What’s in a name?

Dec 13, 2017 at 1:00 am
What’s in a name?

Politics has suddenly become more interesting in Detroit, after a snoozer season of municipal elections that swept nearly every incumbent back into office. That's because Rep. John Conyers just resigned amid numerous sexual harassment allegations against him.

The seemingly mild-mannered, sometimes doddering Conyers turned out to be a rake, with allegations of groping women's thighs and buttocks and popping out in his underwear in some of the darnedest places and situations.

The revelations also give local focus to a national phenomenon of women outing powerful men who used their position to cover up actions and intimidate their victims. The most damning evidence against Conyers has been the testimony of former staffer Marion Brown, who broke a nondisclosure settlement to speak out. Although Conyers swiftly retired, he continues to deny the allegations.

Politics is also highlighted here. Conyers has been part of the local political firmament, it seems like, forever. In his 53 years in office he's been a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. There are numerous accomplishments and praiseworthy events that dot his career, but the way he left office will be what people remember most about Conyers.

"It's always something," says Sam Riddle about Detroit politics in general, and for the past few weeks Conyers has been that something around here. Riddle is an independent political consultant with historical ties to the Conyers family, although he says that he's not currently speaking for any of them.

At 88 years old Conyers was the oldest congressional representative. He probably should have retired long ago, but the local electorate liked him. Just last year he won reelection with 77 percent of the vote, equaling his lowest margin of victory since he ran in 1964.

But that's all over. Now, the move has opened up a congressional seat, speeding up the process for those who hope to be the next honorable representative from the 13th District. That includes portions of Detroit and Dearborn Heights, as well and Ecorse, Garden City, Highland Park, Inkster, Melvindale, Redford Township, River Rouge, Romulus, Wayne, and Westland.

It's going to be a mosh pit of a contest on the Democratic side. As noted, Conyers had held sway for 53 years. These positions don't open up often, so this is a rare chance for everybody in the district who wants to go to Congress.

Coleman Young II has already tossed his derby in the ring. Fresh off of losing the Detroit mayoral race, Young is seeking his next job as term limits will take him out of his state senate seat at the end of 2018.

If he is going to be successful, he's got a lot of work to do. Young's mayoral campaign was amateurish, of limited scope, and didn't display much fundraising ability. Instead, Young focused on what he called "two Detroits," unsuccessfully trying to pull together the coalition of black voters and organizations that once supported his father.

None of that will matter much when approaching the downriver communities in the 13th District.

"Let's not consider this a black congressional seat," says Riddle. "Whoever wins the next primary on the Democratic side is the next congressperson. We've got an interesting political journey ahead in that congressional district. A number of proven vote-getters are looking at this race."

Those names include Conyers Jr.'s great nephew Ian Conyers, who is serving as state senator in Lansing; Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones; state Rep. Rashida Tliab; state Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights; Westland Mayor William Wild; Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon; Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield; and Detroit attorney Michael Gilmore. Conyers even endorsed his son, John Conyers III, as a replacement representative. 

Conyers III is a political neophyte, but his cousin Ian Conyers has a track record and, after last year's election, more name recognition.

"Ian is a state senator with great academic credentials and has worked in Washington before with the congressman," says Riddle. "He has been on the ground in D.C. from a youngster. ... It takes more than a name to qualify one for office. In terms of what Rep Conyers embodied, I don't see anyone with that kind of stature or bearing coming along. That's something that developed over 53 years."

It may take more than a name to qualify a candidate, but sometimes it only takes a name to win an election. The question for Ian is whether the Conyers brand has been damaged beyond rehabilitation. Not only is Rep. Conyers Jr. embroiled in scandal, Conyers III was arrested in February on suspicion of domestic violence. Rep. Conyers Jr.'s wife Monica Conyers served jail time for accepting bribes while she was a Detroit City Council member. Riddle, who managed campaigns for Monica Conyers and served as her chief of staff, was also served jail time due to that scandal.

Ian Conyers is the most viable person from that family. He first won state office in the 2016 special election to replace Virgil Smith. He hasn't even said he wants the seat.

The Conyers brand is one of Detroit's oldest, but there have been others that have come to prominence and receded. Young II, son of Detroit's first black mayor, played his name to the state senate. It remains to be seen if he can parlay his brand to higher prominence. The Kilpatricks — Bernard (a political operative), Carolyn Cheeks and Kwame — have spectacularly flamed out. Cheeks' congressional career was a side casualty in Kwame's comedown.

Another family name, Cockrel, has pretty well disappeared from the political scene — Kenneth Sr., Sheila, Kenneth Jr. All of them served on Detroit City Council and before his death in 1990, Ken Sr. was considered by many to be a strong candidate to replace Coleman Young as mayor. Ken Jr. was City Council President and became mayor to replace Kwame Kilpatrick. But after his loss to Dave Bing in 2009, Ken Jr. retired from politics. He's currently executive director of Habitat for Humanity Detroit. Sheila is still a commentator on Detroit politics.

"I don't know that Ken has the fire in the belly to run," says Riddle. "If he ran, I think he would be a formidable candidate. It's beyond question he would be a formidable candidate. Of all the names that we've discussed, if Ken Cockrel ran I would consider him one of the favorites in the race."

Whoever gets into the race, it's going to be a crazy year. Gov. Snyder has called the primary for Aug. 7 and the election for Nov. 6, both dates when elections were already scheduled. However, the Nov. 6 date is for someone to finish the last couple of months of Conyers' term in 2018 and, separately, for someone to serve the term that starts in January 2019. That's a bit strange right there. And in the meantime there will be no representative from the 13th District for most of 2018. We might even witness someone running for state and federal seats at the same time.

So get ready for the 13th District follies cause it's going to be crazy for a while.