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Detroit city clerk to challenge Conyers for House seat

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said Friday she will challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. John Conyers next year for his 13th Congressional District seat, saying the longtime congressman is “vulnerable.”

Winfrey, 57, who has been the city clerk since 2005, said she has a ton of respect for the 86-year-old Conyers, but announcing long before the 2016 election lets potential supporters and donors know she is serious about her Democratic primary challenge.

“For me it’s important that we protect the seat,” Winfrey told The Detroit News on Friday. “We know that the honorable John Conyers is vulnerable, and I need to protect my community. And in protecting my community means throwing my hat in this race, and I do it with my hat in my hand.”

Serving since 1965, Conyers of Detroit is the longest-serving member of Congress after Democratic U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Dearborn, who retired in January.

Conyers’ district is considered a safe Democratic seat. In 2014, he defeated Republican Jeff Gorman in the general election 79 percent-16 percent after defeating Detroit Rev. Horace Sheffield 74 percent-26 percent in the Democratic primary.

A Conyers spokeswoman declined to comment, but the congressman filed to run for re-election on Dec. 11.

The incumbent’s vulnerability, Winfrey says, comes from Conyers’ re-election scare in 2014 when his bid for a 26th term was nearly derailed by issues with petition signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Winfrey said she was troubled by “people who said they were working on his behalf and they really weren’t” in the 2014 campaign and that they lacked “a level of integrity.”

Both Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett and Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson disqualified hundreds of voter signatures for Conyers because several of his circulators were unregistered voters or had problems with the accuracy of registration addresses — both requirements under state law.

Detroit federal Judge Matthew Leitman in May 2014 restored Conyers’ name on the primary ballot because he agreed with lawyers for Conyers and the American Civil Liberties Union that the voter registration requirement was unconstitutional because it limited political speech and that the case was likely to succeed.

“When you see that happening to one of your high esteemed officials, you begin to come into a protective mode,” Winfrey said. “With all due respect to the honorable John Conyers who I realize whose shoulders I stand on ... that seat is vulnerable.”

The city clerk last ran for a different office in 2010 when she lost the Democratic nomination for secretary of state to Jocelyn Benson at the state convention. She filed her paperwork to run for Congress on Monday, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Eric Foster, a longtime political consultant, said although it may be time for an “electoral change in that seat,” Winfrey and any other candidates from Detroit “are going to have a difficult time getting the traction inside the city and galvanize the non-Detroit vote.”

“It is open (season) to vote against John Conyers,” Foster said. “But they are not necessarily going to galvanize behind a Detroit candidate. It’s going to be a challenge for her.”

Winfrey said a kick-off gathering was held for her Thursday and that interest has been building for her candidacy.

Winfrey’s tenure as clerk has been marked by hiccups.

A state review of the August 2013 Detroit mayoral primary election found Winfrey ran a lawful contest. But state staffers found no seals on two voter precinct containers and one absentee ballot precinct.

There were no ballots in one container. About 300 absentee ballots were found after the election that weren't counted.

In 2008, Winfrey, who chairs the city’s Elections Commission, voted to allow City Council member Kenneth Cockrel on the ballot even though he hadn’t paid late contribution report fines — and neither had she.

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Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.