Congressional incumbents typically have a big advantage come election time.
But the second-most senior member of the U.S. House — Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. — faces a newly redrawn congressional district and the toughest re-election campaign of his political career.
After serving Detroit for 24 consecutive terms, Conyers has to woo a new constituency — voters in a redrawn congressional district, Michigan’s 13th. He is running against two Democratic state senators, Glenn Anderson and Bert Johnson, in Michigan’s Aug. 7 primary.
Unlike Conyers’ former 14th District — most of it in Detroit — a third of the new 13th includes more conservative suburban areas.
In his Detroit office, Conyers glances at photographs of allies in the civil rights fights, including Martin Luther King Jr. and former South African President Nelson Mandela.
Conyers’ work with civil rights icons like Rosa Parks endeared him to Detroit voters.
“That’s the way it was when I got there,” Conyers says of joining Congress back in 1965. “We were just getting the segregationist control wrested from southern Democrats at that time.”
Partisan battles in Congress are nothing new, but the reputation of the 83-year-old co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus has lost a bit of its gloss.
His wife, Monica, is doing prison time after being convicted of taking bribes while she was on the Detroit City Council.
Conyers upset White House officials with a 2009 radio interview claiming he had to talk House Democrats into supporting health care reform because President Obama was being too generous to Republicans.
In the interview with radio host Bill Press, Conyers said, “I’m getting tired of saving Obama’s can in the White House.” It seems like the two have since moved beyond those remarks. Earlier this year, Obama endorsed Conyers’ re-election bid.
Garden City is only about 20 miles from Detroit, but light years away politically. This is Anderson’s turf, and he’s been a fixture in the state Legislature for more than a decade.
Anderson says in the new 13th District, Conyers doesn’t have an incumbents’ advantage.
“He is known as someone who fought hard for civil rights, and I think we should all give him credit for that. But it’s not about what you did 40 years ago but what you’re doing for us today and what you’re going to do for the district tomorrow,” says Anderson.
People in Garden City, like longtime resident Gomer Goins, know Anderson well.
Goins says he’s heard of Conyers mainly from news stories related to his wife’s bribery conviction.
“I’ve read his record and I believe he was in that thing with his wife up to his eyeballs,” Goins says. “And I think … it’s time for old John to go.”
Political scholars say redistricting is forcing both Conyers and New York Democrat Charles Rangel, 81 — two of the oldest and most liberal members of the House — into unusually tough re-election campaigns.
Clarence Lusane, an associate professor at American University, says a Conyers defeat could lead to a big change in Congress.
“What I think gets lost with Conyers is a history. Even with the younger members coming in, they simply don’t know all of the civil rights organizations and human rights organizations that Conyers talks to on a regular basis,” he says.
Conyers says he still has unfinished business on Capitol Hill — a full employment bill and his cherished single-payer universal health care legislation.
He says he’ll know when it’s time to quit, citing his former congressional colleague from Indiana, Andy Jacobs, who retired in 1997.
“He turned to me and he said, ‘John, these boots don’t fit anymore. I’m not gonna run anymore,’ and I don’t feel like that at all,” Conyers says.
“My boots fit very well.”