Conyers’ longevity remains issue in U.S. House primary

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Despite facing a high-profile opponent for the second Democratic primary in a row, U.S. Rep. John Conyers is still confident that he can get re-elected and remain the longest-serving member of Congress.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers

The 87-year-old Detroiter faces Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey in Tuesday’s election that will effectively decide who represents the predominantly Democratic 13th Congressional District for the next two years.

Conyers, who has been in the House of Representatives since 1965, is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, where he has served as chairman when his party is in the majority. For the second straight election, President Barack Obama endorsed him.

Conyers said he has no plans of slowing down. He was a leader in the congressional gun debate and participated in the House Democrat sit-in earlier this summer that made national headlines.

Although Winfrey, 58, respects Conyers’ tenure, she says it’s time for him to step aside and let new talent energize and better care for his district, which she claims is neglected and impoverished without good Congressional representation from the legendary incumbent.

“We all love Mr. Conyers, me included, and that’s why you’ll never hear me disrespect him,” said Winfrey, the former teacher who was elected to the her clerk post in 2005 after being relatively unknown politically. “But at the end of the day, more than 50 years in office, 87-years-old ... we all begin to diminish. And the district is suffering because of it.”

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey

Winfrey, 58, said parts of the district — which includes the western half of Detroit, River Rouge, Ecorse, Redford Township, Highland Park and Romulus — are all but ignored by the congressman and that his constituency services are lacking.

Conyers said he is one of the more active members in Congress in his district and dismissed Winfrey’s suggestion that he is diminished and ineffective. “My mind is sharp,” he said.

The congressman wonders why Winfrey is running.

“It seems to me that she may be anticipating that if I don’t run again in some future election that she can be a candidate that says, ‘I ran against him,’” Conyers said. “But I don’t ever see her. I’m in the community with all the mayors and councilmen, particularly the Detroit area.”

The race has been slowly developing since last fall when the Detroit clerk started contemplating a campaign against Conyers.

Winfrey said the main reason she is running is because several cities in the district, such as Highland Park, have high poverty and foreclosure rates. She said many district residents she has met have no clue who the congressman is or have assumed Conyers had retired.

When asked how she can make a difference in Congress in that district, she said the best way is to collaborate with state and local officials to tackle the issue — something she says Conyers is failing to do, as well as providing better constituent services to residents.

“We can no longer ignore the ills of the district,” Winfrey said. “Nor can we allow one to hide behind their legacy. It’s not fair. We’re allowing him to. We all love him, we all adore him, but we also all know that the district is suffering.”

Conyers said that Winfrey is wrong and that he’s secured $850 million in grants and appropriated funding for the Metro Detroit area.

“This is inaccurate for anyone to think that we haven’t been getting a lot of money since 1993,” he said. “I stay on the case, and I’m in my district. I’m seeing more than most other members of Congress without disrespecting any of them, than anybody else. I’m always there.”

The Democrat’s Judiciary Committee leader said there’s much work to be done on issues such as gun violence, including his “no fly, no buy” bill to ban anyone on the terrorist watch list from purchasing a handgun. He also is pushing criminal justice reform that reduces mass incarceration rates and is set on protecting voting rights for minorities.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield tried to defeat Conyers two years ago and initially was successful in getting hundreds of petition signatures disqualified and the congressman briefly off of the ballot. Conyers sued in federal court, where a Detroit judge ruled the suit had a “substantial likelihood of success” in showing Michigan’s requirement for circulators to be registered voters is unconstitutional and ordered Conyers on the ballot.

Conyers recovered from the embarrassing misstep to win the primary.

But Winfrey said this time will be different, and that the underdog role doesn’t bother her.

“I think the one thing that makes me different is proven leadership, proven electable,” Winfrey said. “I think I’m the only one in recent history that’s run against him that’s run successfully a citywide campaign.

“We need a breath of fresh air. We need high energy; we need motivation in the district.”

Conyers says he still has plenty of motivation as he seeks a 27th term.

“I feel great. My health is excellent. I like my work,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot to do.

“I still love my job.”

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