Bankole: Succession scramble over Conyers seat heats up

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

The quest is on in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District to find a replacement for U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr.

Dozens of civic leaders — from labor to clergy — have been meeting regularly to try to find a likely successor to the venerable statesman who was forced to retire amid allegations of sexual harassment.

Voters will make the choice at the polls on Aug. 7 and Nov. 6.

The list of potential contenders is growing daily, and political factions are stressing the need to quickly find a consensus candidate.

Among the early names being tossed around: Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, Detroit City Council president Brenda Jones, state Sen. Ian Conyers, state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo and former state Reps. Shanelle Jackson and Rashida Tlaib.

To add to the discussion, the elder Conyers has endorsed his son, John Conyers III, for the post. And not to be outdone, state. Sen. Coleman Young II announced his candidacy on Monday.

“There are about 40 leaders from various groups in our community who are discussing the need to find the right candidate to succeed Congressman Conyers,” said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party.

“The hope from many party members and stakeholders in the 13th District is that the field of candidates doesn’t become so crowded, that someone wins who has no real understanding of the issues important to residents.”

The issue of Conyers’ succession has long been a topic of discussion in the African-American community given his place as an icon of the civil rights movement. The concern has always been whether he was grooming someone with the political mettle and requisite skills to represent the district.

But whenever the discussion came up, there was always a pushback from supporters and some civil rights activists who believed the congressman could and should exit the political stage on his own terms.

And in 2015, when Conyers became the first African-American to attain the status of dean of the U.S. Congress — the longest serving member of the House of Representatives — the question of succession only intensified.

Today, the district now has no choice but to find a replacement.

“Hindsight can give us a glimpse of several better paths than one we find ourselves in today,” Kinloch said. “But (Conyers) didn’t leave a legible or intelligible plan for us to follow. So we must set a high bar for anyone we support to step into his shoes.”

Al Garrett, former president of AFSCME Council 25, the largest union in city government, said the Conyers’ situation should be a lesson for all leaders about the need to always train the next generation to take over from them.

“There ought to be multiple folks trained and positioned to run for that seat,” Garrett said. “But I don’t think we are organized to do that.”

Garrett, a longtime power broker, said there should have been an array of individuals who could have benefited from the tutelage of Conyers when he was in office. He said that, for example, an institute could have been created like a “John Conyers political leadership academy” to help train and prepare a cadre of leaders for future political positions.

“I know that is a burden to put on somebody but that is what leadership calls for. Maybe if Conyers had spent time developing a lot of people it would have helped,” Garrett said.

Without that assistance, the onus now falls on the community. “Community organizations and groups that have the power and resources should make it difficult for anyone to run for that seat without answering these questions: What we are looking for in a congressperson? Does the person have to be African-American? What is their legislative record?” Garrett said.

The Rev. Nicholas Hood III, senior pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ, who followed in his father’s footsteps and served on the Detroit City Council, said it is imperative to develop leaders.

“My father groomed me from the age of 19 in church. But I wasn’t the only one. It was a group of us that benefited from his training and mentorship,” Hood said. “Who has Conyers groomed for that seat? I think any of the city council members could fill that seat. There are others in the wider community who would be suitable candidates as well. It does not have to be someone he personally groomed.”

Hood said he isn’t surprised Conyers endorsed his son.

“I would be surprised if he did anything less than that,” he said.

Kinloch said there is much to learn from Conyers’ abrupt exit after serving in Congress for five decades.

“Always be willing to serve the public with distinction,” Kinloch said. “But you must know when to hand the office back to the people. When that day comes: if led right, there should be many standing in your shadows ready to serve.”

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