Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics

Race for Conyers seat shapes up as contentious family affair

December 9, 2017 at 8:20 PM

DETROIT — The morning after Rep. John Conyers Jr. announced his resignation from Congress on her radio show, host Mildred Gaddis remained livid about his swift political demise. She questioned the veracity of a woman who accused Conyers of sexual misconduct, raged about the racism that led fellow Democrats to demand his ouster and spoke of how disrespectful the episode had been to a 52-year congressman considered a civil rights icon.

At the same time, she also meticulously avoided showing any support for Conyers's handpicked successor, his 27-year-old son, John Conyers III, whom the elderly lawmaker attempted to anoint on her airwaves the day before.

That balancing act — revering and defending the fallen man while shrugging off his judgment about who should carry on his life's work — was performed throughout Detroit's African American political world this week. As smooth as the 88-year-old Conyers hoped his succession would be, his departure creates a once-in-a-half-century vacancy for, as Gaddis put it on the air, "an overcrowded field of opportunists who have been waiting for the congressman to retire or die."

That field may or may not include Conyers's son; he's yet to declare his candidacy and has been slammed with news of an arrest connected to an alleged domestic assault earlier this year in Los Angeles. But even before Conyers's announcement on Gaddis's program Tuesday, another relative — state Sen. Ian Conyers, the congressman's 29-year-old great-nephew — announced his own candidacy. And state Sen. Coleman Young II, son of Detroit's first black mayor but fresh off being clobbered by incumbent Mayor Mike Duggan last month, declared his bid Friday.

The campaign promises to be brutal — and long. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, announced Friday he would leave Conyers's seat vacant until the already-scheduled November 2018 election "to reduce the financial burden on local taxpayers." Under state law, he could have scheduled a special election as soon as May. The decision aligns with the recommendation of the district's Democratic chairman, Jonathan Kinloch.

"To have a congressional seat open for the first time in a half-century, that's going to uncork an awful lot of ambition in southeast Michigan," said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

Perhaps, but Conyers's hopes for a political dynasty won't come easy, especially with the family divided as to who the heir apparent should be. Conyers III, who said he was unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight by his father, is a political unknown who told the Detroit News on Thursday that he remains unsure about a run and will decide next month. Conyers III describes himself online as a hedge fund manager who lives in Detroit and Los Angeles.

In February, he was arrested but not prosecuted in an incident in which his girlfriend accused him of cutting her with a knife and body-slamming her on a bed, NBC News first reported Wednesday. He denied the accusation in media interviews Thursday, but such an allegation may be politically toxic after his father's downfall amid multiple allegations of inappropriately touching female subordinates and paying a tax-funded settlement to one former employee amid an internal House probe.

One person who hopes to undermine the case for Conyers III is his own second cousin, Ian Conyers, who on Tuesday liked a tweet containing a link to an MLive.com article about a 2010 scandal in which Conyers Jr. paid the Treasury Department $5,600 for Conyers III's unofficial use of a Cadillac Escalade bought by the congressman's office. Conyers III had extensively documented his alcohol-soaked exploits in the vehicle on social media.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ian Conyers downplayed internal family friction. He insisted his great-uncle encouraged him to run for the seat in a phone call a few days before the congressman resigned.

"He's got a right to endorse whomever he pleases," said Ian Conyers, who texted The Post a link to Conyers Jr. talking him up at a Washington fundraiser in 2016 in support of the younger man's ultimately successful state Senate campaign. "It's up to the voters to take a look at our records and decide whether our public service makes us qualified to earn their votes."

Ian Conyers said he aims to make his own case for election while embracing a political legacy in Michigan that dates back to his great-grandfather, John Conyers Sr., who was a pioneering black leader for the United Auto Workers union. Unlike Conyers III and other family members, Ian Conyers does not question the veracity of the women who have accused his great-uncle of sexual misconduct, saying, "I believe in giving women the full benefit of the doubt. There comes a time when we have to separate someone's stature from their actions."

Ian Conyers also cast doubt on whether he would focus on civil rights as much as his great-uncle, a contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr. instrumental in passing the national holiday in the slain leader's honor. The state senator refused in an interview with The Post to commit to introducing a bill demanding federal reparations for the descendants of American slaves, a long-stalled measure Conyers famously filed every year for decades.

"It's important to study it, but I think that my focus will be on economic development because that's where I come from. That's what I did in the private sector," Ian Conyers said, referencing his involvement with the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, an effort to revitalize the Anacostia River area of Washington when he worked under D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. "My uncle is a civil rights attorney, so those are the things he focused on. I have a master's in urban planning, so I would work on the issues of growing the economy of the region."

Young II, also a state senator, took a different tack, promising to continue to file the reparations bill and rattling off statistics reflecting the unfair treatment of black people in the criminal justice system. Young made racial discrimination a central tenet of his campaign against Duggan, who is white and who beat him by more than 2 to 1, and said he would return to such themes. "It's important that the right person replace John Conyers, a person who shares the values and ideals of the community," Young said. "We need to keep talking about race. It's an important issue that's overlooked."

Ian Conyers's hesitation on reparations could harm him among Detroit voters who view the "Conyers" seat as one representing black Americans locally and nationally, political consultant Steve Hood said.

Hood and Demas suggested that too many black candidates from Detroit — named Conyers or otherwise — could split that portion of the district and create an opening for a suburban white candidate to win. In Conyers Jr.'s district, which once encompassed more of Detroit and was more predominantly black, African Americans now constitute only 56 percent of the vote.

Top nonblack contenders could include Westland Mayor Bill Wild; state Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights, a 31-year-old Iraq War veteran; and former state senator Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American Muslim who could draw votes from the district's fast-growing Arab American population. Knezek and Tlaib both tweeted that they are mulling runs. (The district, which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 61 points, is seen as certain to remain in Democratic hands.)

The Conyers seat's falling into white hands "would mean the failure of the black power structure to maintain control," Hood said. That uncertainty and disorganization, he said, reflects the fact that Conyers did not consolidate his kingmaking power in his waning decades — as well as the weakened influence of labor unions in the region.

"The black labor unions used to control everything," Hood said. "They were the ones who would say, 'You, you, you, you, you, get out.' They don't have that kind of pull anymore."

On her radio program last week, Gaddis said she knew little about Conyers III and lambasted Ian Conyers for launching his candidacy before the congressman announced his resignation. She spoke highly, however, of another potential contender, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, praising her for being "the only person [who] sent a letter to Congressman John Conyers thanking him for what he's done for Michigan, the nation and Detroit."

Jones has not said whether she'll run, but Hood said he doubted she or many other top-tier black Detroit politicians would, as the seat itself may soon disappear. Detroit's epic population decline could cost the Wolverine State a House seat after the 2020 Census and will almost certainly reduce the city to just one predominantly African American seat, Hood said. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D) represents the other major portion of Detroit.

Demas wasn't so sure that likelihood would shrink the field.

"I would be surprised if the number of candidates is in the single digits," she said. "The Conyers name makes a difference, but not enough to blow away the competition. Will it make a difference to voters? It very well may. But John Conyers III has not established himself, and Ian Conyers was just elected for the first time last year, so he's not going to chase anyone off, either."

Friess is a freelancer based in Ann Arbor, Mich. His Twitter handle is @stevefriess.


Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Michigan.

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