Conyers' last stand?

Big John faces challenges in redistricting, a field of candidates and his own diminished profile.

Aug 1, 2012 at 12:00 am

Yes, he knew Martin Luther King Jr., and can show you photographs of them together, working for civil rights in Mississippi. Yes, John Conyers was the man who did more than anyone else to make MLK's birthday a federal holiday.

He came out in favor of impeaching Richard Nixon before almost anyone else did. He stood on a car with a bullhorn and tried to stop rioters from burning down their own homes in 1967.

Conyers stood up to Lyndon Johnson on Vietnam when others were scared to, and has done much to recognize and preserve that quintessentially American musical genre of genius, jazz.

He was the first African-American to chair the House Judiciary Committee, and his achievements will be remembered forever.

But sadly, there are abundant signs that it's time for him to leave Congress.

Conyers has been there almost a half-century. He was first elected in 1964, before most of his current constituents were alive. Now he is an old man with young sons. And his wife is in prison for taking bribes while serving on the Detroit City Council.

His effectiveness is diminished. There are times when he doesn't seem to know where he is or to whom he is speaking.

Last fall, he showed up at the National Arab American Museum during a serious discussion of the legacy of Sept. 11, 2001. He told a startled audience they should do more to appreciate the genius of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and that they should buy bus tickets and go to Washington for the anniversary of the Congressional Black Caucus. (I was the moderator; evidently gauging my net worth, he told them they should buy me a bus ticket too.) 

Many journalists know stories like this, but lack the courage or ability to tell them. Conyers' office is a mess; it has been for many years. Constituent services are chaotic or nonexistent. It has been a long time since he has done anything much to help his district.

"Things shouldn't have come to this," says state Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland, who is running against Conyers in the Democratic primary in the newly reshaped 13th District.

Anderson, a 58-year-old veteran of the Legislature, wishes he weren't running against the old lion. "He should have retired gracefully and with dignity," says Anderson, who first got interested in politics when Bobby Kennedy ran for president.

News flash: He may be an underdog, but Anderson has a real chance to defeat iconic John next Tuesday. Few have paid much attention to Anderson's almost under-the-radar race for Congress. If it had been any previous election, his candidacy wouldn't have been worth much notice. (A white guy from Tennessee running against John Conyers in a majority black district? Jesus! Forgetaboutit! )

Times have changed, however, and so has the district. According to the last census, only about 56 percent of the district's population is black, about the same percentage of the district that lives in Detroit.

The balance is a collection of mostly white, mostly blue-collar Wayne County suburbs, including Garden City, Westland, and Dearborn Heights. They are outnumbered by Detroiters.

However, white turnout is almost always higher than black, especially in primary elections. (Incidentally, Conyers won't be voting for himself; he doesn't live in the 13th, at least not yet.) Republicans are a negligible factor here; whoever wins the Aug. 7 Democratic primary is virtually guaranteed to go to Congress.

It is actually conceivable that white turnout could be as high as black. But Conyers has other problems as well. Two black state legislators are also making a spirited effort in the primary. State Sen. Bert Johnson of Highland Park has been arguing even more forcefully than Anderson that Conyers is ineffective.

State Rep. Shanelle Jackson is attractive, charismatic, and is counting on two factors to win some votes: She is the only woman in the race, and, at 32, is by far the youngest candidate. Unfortunately, she has little money to mount a major campaign, beyond a few scattered billboards. Johnson has been working hard, and won the endorsement of The Detroit News. But he suffers from the stigma of having done time for armed robbery committed at age 19.

Nobody doubts that he has since remarkably rehabilitated himself, and Johnson is up-front in discussing his past; what I found admirable is that he blames no one but himself.

But what happened, happened. In rejecting his candidacy, Detroit Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson sniffed that "it would be nearly impossible [for Detroit] to get past the image of this community that would be created by replacing a civil rights icon with, well, a felon." Detroiters may be more forgiving.

The suburban part of the district, however, is unlikely to be. If Jackson and Johnson do pull any significant number of votes, they will come at Conyers' expense.

While there is another white suburban candidate — Wayne-Westland school board member John Goci — he has near-zero name recognition, and little cash other than what he's lent himself.

It isn't hard to imagine Anderson winning, say, 40 percent of the overall vote, and finishing first in the primary. If that happens, he says Detroiters have nothing to worry about.

"I intend to be a congressman from all parts of this district — I have lived here since I was 15. I care about what everybody here cares about — education and jobs," he told me. "Those would be my priorities in Congress, as they've been in the Legislature."

Anderson's life story mirrors that of many Detroiters of his generation, black and white. He and his dad moved here from Tennessee in 1969, after a divorce. Dad got a job on the line at Ford. Glenn followed him to the factory after high school.

Anderson took classes at Wayne State, but never quite graduated. He got involved in the United Auto Workers union, and eventually, in Westland city politics, and served nine years on City Council, where he helped establish the town's first library. Then came three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives. Six years ago, he challenged an incumbent Republican for the state Senate. He was told that was a mistake. But that fall, Anderson became the only Democrat in years to defeat a sitting GOP state Senator. Two years ago, in the biggest Republican landslide anyone can remember, he won re-election in the same district with an increased margin. 

His politics are a bit more fiscally conservative than some Democrats, but when asked his political heroes, he says with evident sincerity, "Bobby Kennedy and Barack Obama."

Detroit has had two black congressmen since 1954. Now, Hansen Clarke in the neighboring 14th district seems to be in trouble. There are those who say that it just wouldn't do for Michigan to be left without a single African-American congressman.

The Free Press seemed to hint at that with its bizarre endorsement of Conyers, admitting that "his energy and effectiveness are clearly on a downward slope." Henderson explained that, in part, the paper was "endorsing him today because of who he was ..."

Does that mean the Detroit Tigers should play Al Kaline in right field because of who the 77-year-old Hall of Famer once was? You could make a strong case that Detroit is paralyzed from building anything new on many levels because of hang-ups over what the city once was, and of stubborn insistence on trying to make that work again. It won't, it can't; we all need to consider something new.

"Lord, I'm not what I should be," they say in some churches. "I'm not what I'm going to be, but at least I'm not what I was."

We'd do well to remember that when we vote.


Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Write to [email protected].