTV by telephone from the Indian River County Jail.

Capt. Joseph Abollo, who is a spokesman for the Indian County River Sheriff's Office, said it is the inmate's responsibility to ensure his ability to vote.

Swan said Gilliams' voter record does not reflect that he requested a vote-by-mail ballot. She also said Gilliams or his representative didn't file an affidavit for vote-by-mail ballot delivery, which is a form used to pick up a ballot in an emergency.

Neither Gilliams nor his son won the election.