Long-serving John Conyers should gracefully retire 

End of the line?

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.

A half-century in Congress — and a string of very real accomplishments — is a remarkable career. Conyers has truly helped and inspired many people. Years ago, he told me with tears in his eyes about a man who came up to him at a gas station at Epworth and Tireman.

“I just wanted to thank you,” the man told him. “I was in prison. You helped me get out. I got a good job now, and a family, and I just wanted to thank you.”

Maybe John Conyers, who turns 85 this month, should use this as an opportunity to gracefully retire and write his memoirs. This is one man who really does have a story to tell.

 

NOSTALGIA AND GOOD NEWS


Every day, commuters going through Highland Park on Woodward Avenue drive by an old, red-brick building. The front, which includes a fading historical marker, is obscured by weeds and scrub trees.

However, there’s a ring of lovely Pewabic-style tiles ringing the top. “I always had a sense this used to be someplace special,” a student from the neighborhood told me once.

She was more right than she knew. This was the building in which the 20th century was created. A century ago, this sturdy Albert Kahn structure was the world headquarters of the Ford Motor Company. Behind it are the remains of part of the factory where millions of Model T’s put the world on wheels, before Ford departed for his huge complex at the Rouge.

For years, the building has sat sadly neglected. But now, thanks in part to an Internet crowdsourcing campaign, the building and the executive garage behind it has been bought by the nonprofit Woodward Avenue Action Association.

Harriet Saperstein, the association’s chair, told me they hope within four years to turn it into an automobile heritage and welcome center that will be part museum, part exciting new catalyst designed to revitalize the grim little city.

Saperstein, the former head of a development group in Highland Park, isn’t even from Michigan. But she has done more to try to help that troubled little town than anyone.

I’ve known her long enough to know that if Harriet wants something, odds are that it’s going to happen.

More by Jack Lessenberry

Best Things to Do In Detroit

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.