'Even a Diminished Conyers Has More to Offer Than Many'

May 14, 2014, 12:46 PM by  Darrell Dawsey

Rep. John Conyers

And with that, a storied political legacy teeters on the brink of an ignominious end and a primary race once thought a mere formality has been chucked into turmoil. 

The Wayne County Clerk's office ruled Tuesday that long-serving Michigan Rep. John Conyers (D) is ineligible to appear on the Aug. 5 primary ballot because he did not submit enough valid petition signatures, a big blow to the Democrat who has served in the House for nearly 50 years, the Washington Post wrote.

Conyers plans to file an appeal of the ruling with the Michigan Secretary of State, his campaign attorney told the Post on Tuesday night.

First elected in 1964, Conyers is currently the longest-serving member of the House behind fellow Michigan Rep. John Dingell (D), who is retiring this year.

In a final ruling, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett's office said that Conyers submitted just 592 valid signatures -- well short of the 1,000 required under the law. Hundreds of signatures were ruled invalid under a challenge from Conyers's primary opponent,  the Rev. Horace Sheffield, because they were not collected by registered voters, which the law requires. Hundreds more were separately ruled invalid.

Suddenly, Detroit voters aren’t only facing the possibility of losing the experience and political clout Conyers has cultivated the past half century. They’re also looking at the prospect of swapping out Conyers for a minister noted for his activism but also characterized as ill-tempered, greedy and self-serving.

Little wonder then that the Detroit Free Press, in an editorial whose point can only be summed up as “Dear god…anybody but Horace Sheffield,” implored other potential candidates to hastily jump into the 13th District congressional race.

But there’s a chance that Conyers won’t be able to recover, meaning Sheffield could capture the seat largely unchallenged. Conyers has served in Congress for more than 50 years.

That’s not good enough. This seat is too important — and Detroit’s political community too strong — for this race to be a gimme.

Of course, there also have been calls for Conyers, who turns 85 in two days, to get out of the race. For years, rumors have persisted that age has steadily eroded Conyers’ mental capacity, that the congressman suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia or some other brain disease. In February, when he announced his plan to run, Sheffield said out loud what many have only whispered about Conyers: “The congressman is not all there.” Last week, conservative Detroit News columnist Nolan Finley piled on, joining the call for the veteran congressman to retire. “Conyers,” wrote Finley, “is no longer fit to serve.”

Given these concerns over Conyers’ mental health, the ballot controversy only makes the choice facing Detroit voters that much more stark and, quite frankly, that much more depressing: Should voters choose the veteran politician with waning mental acuity, even if his campaign effort was so trifling that they have to write in his name on the ballot? Or do they go with the boisterous activist upstart who’s been accused of assaulting a teacher at his alternative school and was in February charged with misdemeanor domestic violence?

Inclined to Stick With Fuzzy Minded Conyers

Personally, I’m inclined to stick with Conyers, fuzzy brain and all.

Granted, an argument in his favor might carry more force had his lieutenants not bungled the petition effort, but I have to think that Conyers and his team have enough left in the tank for one final term. His staff has been propping the man up for years, if the rumors are to be believed, so will another two really spell doom for Detroit’s political interests? Doubtful. 

Unquestionably, Detroit’s political class needs to find a truly worthy successor to Conyers. That should have happened years ago. And in many ways, the congressman’s ballot plight illustrates just how sloppy and inattentive this city’s political leadership—especially black folks—have been as custodians of the legacy bequeathed by the likes of Conyers, George Crockett, Coleman Young and Robert Millender.

For all the lawsuits and mea culpas emerging amid the ballot controversy, it’s that failure to safeguard legacy that constitutes the real tragedy in this foul-up.

Even so, I’m not convinced that that failure means Conyers should now go away. 

First of all, as the second-longest-serving member of Congress and the “dean” of the Congressional Black Caucus, Conyers still enjoys considerable standing on Capitol Hill. 

Can Detroit afford to give that up right now? After all, the metro area has lost considerable political influence in DC in recent years—in 2011, former U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick was ousted after eight years, tainted by son Kwame’s political scandals—and is poised to lose even more with U.S. Rep. John Dingell and Sen. Carl Levin set to retire when their terms are up. And GOP redistricting shenanigans surely haven’t made matters any easier.

Fresh blood in politics is critical, yes, but as much as ever, this city needs legislators who carry weight in Washington. And Conyers—even with all his humiliating mistakes, even with the albatross of his wife snugly wrapped around his neck—still tips the scales more than most. The Free Press has it right when it says that his seat is “too important” to simply give away.

A Force of Progressive Issues

Furthermore, even at less than 100 percent, Conyers has remained a force on progressive issues. Even in recent years, he (or at least his office) has authored national health-care legislation, challenged the lies used to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, called for the decriminalization of marijuana, fought against voter suppression tactics nationwide and urged a nonpartisan federal review of the state’s odious emergency manager law.

I don’t know whether Conyers is always cognizant of  the day of the week or even his own name. But the man apparently still knows that he’s a liberal political icon, and his work continues to reflect as much.

Does it matter whether the congressman was in a haze while his staff crafted such initiatives? It most certainly does. But it matters more that the initiatives were undertaken. And given the heavy role that researchers, consultants and aides play in crafting legislation, is Conyers at the end of his career really any more or less of a figurehead than Dingell or Sen. John McCain are, than Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms and Robert Byrd were?

And to Finley’s point, while Conyers may very well be diminished, are his mental problems effectively any worse than the abject craziness of, say, the Tea Party? Is him absent-mindedly wandering out of a room or forgetting an appointment or staring blankly into space really more of a threat to the Republic than extremist right-wing legislators who deny climate change and evolution, restrict reproductive rights, attempt to disenfranchise minority voters, threaten to wreck the nation’s credit rating or seek to enshrine bigotry in state constitutions?

Whatever his issues, Conyers is still more “fit to serve” than nuts like Michelle Bachmann and Steve King.

Yes, he’s is old. Yes, he’s been around too long to have not groomed a successor. And yes, the worries over his ability to get the job done are valid concerns, concerns that this petition mess have only heightened.

But even a diminished John Conyers has more to offer than many.

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Potd_img_4230_159 The cop car that says Detroit. The mural promoted the film "Detroit," which marked the 50th Anniversary of the Detroit Riot in 2017

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