Politics & Prejudices
Long-serving John Conyers should gracefully retire
End of the line?
Published: May 5, 2014
We might not know for days — and this could be headed for the courts — but it looks increasingly likely that John Conyers, first elected to Congress a half-century ago, might be kicked off the Democratic primary ballot this year.
Seems that some of those his office paid to gather the necessary signatures weren’t registered to vote.
This isn’t final, and Conyers, like Mike Duggan before him, could conceivably run and win a write-in campaign.
But his career could also be over. Regardless, here’s something you should remember about Conyers:
He’s the main reason Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday. He is why Rosa Parks got to be the first woman in history to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda when she died. Conyers is why there is a Congressional Black Caucus.
When he got to Washington, there were only four other blacks there (there are 44 today) and the big dog at the time, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., thought a black caucus was a bad idea.
Conyers didn’t back down. He never has; not to anyone. Conyers stood up to the all-powerful Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam when he was just a freshman with an attitude. He tried harder than anyone to prevent our ridiculous war in Iraq.
Years ago, he introduced a resolution calling for Richard Nixon’s impeachment — before Watergate.
Nor did Conyers ever have it easy. He came up the hard way, working his way through Wayne State University, soldering the floor pans of Lincoln Mercurys in a stiflingly hot auto factory in 1948.
He went down to Mississippi with Martin Luther King Jr., when Conyers was a nobody and fighting for voting rights there could get you killed. He has done more for jazz than any Congressman in history. Contrary to popular belief, he is capable of bipartisanship. He worked with Republicans in the House to mitigate the worst effects of anti-terrorist legislation aimed at immigrants in the post-Sept. 11 panic.
When the votes are cast, when it comes to anything that matters, he is nearly always on the side of the angels.
But here’s something else you should know about John Conyers: Increasingly, he isn’t the man he once was.
Sometimes he doesn’t appear to know where he is, or why. Less than three years ago, I was presiding over a conference at the National Arab American Museum, which dealt mainly with their community and the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
Suddenly, noting Conyers was in the audience, I recognized him and invited him to say a few words.
He came up to the podium, and in his famous courtly manner, strongly urged the baffled attendees to develop an appreciation for the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Conyers also told them they should buy bus tickets and come to Washington to help celebrate the anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus. (Sizing up my likely net worth, he suggested they buy one for me too.) Afterward, those who were there seemed more stunned than offended.
Not that this behavior is especially new. Most have forgotten, but, years ago, Conyers actually ran for mayor twice. He took on Coleman Young in 1989, but his campaign was derailed by a series of bizarre statements and an aide who claimed that everybody in the campaign was on drugs.
He didn’t even make the runoff. Four years later, it was even worse. Conyers showed up for a TV interview in an expensive suit but without socks. He was seen one morning in the wee hours, waving inanely from a median strip on Livernois.
Running for mayor, the powerful congressman got exactly 3 percent of the vote. The next year, scenting blood, he was challenged in the primary by Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, then seen as an attractive and brilliant rising political star.
Conyers pulled it together. Mysteriously, another name candidate, the late Marie Farrell-Donaldson got in the race. Some said Conyers’ team encouraged her. It hardly mattered.
Big Daddy got more votes than both of them combined.
Two years ago, thanks to redistricting, Conyers was running on largely different turf, and a number of Democrats jumped in the primary, including State Rep. Shanelle Jackson and two state senators, Glenn Anderson and Bert Johnson.
Anderson is white, as is more than 40 percent of the district, and on paper he should have had a chance. In practice, Conyers beat him and everyone else like a drum.
Yet now, his career could be over. The fact that his campaign might not have been minding the store when it came to petition signatures should come as no surprise.
Tales of the incompetence — and worse — going on in Conyers’ office are legendary, though they’ve been mainly ignored by the media. (Can you say out-of-court settlements?)
From time to time, the mainstream media has reported when Conyers had too many people on the payroll or when he was accused of using some staff members to babysit for his two young sons. But they’ve mainly ignored the situation.
Forget all that, however, and consider this: Nothing lasts forever.
> Email Jack Lessenberry