When it comes to politics these days, it seems the most anxiety clusters around the question “Who’s next?” This afflicts both sides in different ways. For the Democrats it’s most intense as many strongly doubt Joe Biden is up to a second run, and Vice President Kamala Harris has not really found her footing.

At the same time, though, the whole cloud of speculation about Donald Trump continues to hang over Republicans, even as figures like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis seem like obvious replacements. There will be some contention, but there are also more likely options should Trump not prevail.

This is not a new problem. In 2020, the Democratic nominating process was unfocused, and more like a beauty pageant than a real race. In 2016, the decidedly non-political Trump cleaned the floor with his 16 better-qualified competitors. We have every reason to be fed up with our choices.

Voters in Portsmouth, Virginia, decided to try something new last year. They elected attorney Don Scott as their state delegate, and he’s since been selected as minority leader in the commonwealth’s legislature. Sounds routine? Well, Scott was convicted of drug charges in 1994 and served time in prison. When he was released, he climbed the ranks in a workforce development corporation, studied law, and then was admitted to the bar.

Washington, D.C., voters elected Joel Caston to an advisory neighborhood council also last year, while Caston was still incarcerated. After serving more than a quarter century in prison for a murder he committed when he was 18, an older, wiser Caston is now the first resident of our nation’s capital to get elected to office from prison. It’s pretty remarkable.

I’ve got some experience with the program in which Caston studied while imprisoned. I read about Georgetown University’s program in D.C. Jail in an alumni magazine, and as the jail was walking distance from my former home, I pitched Georgetown on teaching a course there.

My course was all about teaching the practical aspects of how to run for office — essentially the same tools I used with real politicians at home and abroad. While Georgetown took it on as a non-credit course, I only got to teach once before the D.C. Department of Corrections found a conflict with my being on active probation at the time. But that one session was amazing, and if memory serves, Caston was present.

Since relocating to Maine, I have been looking for ways to provide such workshops here. COVID-19 made in-person programming difficult, but now things are easing and I am exploring the best ways of training those who are incarcerated or reentering society.

Last week, I was able to speak to a workshop at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and it was fantastic. For three hours I was able to exchange thoughts and share my experiences with some residents there. I found them very engaged, more than I might have anticipated. Like my earlier experience in D.C., I got the best questions I’ve fielded from audiences anywhere. I’d love to find a way to expand this into an ongoing program.

The first felon was elected to office in America in 1798, so there is precedent. Some of us remember the famous gubernatorial race in Louisiana in the ’90s that pitted former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke (the Republican nominee, no less) against former Gov. Eddie Edwards, who had been convicted of corruption in office and had served his stint in prison. Edwards’ bumper stickers read: Vote for the crook, it’s important.

Even when the choices aren’t as stark as Louisianans faced then, the issue of felons reintegrating into communities and public life is important. These connections are the best insurance against recidivism, and it makes sense: The more involved you are in society, the less likely you are to break its rules.

I realize that what I am proposing may be an anathema to some. The retributive urge amongst us is strong, and as returning citizens are a vulnerable population, we are the subjects of more judgment and derision than most. While bits of this may be deserved, in the main it is not.

One out of every five Americans has a criminal record. We are eager to recycle so much, why not consider people, too. To call our political choices now hollow, threadbare or mean is pretty accurate. Maybe it’s time to try something different and consider those who will work harder than your average Joe to prove ourselves worthy of responsibility.

In the words of the Polish-American Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “He who has not suffered, what does he know?”

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.