The racial dynamics of the sexual harassment allegations against Congress' longest-serving member are causing division within the Democratic Party.
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) has been accused of mistreating female aides for more than two decades, including making sexual advances, inappropriate touching and verbal abuse. Conyers has defiantly denied wrongdoing and has no plans to resign or retire from the House.
After an accuser detailed her experience on the “Today” show Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and other Democratic leaders called for Conyers to resign.
Some have noted that the response to Conyers, whom many consider a civil rights icon, seem harsher than how party leaders have responded to other Democrats facing allegations.
The congressman's attorney told CNN that Pelosi has to “explain what the discernible difference between Congressman Conyers and Sen. Al Franken is.”
Conyers's district is predominantly black and includes large portions of Detroit. Franken, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least five women, represents constituents in Minnesota who are overwhelmingly white.
Conyers is somewhat of a legend in black political circles, having employed Rosa Parks and having been a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
On Tuesday, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), the CBC chairman, urged equal treatment across the board:
“The Congressional Black Caucus calls on Congress to treat all members who have been accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other crimes with parity, and we call on Congress and the public to afford members with due process as these very serious allegations are investigated.”
A New York Times Magazine writer reported Wednesday that House Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn (S.C.) compared Conyers's accusers to the convicted murderer Susan Smith, a white woman who initially claimed that a black man had abducted her kids before she was convicted of drowning her two sons.
But the CBC disputed the reporting, tweeting that it's not accurate.
Although Conyers is respected for his role in the civil rights movement, other CBC members said their response to the allegations against him is not “a civil rights thing,” but instead about making sure people know that sexual harassment and assault in Congress goes beyond one prominent black lawmaker.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), who is a rape survivor, told NPR's David Greene on Wednesday:
“I wouldn’t be shocked or stunned if there were 100 men on both sides of the aisle on both chambers who are accused of this behavior. Sexual predation is pervasive not only in Congress but in our society. This is a social problem that has bubbled up at this time. So for you to characterize this as some sort of Congressional Black Caucus problem, I take offense to that.”
While some CBC members may want to draw attention to how black lawmakers facing sexual misconduct allegations are treated differently — particularly when the accusers are white — some may ultimately join their party leadership in concluding that it would be in everyone's best interest if Conyers resigned.
On Thursday, Clyburn — a longtime friend of the lawmaker from Michigan — was one of those people. He told The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis that just like Conyers stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, he also should step down from Congress.
“He voluntarily stepped aside so we didn't have to do anything. And so all I've said is that I think that he should do the same for his constituents that he did for his colleagues,” Clyburn said.
“He's a friend, and I'm not going to ever step away from a friend because he made a mistake,” Clyburn added. “Even if he made more than one. So my friendship with him, I maintain. And you're always disappointed when your friends have this kind of luck. That doesn't mean you don't stand by them.”