Bankole: Succeeding John Conyers

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

John Conyers Jr., 87, an American hero, has been a pivotal voice in the civil rights and labor battles fought in the last 50 years.

With a career largely shaped by the politics of the generation that witnessed the Jim Crow era, Conyers was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1965. Today he is the dean of Congress — the longest serving member of the House — a first for an African-American that occurred when U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Dearborn retired.

In light of that legacy, more questions are swirling about his successor. As of right now, no formal succession plan appears to be in place for the 13th Congressional District seat.

Discussions about a possible Conyers retirement are gaining strength within Detroit political circles in the wake of the announcement earlier by his 85-year-old colleague, U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., that he is retiring from Congress at the end of the year after 23 terms in office.

Rangel was the first African-American chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Conyers was the first to serve as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Both are founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Unlike Rangel, Conyers is running for a 27th term and is expected to win easily over Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey in the primary for the largely Democratic district.

Some political insiders are worried about succession.

“We need to have this discussion now about a succession plan,” longtime Detroit activist and head of the Community Coalition Ernest Johnson said. “We need to talk to the congressman. We need somebody to be groomed to take his place.”

Johnson, who was among several supporters at a Conyers re-election campaign kickoff June 4 in Detroit, said a possible replacement could be Conyers’ great-nephew Ian Conyers, 27, who is running for the 4th District seat in the state Senate.

Ian Conyers comes off a bit reticent about the possibility.

“Whoever has to run for his seat has to earn it,” said the former regional field director of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. “There is no passing of the baton.

“I don’t think there is a need for the congressman to step down; as long as he is there and doing the work he has the right to hold the seat.”

Johnson agrees.

“While we need a succession plan, I don’t think he needs to step down now,” Johnson said. “Seniority may not be needed in these big companies but one place it counts is in Congress. The longer you stay the more power you have.”

Conyers, who is married to former Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, has two sons Carl Edward and John III. Monica Conyers has served time for bribery and corruption in the Detroit city hall scandal.

John III, 26, often referred to as John Jr., has been mentioned as a potential replacement. He attended the recent Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island and is increasingly becoming more visible at political events. Some observers say that could be a sign he is positioning himself to seek his father’s seat.

Veteran pollster Ed Sarpolus, founder of the Lansing-based political consulting group Target-Insyght whose work has included several Conyers campaigns, said the son’s plans are unclear.

“There is no apparent grassroots cry for John Jr. to replace his dad,” Sarpolus said. “He has no real public presence in the district. John Jr. being anointed the successor like Congressman Dingell did with Debbie Dingell doesn’t seem to be in the cards at this time.”

Sarpolus said the list of possible candidates for the seat include the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, former Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, state Sen. Bert Johnson, former + state Rep. Harvey Santana and attorney Reggie Turner.

But the pollster added that Conyers has never given the impression that anything would stop him from seeking re-election.

“Since 2011 the only succession plan I felt existed was that as long as the congressman was healthy enough to run, he would run. Many have misinterpreted that he was going to retire but that was wishful thinking,” Sarpolus said.

Some Detroiters think Conyers should exit now.

Akindele Akinyemi, former member of the Black Slate, a group that espouses black activism and racial justice and was key in electing Coleman Young as Detroit’s first black mayor, is one of those believers.

“We thank Congressman Conyers for his years of leadership and dedicated service,” Akinyemi said. “However, our community is doing a great disservice to hold on to the past and not elect someone in the 21st century with a focus on entrepreneurship. Millennials are seeking new leadership that will work for them and Congressman Conyers does not represent this group of leaders and entrepreneurs.”

For Sarpolus, though, the retirement question remains up to Conyers and no one else.

“Unless Congressman Conyers feels it is fair to consider retiring it is not fair,” Sarpolus said. “The congressman will not be moved by public opinion. My sense is that he believes it is his decision and no one else’s.”

Ray Plowden, who is returning to Washington, D.C., for his second stint as Conyers’ chief of staff added: “I think when the congressman no longer runs — whether it is voluntary or involuntary — we will have a field as crowded as the 2016 Republican primaries.”


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.