May 30, 2014 at 7:45 pm

Conyers wins fight to stay on ballot after state declines to appeal judge's order

Conyers (Rod Lamkey / Getty Images)

U.S. Rep. John Conyers’ political revival was cemented Friday when Secretary of State Ruth Johnson halted efforts to remove the Detroit Democrat from the ballot.

The state declined to appeal a federal judge’s ruling last week that ordered Conyers back on the Aug. 5 primary ballot, over his concerns the state law that kept the lawmaker off was unconstitutional.

“Based on the facts of the judge’s order, the state has decided not to appeal in the Conyers case,” according to a statement Friday from the Secretary of State’s Office.

The decision means Conyers will face family friend the Rev. Horace Sheffield in the Democratic primary in August. Sheffield challenged whether the 85-year-old congressman was eligible for the ballot and has criticized Conyers’ ability to mentally and physically represent the 13th Congressional District.

Conyers welcomed the state’s decision not to pursue the matter further.

“I’m glad that we can put this behind us, because it gives all of those who appreciate our political process an opportunity to focus on the issues that affect the people’s livelihood, the justice system and the promotion of peace in our time: in short, jobs, justice and peace,” he said in a Friday statement.

Sheffield said Friday he’s ready for the head-to-head matchup.

“I’ve always known this was going to be a contest between Congressman Conyers and myself,” Sheffield said. “That’s what we’ve always prepared for, so it comes as no surprise to us.”

In recent days, a flurry of powerful Democratic officials pledged support for Conyers’ re-election campaign — whether he was on the ballot or not. They included President Barack Obama, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Sheffield called on those leaders to expend the same energy to help ailing communities in the district, such as Detroit, Inkster and Melvindale.

“If we can rally for him, we should rally for them,” Sheffield said.

Johnson’s announcement represents an incredible turnaround for Conyers, the longest-serving African-American in Congress, when more than a week ago it appeared his only hope to secure a 26th term was launching a costly write-in campaign.

Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett and Johnson ruled this month that Conyers fell short of the 1,000 necessary petition signatures because several of his circulators were unregistered voters or had problems with the accuracy of their registration address, a requirement under Michigan law. Hundreds of voter signatures were disqualified.

Conyers’ legal team and the American Civil Liberties Union took their case to federal court and argued the voter registration requirement is unconstitutional because it limits political speech.

U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman ruled in favor of Conyers’ motion to get back on the ballot because of the “substantial likelihood of success” in showing Michigan’s requirement is unconstitutional. Leitman has yet to file his full ruling on Michigan’s nearly 50-year-old election law requirement.

“I feel like I’m back where I was supposed to have been anyway,” Conyers told The News on Thursday. “I turned in 2,000 signatures of registered voters, but a couple of the circulators didn’t live up to the law. But the federal judge threw out the whole law, which was very good.”

Sheffield said he does not intend to try to appeal, but a political analyst argued Johnson should have appealed the judge’s decision to ensure the integrity of the electoral process.

“This is a disturbing precedent to some extent,” said T.J. Bucholz, president of Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs. “… If we disregard one set of rules, then do we disregard the entire playbook? I’m concerned about that, and I think voters should be concerned about that, too. It instills less good faith in the process.”

Republican analyst Steve Mitchell said the publicity surrounding the ballot problems further boosts Conyers’ re-election chances.

“All of this publicity will benefit Conyers, just as it benefited Mayor Mike Duggan (who had to mount a write-in campaign after he was bounced from the ballot), except he won’t have to run as a write-in candidate,” said Mitchell, who was the pollster for the super political action committee that supported Duggan. “Duggan made a ballot mistake himself, and he’s a lawyer, and nobody held that against him.”

Unless Sheffield raises a lot of money, he will have trouble overcoming endorsements of Conyers by Democratic heavyweights including the Michigan AFL-CIO, the East Lansing analyst said.

“Conyers is such an institution and has been around so long I can’t imagine he will have much trouble defeating Sheffield,” he said.

The initial disqualification was a stunner for Conyers, who has made the ballot 25 previous times, and some supporters suspected the mishap could be the work of a sabotage. But both the Secretary of State’s Office and Leitman indicated they saw no indications of fraud.

“I don’t suspect a conspiracy,” Conyers said. “But there are those that remind me you shouldn’t discount it.”

The congressman was particularly invigorated Thursday following a mini-concert on Capitol Hill by his friend Martha Reeves.