The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, left, and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (David Coates)
Washington— The Rev. Horace Sheffield III launched a Democratic primary challenge Thursday against U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit with harsh questioning of the mental capacity of the longest-serving African-American in Congress.
Sheffield, pastor of New Destiny Christian Fellowship Church, said the 84-year-old Conyers is no longer capable of representing the vast needs of the Wayne County district — which includes Detroit and Highland Park as well as suburban communities like Westland, Romulus, Redford Township, Ecorse and Melvindale.
“The congressman is not the person he once was,” Sheffield, 59, told The News.
He was more blunt in an interview earlier Thursday with WJR’s Frank Beckmann: “The congressman is not all there.”
“I’ve come to learn that other people other than the congressperson actually make decisions for the interests of our district,” Sheffield told The News, implying Conyers’ aides are calling the shots. “Even when he makes decisions, they override him.”
Conyers’ spokesman said the congressman declined to comment. But a political consultant who is running the petition-gathering operation of the Conyers re-election campaign punched back at Sheffield.
“On his worst day, John Conyers is sharper than Horace Sheffield ever will be,” Steve Hood said.
Joe DiSano, Lansing-based Democratic political consultant, called Sheffield’s charges on Conyers’ mental condition “explosive and very hard to prove.”
“I’m not sure if that’s enough for voters to throw him out,” he said.
Political analysts agreed that Sheffield faces an uphill battle to unseat Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. April 22 is the deadline for Conyers and all candidates for Congress to submit at least 1,000 petition signatures to be on the August primary ballot.
But at least one said Thursday that Conyers is vulnerable in the 13th Congressional District.
“The question for Horace Sheffield: How do you sell John’s deficiencies and sell your efficiencies to the voters in the Wayne County suburbs, who would be disposed to vote against Conyers?” said Eric Foster, a Metro Detroit political analyst.
Both have wife-related issues
In recent years, Conyers has been dogged by the troubles of his wife, Monica, the former Detroit City Council president who served a 37-month sentence in prison and home detention for public corruption. Several Democratic candidates more gently challenged his capabilities in the 2012 primary, but Conyers won triple the number of votes of his nearest competitor, Westland state Sen. Glenn Anderson.
The challenge this time is that criticism comes from a family friend. The fathers of Conyers and Sheffield were leading African-American union activists.
The families were so close that Conyers’ brother held his wedding reception at Sheffield’s father’s home, Sheffield said. “Our families are joined at the hip.”
But Sheffield faces challenges of his own. This month, he was charged with misdemeanor counts of domestic violence and preventing a crime report stemming from a Jan. 10 incident with his estranged wife at his home in Detroit.
Sheffield’s attorney, Allison Folmar, has said the accusations are “a downright lie” and the wife is trying to “ruin his reputation” in a contentious divorce.
Conyers’ experience will be difficult to defeat, political analysts and supporters said. Conyers entered Congress in 1965 and is the second-longest-serving member of Congress behind Dearborn Democrat John Dingell.
“You just cannot throw someone out because they are older than you,” Hood said. “ ... He is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. You just don’t throw that out.”
Sheffield sees an opportunity because of long-circulating rumors about Conyers’ health, said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.
“However, many a politician has tried to topple Conyers, attempting to capitalize on everything from his wife’s felonies to his abandoned-looking Detroit home,” Demas said. “None have succeeded.”
But Foster says Conyers is vulnerable in part because he has been an activist congressman instead of one like Dingell, who brings home the bacon for his district.
Sheffield is trying to exploit this, saying the 13th District — which includes about half of Detroit — has not experienced any benefit from Conyers.
“There’s no tangible thing that we can point to that people who are oppressed and depressed and in a recession are going to benefit from,” Sheffield said.
In recent months, Conyers introduced legislation to rewrite part of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court. He has worked with Republican Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township on legislation to squash the National Security Agency’s phone surveillance programs. Earlier this year he formed the Full Employment Caucus to focus members on getting Americans back to work.
But in a recent vote on the farm bill, Conyers initially voted for the legislation, but changed his vote at the end in opposition amid liberals’ concerns of cutting food stamps for the poor.
Labor, money play key roles
Labor is expected to play a key role in the Democratic primary. Conyers has enjoyed five decades of union support, including in 2012 even though Anderson is a United Auto Workers member.
Sheffield said he hopes unions will be neutral in the race, but analysts consider it unlikely.
Money will play a role in a contested primary. Conyers hasn’t been much of a fundraiser, ending the year with $116,310 in his campaign account — the least amount of any Michigan member of Congress, including freshmen.
If Sheffield can raise $750,000 to $1.2 million, Foster said the minister has a shot at beating Conyers.