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Conyers vs. Conyers? Congressman backs son for seat

Jonathan Oosting, Michael Gerstein, and Melissa Nann Burke

As the longest-serving member of Congress effectively resigned Tuesday amid sexual harassment allegations, U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. tried to keep his legacy alive by endorsing his oldest son, John Conyers III, to succeed him in Congress.

It was an unexpected move by the Detroit Democrat in what promises to be a heavily contested primary in the heavily Democratic 13th District. State Sen. Ian Conyers of Detroit — the 88-year-old congressman’s great-nephew who has been in the state Legislature for a little over a year — has already announced plans to run.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is reviewing potential dates for a special election to fill the seat after receiving a resignation letter from Conyers, his office said Tuesday afternoon.

Conyers III, 27, has never held elected office and caused an ethics problem in late 2010. The congressman had to reimburse the U.S. Treasury $5,682 for his son’s misuse of his taxpayer-funded Cadillac Escalade.

“There is no excuse for the nonofficial use of a government vehicle,” Rep. Conyers said in a December 2010 statement. “I have taken steps to ensure that it will not happen again.”

Conyers’ endorsement of his son was seen as a snub of Sen. Conyers, the great-nephew who told the New York Times and ABC News early Tuesday about the congressman’s planned retirement.

The potential family feud quickly escalated when Sen. Conyers retweeted – but later deleted – a link to a 2010 blog highlighting controversial social media posts by Conyers III and suggesting his family “needs to do damage control immediately.”

The posts included multiple photos of Conyers III, then underage, posing with bottles of alcohol, including one picture of him holding Moet behind the steering wheel of a Cadillac.

Sen. Conyers urged the local and national media to take “a thorough look at all candidates” vying to replace his great-uncle.

The early drama in the race is “disheartening and disappointing,” said 13th District Democratic Party Chairman Jonathan Kinloch, “but I can imagine from their perspective a lot of emotions are flying.”

Kinloch said he expects “one of the biggest (candidate) filings we’ve seen in recent memory” as Democrats scramble for a safe seat that rarely becomes vacant.

Democratic activist Michael Gilmore is running for Conyers’ seat. Other names circulating Tuesday as potential candidates included state Sens. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights and Coleman Young II of Detroit, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, Westland Mayor Bill Wild, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Councilwoman Mary Sheffield.

Name identification will “be incredibly helpful and play a very significant role” for Conyers III, Kinloch said, noting that voters in Detroit already know him because of his dad.

“Whether he wins or not will depend upon the type of campaign he runs and the type of resources he’s able to bring about to get his message out,” Kinloch said.

Detroit political strategist Steve Hood said Conyers III is a “zero-known entity” who will have to work to prove he’s more than a name.

“The elephant in the room is Bill Wild,” Hood said. “Outside of Detroit, the largest voting bloc in the district is between Westland and Redford. If Detroit is split up (by multiple candidates), Westland becomes a serious player.”

Conyers III reported to police over the Thanksgiving 2010 holiday that his dad’s Escalade was broken into and two laptops and $27,500 worth of concert tickets were stolen.

When Sen. Conyers told the media outlets he would run for his uncle’s seat in 2018, the revelation angered Rep. Conyers’ wife Monica and attorney Arnold Reed, who tweeted that the reports of the retirement were “innuendo and rumor.”

But Sen. Conyers, who said he is currently out of the country on a fact-finding mission in Israel, tweeted back: “Monica - I spoke to my great uncle Thursday night via phone from hospital. His advice Run!”

The family spat is a political “mess” since it is not a sure bet that a Conyers will succeed the congressman, said Detroit political analyst Mario Morrow.

“Just because your father or your great-uncle held a seat for 50 years does not guarantee that seat to always have a Conyers name on it,” he said Tuesday.

Ian Conyers “jumped the gun” on the announcement and failed to get “the entire Conyers clan” behind him, Morrow said.

“It comes down to one thing in the African-American community: Who has the right to that seat?” he said. “With my political experience, I would highly suggest that ... both young Conyerses take a deep breath and determine what is best for the family and let the citizens decide what is best for the district.”

But Hood disagreed, praising Ian Conyers for what he called a “very, very smart, intelligent attempt at a first strike” that landed him on the pages of the New York Times.

The spectacle drew the attention of lawmakers in Lansing.

“They’re gonna have a wonderful Christmas dinner, I suppose,” said state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit.

Knezek, a potential candidate to replace the congressman, said Tuesday he was focused on a proposed Senate retirement reform package that could affect police officers and firefighters.

“With all the sacrifices they make for us, the least we can do is put politics on the back burner for one day,” he told The News.

Young II was not immediately available to discuss Conyers’ announcement but said early last week he had not decided if he would run for the seat should it open up.

“There’s always definitely talk, but that’s all it is right now,” said Young, who lost his fall bid to unseat Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “Right now I’m focused on doing my job right here in the state Senate.”

Tlaib said Tuesday she is busy grieving the sudden death of her father but “will have more to share” about the congressional race in the future and as she has conversations with families in the district.

“The recent events have been a tragedy for the constituents of the 13th District, the women who came forward, and Congressman Conyers’ legacy,” Tlaib wrote on Facebook.

Gaddis said after the interview with Conyers that his great-nephew erred by announcing his candidacy so early.

“I don't think Ian Conyers ever had the congressman's endorsement,” she said in the 102.7 FM Praise studio.

Gaddis said the great-nephew has more work to do.

“Nobody ever steps out like that, in a scenario like this, without first talking to the family, talking to stakeholders in the community,” Gaddis said. “That was a major mistake.”

John Conyers III spoke to reporters last Wednesday outside his family’s Detroit home about the sexual harassment allegations against his father, saying it’s “very unfortunate to see him fight so long for so many people and to automatically have the allegations assumed to be true.”

Conyers’ son noted that “with sexual assault, women are to be believed.”

Rep. Conyers endorsed his son from an undisclosed Metro Detroit hospital bed in a phone interview with Gaddis.

Detroit News Staff writers James David Dickson contributed