Conyers leaves deep legacy

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Rep. John Conyers, who built a reputation as a champion for civil and human rights during 53 years in Congress, leaves behind a legacy clouded by allegations that he sexually harassed or mistreated several female staffers.

Conyers, 88, resigned Tuesday as the oldest and third-longest serving member in the history of the U.S. House. He also is the longest-serving African American in Congress, having been first elected in Michigan in 1964.

Conyers introduced the legislation creating the federal holiday to commemorate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1983. He first offered the bill four days after King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

Conyers was the dean and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969, which promotes the legislative concerns of black and minority communities.

For years, he held a powerful position as the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, to which he was appointed as a freshman lawmaker in 1965.

Detroit political strategist Mario Marrow said Conyers current troubles won’t stain his long history of promoting civil rights internationally and advocating for Americans – especially those of color.

“I don’t believe that it will have the everlasting effect to diminish anything he has done as a congressman,” Marrow said of the sex scandal.

“However, I do believe that the allegations are serious, which he recognizes, and will be addressed accordingly in due time.”

A lawyer by training, Conyers was considered one of the more liberal members of Congress. He pushed for a single-payer health care system, long urged a study of reparations for slavery and fought to rein in the federal government’s surveillance powers.

During his legislative career, Conyers helped spearhead landmark reforms including extensions of the Voting Rights Act, as well as passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and the Hate Crimes Act of 2009.

He also sought to reform mandatory minimum prison sentences to reduce high rates of incarceration for blacks and the poor.

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Conyers, who was hospitalized last week, repeatedly denied claims of misconduct. He said he hoped his retirement would be viewed “in the larger perspective of my record of service.”

“For Detroiters, I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish by bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in critical grants and federal funding to Southeast Michigan to revitalize our great city, attract rich talent, and return us to prosperity,” Conyers said in a statement read by a colleague on the House floor.

“I vehemently deny any and all allegations of harassment or dishonor, but I recognize that in this present environment, due process will not be afforded to me. I was taught by a great woman, my mother, to honor women.”

House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat who had urged Conyers to resign, said Tuesday he “shaped some of the most consequential legislation of the last half century.

“But no matter how great the legacy, it is no license to harass or discriminate,” she said in a statement. “The brave women who came forward ... were owed the justice of this announcement.”

Conyers supporter Steve Hood said if his retirement halts the House Ethics Committee investigation into his alleged misconduct, it will protect Conyers’ legacy “as much as it can be protected.”

“There will be some tarnish on his record. It used to be if you put in ‘John Conyers’ and ‘Congress’ in Google, you’d come up with the Martin Luther King holiday, you’d come up with reparations for slavery, you’d come up with him calling for someone’s impeachment,” Hood said.

“Now, all you get is two freaking pages of sex scandals. Google is the new library. It’s where kids go to look up stuff – for better or worse. So it’s already been tarnished.”

Accusations surfaced in late November with news that Conyers settled a complaint with former aide Marion Brown in 2015 after she claimed she was dismissed for refusing his sexual advances.

He paid her roughly $27,000 through his congressional office budget but, as part of the settlement, denied her allegations.

Other former staffers stepped forward in recent weeks recounting similar instances of inappropriate touching by Conyers, invitations to hotel rooms and disrobing in front of employees.

Brown’s case prompted members of Congress to call for ending “secret settlements” using taxpayer dollars and to reform the chamber’s onerous process for filing harassment complaints against members or staffers.

Jonathan Kinloch, Democratic Party chairman of the 13th Congressional District, said Conyers’ decision to step down now will help preserve his record.

“He’s touched so many lives across the country around the world when you talk about human rights and civil rights,” said Kinloch, who was in middle school when he first started following Conyers’ career.

“He was a giant then, he’s a giant now, and he will remain a giant into history.”

Conyers grew up in Detroit the son of a labor leader and attended Northwestern High School. He served in the National Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War before returning to Michigan and graduating from Wayne State University and Law School.

He worked as an aide to now-retired Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, and as general counsel for three labor locals in Detroit before running for an open U.S. House seat in 1964. His platform was “Jobs, Justice and Peace.”

The first employee that Conyers hired was civil rights hero Rosa Parks. She worked as a secretary and aide to Conyers for 22 years from 1964 until she retired in 1988.

In his first year in office, Conyers went to Selma, Alabama, for a voter-registration drive in February 1965, the month before the violent “Bloody Sunday” march.

Civil rights leader King wrote thanking Conyers for his visit, saying Conyers’ “very presence there has had an electric effect upon the voteless and beleaguered Negro citizens of this city, county, state and nation.”

King in his letter emphasized the need for federal legislation to “remove remaining barriers to the free exercise of the ballot” by black citizens. Later that year, Conyers co-sponsored the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that prohibited discrimination in voting.

He received the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Award, presented by King in 1967.

Conyers sponsored bills in every session of Congress since 1989 to establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and weigh reparations to African Americans.

He was among the first to make President Richard Nixon’s “Enemies List” in 1971 and the only remaining members of the Judiciary Committee to vote on the Articles of Impeachment against Nixon in 1974 (he supported all three articles).

He had occasional political problems. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Detroit in 1989 and 1993.

Conyers got caught up in several ethical controversies involving House officials, including when staffers accused him of inappropriately ordering them to work on political campaigns and do personal chores such as babysit, clean his home and tutor his wife and children. House leaders forced him to take corrective actions.

The Ethics Committee also investigated Conyers for potential misconduct related to salary paid to his former chief of staff, Cynthia Martin, for four months in 2016 when she no longer performed work for his office.

Problems with his petition signatures almost kept Conyers off the ballot in 2014, but he went on and received more than 79 percent of the vote in the general election.

Some Democrats suggested in recent years that Conyers should step aside to let someone younger take over, but Conyers said giving up his seat to a freshman would deplete the chamber of his institutional knowledge.

Democratic challengers in recent elections questioned Conyers’ ability to represent his district in Washington.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, a family friend, lost the August 2014 primary after telling WJR in February 2014 that “the congressman is not all there.”

Last year, Detroit Clerk Janice Winfrey said Michigan’s 13th District was suffering as Conyers’ skills began “to diminish.”

Conyers’ successes in Congress include pushing for the the Jazz Preservation Act of 1987, the Motor Voter Bill of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Conyers previously chaired the Judiciary Committee from 2007-11 and led the House Oversight Committee as chair from 1989 to 2004.

Only two members of Congress have served longer: John Dingell, who served from 1955 to 2015, and Jamie Whitten, D-Mississippi, who was in office from 1941 to 1995.

Staff writers Jonathan Oosting and Michael Gerstein contributed.