Scandal-plagued John Conyers in the fight of his political life

David Martosko Executive Editor
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John Conyers is in the fight of his political life

During his 48 years on Capitol Hill, Michigan Rep. John Conyers hasn’t had to worry much about competitive elections. For decades, the Democratic lawmaker whom the Detroit News has called “part showman, part junkyard dog, part evangelist” has cruised to victory after victory in a succession of Detroit-area districts.

But a series of scandals and family problems have taken their toll on the 83-year-old Conyers, the second-longest-serving member of the House of Representatives. The congressman’s wife, Monica, the disgraced former president of the Detroit City Council, is serving a 37-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to bribery conspiracy charges.

The suggestion that John Conyers was implicated in his wife’s scandal has hurt him politically, even though he has not been charged or accused of criminal wrongdoing. And potential voters probably won’t be happy about the fact that despite his salary of almost $175,000 a year, taxpayers picked up the tab for Mrs. Conyers’ legal defense.

A new congressional redistricting plan signed into law last year by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder may have put the 24-term congressman’s political future in jeopardy. Conyers opted to run in the new 13th Congressional District, where the winner of the Aug. 7 primary will be the overwhelming favorite in November.

A liberal’s political odyssey

Conyers has long been one of Capitol Hill’s foremost left-wing ideologues, even boasting about his quixotic efforts to win reparations for descendants of slaves. In 1972, a month before the Watergate break-in, he called for impeaching President Richard Nixon because of how he conducted the Vietnam War. Thirty-three years later, he urged Congress to censure President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney for misleading Congress over their justifications for invading Iraq.

Conyers is also a longtime advocate of slashing the defense budget in order to finance higher levels of domestic spending. In an October 2010 speech to the Democratic Socialists of America, he suggested America is on the road to nuclear annihilation, denounced the war in Afghanistan, and called for the implementation of a “one-world concept” in which nations are beholden to multinational organizations and international regimes.

Until recently, that hard-left approach didn’t seem to hurt Conyers; in fact, it probably helped him coast to re-election in his ultra-liberal district.

Realistically, he could quit Congress tomorrow and be guaranteed a positive political epitaph. A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, he served as House Judiciary Committee chairman from 2007 to 2011. One of his first actions in Congress was working to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks worked on Conyers’ 1964 campaign — he won that Democratic primary by roughly 100 votes out of 60,000 cast — and then worked in his Detroit office for more than two decades. He sponsored the original Martin Luther King holiday bill shortly after the civil-rights leader’s 1968 assassination, and fought for it until it became law in 1983.

Today, Conyers is an energetic Obamacare supporter who criticized tea party members in 2010 for opposing the legislation, calling them “tea baggers.”

In July 2009, Conyers admitted he had not read the Obamacare bill before voting for it. In February 2012 he made a similar admission about legislation he supported that cut the Social Security payroll tax and expanded unemployment compensation benefits.

Just four weeks after delivering his Democratic Socialists of America stemwinder, Conyers racked up 77 percent of the vote in the general election. He ran unopposed in the Democratic primary. But the 2010 Republican tsunami cost Conyers his Judiciary Committee chairmanship. And now congressional redistricting may take away the seat he has held since Lyndon Baines Johnson was president.

Environment, money both green

“Clean energy” advocates on the left have long regarded Conyers as a top ally. He is a harsh foe of nuclear energy and has even touted the contentious premise that the “disproportionate” location of hazardous-waste facilities in areas with large minority populations violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

With that record, many Detroit-area residents were angered by a letter he wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2007.  Conyers wanted a controversial hazardous-waste injection well in the Detroit suburb of Romulus transferred to a company owned by Detroit businessman Dimitrios “Jim” Papas .

An above-ground leak shut down the well in 2006; Romulus residents were bitterly opposed to reopening it. Sam Riddle, a former political consultant to Monica Conyers who is serving time in federal prison for his role in her scandal, told the Detroit Free Press in 2009 that Mrs. Conyers generated the letter after she arranged for Papas to give Riddle a $20,000 consulting contract.

Mrs. Conyers also reportedly demanded and received a $10,000 “finder’s fee” from Riddle.

Riddle provided the Free Press with a draft of a letter which a staffer in the congressman’s office sent to Mrs. Conyers’ office in Detroit. Its cover page said “Draft Letter for Approval.” That version appears identical to the final letter the congressman sent to the EPA.

The acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan said there was no evidence that John Conyers knew of his wife’s illegal conduct, and he was never charged in the case. Last year, the congressman reversed himself and called on the EPA to deny permits for the project.

Wayne County Commissioner Ray Basham, a Democrat and former state senator who has long opposed reopening the hazardous-waste well at the center of the controversy, dismissed Conyers’ change of heart as an effort to limit political damage.

“He was for us before he was against us before he was for us,” said Basham in 2011. He noted that local communities spent millions of dollars in legal fees fighting the well.

Conyers may face a similar problem on housing issues. While he emphasizes his support  for homeowners battered by the faltering national economy, Conyers’ own blighted properties  have created headaches for neighbors in several areas of Detroit.

In Detroit, WJBK-FOX 2 reported that the lawn at one Conyers home was overrun by weeds and tall grass. A second, where Conyers’ mother once lived, had been abandoned for years. A neighbor who lived near the second home said her homeowners’ insurance had jumped from $1,700 to $7,000 per year because of the risk that the abandoned Conyers property would catch fire.

During the past decade metropolitan Detroit residents have been treated to a series of stories about dubious practices in Conyers’ congressional office, including assigning congressional staffers to babysit and tutor his children on taxpayer time and, and requiring them to work on government pay for presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun.

In 2006, the House Ethics Committee investigated the charges and admonished Conyers to take “a number of additional, significant steps to ensure that his office complies with all rules and standards regarding campaign and personal work by congressional staff.”

In 2010, it was car-related problems. Conyers had his driver’s license suspended after his renewal check bounced. Later, he reimbursed the Treasury Department $5,682 after questions were raised about his son’s use of a vehicle belonging to Conyers’ congressional office.

These incidents took their toll and irritated Republicans at a time when Gov. Snyder and the GOP-dominated state legislature debated redistricting in 2011.

Michigan had lost a House seat, and the Republicans made sure it came from the heavily Democratic Detroit area.

Eric Foster, a Troy, Michigan political consultant, told The Daily Caller that Conyers’ reputation for aloofness put him at a disadvantage in the redistricting process.

He “doesn’t have relationships with many younger legislators [who are] 40 and 50 years old,” Foster said. “He hasn’t been interacting with them [or] contributing money” to their campaigns. Other Democrats, like the more senior John Dingell, he added, have better reputations for delivering for their districts — and for being able to work with Republicans.

Conyers’ campaign manager Ed Sarpolus said his boss has gotten a bum rap, and described him as an energetic campaigner who is “always out in the district” whenever Congress is not in session. He pinned negative perceptions of his boss on news media bias. “The media has been coming after John Conyers for 40 years,” he said.

Other observers think the congressman’s situation looks increasingly like that of former 13th Congressional District Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who lost her re-election bid two years ago in the Democratic primary.

A few years earlier, Kilpatrick’s family political dynasty appeared to be at the height of its power. Her son Kwame had been elected mayor of Detroit in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. But his political career ended in a series of scandals that forced him to resign from office and later sent him to prison.

The congresswoman, who coasted to victory in six House elections from 1996 to 2006, narrowly survived a tough challenge in 2008. But in 2010 she lost a primary battle to state Sen. Hansen Clarke, who went on to win in November.

In the final days of the 2010 primary campaign, political heavyweights including Conyers, Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. and House Democratic Whip James Clyburn traveled to Detroit to campaign for Mrs. Kilpatrick. Voters clearly had other ideas.

Her loss “could foreshadow what happens to Conyers” next month, according to Foster.

Sarpolus said Conyers’ campaign is different from Kilpatrick’s 2010 re-election effort because the congresswoman “didn’t pay attention” to early polls indicating that she could lose, and because she had initially been very vocal in defending her son. Conyers, by contrast, was a no-show at his wife’s 2010 sentencing hearing, and has “separated” his wife’s troubles and personal issues from his congressional race, he said.


Barely 50 percent of residents in the new district where Conyers is running live in the 14th Congressional District that he currently represents, and for the first time in decades he faces serious opposition from elected officials with name recognition.

Two of his most prominent Democratic primary opponents, Detroit state Rep. Shanelle Jackson and state Sen. Bert Johnson, are black, as are 56 percent of the new district’s residents. Right now, Conyers’ most dangerous foe appears to be state Sen. Glenn Anderson of suburban Westland, who is white.

The Detroit Free Press, which has supported Conyers for most of his career, has endorsed him again — but “only by default.” Free Press editorial page editor Stephen Henderson explained that Conyers’ “energy and effectiveness are clearly on a downward slope” and that “in recent years, his performance in Congress has become erratic at best, and in some ways, imperceptible. It’s hard to even name his last big legislative win.”

“We’re endorsing him because of who he was, and because there’s not an alternative sufficiently better to justify throwing over his seniority,” Henderson wrote. He said the paper could not support Anderson, citing a lack of legislative achievements, or Johnson, who served time in prison for robbery during the early 1990s.

Before his election to the Michigan Senate six years ago, Anderson served on the Westland City Council and later as a state representative in Lansing. He worked as a realtor and was a Ford employee for close to three decades. In 2006, he became the first challenger to defeat a sitting Michigan incumbent state senator in more than 20 years. In 2010, a bad year for Michigan Democrats, Anderson won by a wider margin.

With less than three weeks to go before the primary, Anderson appears to be in the strongest position to challenge Conyers. While there are no recent polls on the primary race, Federal Election Commission data made public this week shows that through June 30, Anderson nearly matched Conyers dollar for dollar in cash on hand: Conyers had $141,900, while Anderson had $136,819. Johnson reported just $3,457 in cash; Jackson didn’t file a report.

Conyers, Anderson and Johnson are all strong supporters of President Obama. They all backed Obamacare and the president’s economic stimulus package, and they all support abortion rights. But in interviews with The Daily Caller, Anderson and Johnson sharply criticized Conyers’ positions on the Middle East and on coal production in West Virginia.

Johnson said he is less doctrinaire than the congressman and more willing to work with Republicans to reach compromises. He criticized Conyers’ comments last year suggesting that West Virginia’s coal industry should be shut down.

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin blasted Conyers’ remarks at the time, and Johnson said he sided with Manchin. Conyers’ comments were “embarrassing” and “unfeeling,” Johnson said, adding that it was wrong to tell people who work in the coal industry to feed their families that America should let their livelihoods “slip away.”

Anderson told TheDC that Conyers’ opposition to coal is “ridiculous” and an indication that “he is out of touch with reality.” He criticized Conyers’ support of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act this year, saying the measure would have “crushed” creativity and damaged entrepreneurship.

Both Anderson and Johnson criticized Conyers’ positions on Israel and Iran. Johnson said he has visited Israel twice since 2009. He emphasized “longstanding friendships” with pro-Israel activists and said the United States must stand with Israel against Iran, Syria and terror groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Anderson said Conyers has “an anti-Israel bias,” pointing to his opposition to Iran sanctions and opposition to U.S.-Israel cooperation on “Iron Dome,” a defense system meant to protect Israelis from terrorist rocket attacks launched from Gaza.

Black voters flee Detroit for suburbs, vote on ‘quality of life’ issues

Not everyone believes Conyers is in serious trouble. Political analyst and former Republican state senator Bill Ballenger told The Washington Times that he doubts redistricting or family problems will cost Conyers his seat. But Foster, the political consultant, told TheDC that Ballenger underestimates the challenges Conyers now faces.

In recent decades, he said, many middle-class blacks have left Detroit for the suburbs to escape crime. Foster, who said approximately 80 percent of his consulting clients are Democrats, is one of those African-Americans who fled. He doesn’t mince words about why so many don’t want to live there anymore.

Positive “role models” for young people have largely left Detroit, he said. Increasingly, “those left in Detroit are drug dealers, criminals, people who don’t pay bills.”

A large number of the African-Americans who have left the Motor City now live in suburban Wayne County, in the new 13th District.

“On the surface, people would think that would be good for Conyers,” said Foster. “But most of these people are expatriates from Detroit. They left because of quality-of- life issues, and they’re not going to keep a congressman they regard as being ‘for Detroit'” at their expense, he said.

Many of these voters see Conyers as someone who “doesn’t bring back projects. In the suburbs, people expect these things,” Foster told TheDC. “Being a ‘champion of social justice,’” as Conyers portrays himself “isn’t a big thing in communities like Westland and Dearborn Heights.”

Sarpolus sharply disputed this. He said Foster’s analysis makes sense in analyzing the general election, but doesn’t account for the likelihood that the Aug. 7 primary will be a “low turnout” affair whose outcome will be largely dependent on Conyers loyalists age 55 and older.

A veteran Democratic political consultant who has worked for Conyers in the past told TheDC that Anderson can win. Unlike the congressman, the consultant said, Anderson has been in been in a number of competitive races in the past decade. And Anderson “is much more disciplined in how he spends money. It’s connected to a message.”

Despite a record of political success dating back nearly a half-century, Conyers has made some odd political decisions that left friends and foes scratching their heads, among them his 1989 and 1993 bids for mayor of Detroit. Conyers ran a very weak campaign each time, finishing far behind in the Democratic primary.

The consultant did not mince words when asked about the congressman’s mayoral bids. “Applying logic to many of the things he does is a faulty approach,” he said.

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