Photo: Andre Smith

 

 

Now that Congressman John Conyers has formally announced his retirement after serving in office for more than 50 years, the big question is ‘what’s next?’ This is, after all, not just any other legislator who is stepping aside. This is John Conyers. As the most powerful black legislator in Michigan and one of the most powerful in the nation, black or white, the absence of Conyers will almost certainly have a dramatic and immediate effect – especially considering who currently occupies the White House.

Conyers made his announcement Tuesday morning on the Mildred Gaddis Show, where he emphasized that the charges made against him of sexual harassment will not in any way affect his substantial legacy.

“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now. This too shall pass,” he said.

Whoever is ultimately chosen to fill his seat, whether it is his son, John Conyers III, who the congressman said he is endorsing to replace him, his great nephew State Sen. Ian Conyers, or someone else, they will not be John Conyers. Doesn’t matter who it is, they simply will not have that political weight. That era is now closed, despite the fervent efforts of many supporters in Detroit who rallied to his defense and did their best to block his exit.

On Monday morning, many of those supporters packed Hartford Memorial Church in an emotionally charged rally to demand that Conyers be given due process, and be allowed to confront his accusers and the sexual harassment charges that have been made against him.  The anger against those high profile congressional leaders and others who are now pressuring Conyers to resign, such as House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and Rep. James Clyburn of the Congressional Black Caucus (that Conyers co-founded), was more than enough to heat up the room.

But the unwavering focus, maintained throughout, was on the firm belief expressed by all local leaders who spoke at the gathering that Conyers should not be forced to resign until the investigation into the charges has been allowed to run its course and an independent body is allowed to make the determination whether or not Conyers is in any way guilty.

“We’re calling on the moral core of this nation to not treat us any different than anyone else. That we deserve to select and elect our leaders. Our voices have meaning. And our leadership that we see represented here today has meaning,” said State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, one of the first speakers who reflected on how much of a mentor Conyers had been to her personally throughout her political career.

NAACP President Rev. Wendell Anthony said he wanted to make sure it was understood that the purpose of the rally was not in opposition to women’s rights, nor was it to dispute the allegations or to disparage the women who have made those allegations. Rather, the point was to shine a harsh light on what they believe to be the unfairness of asking Conyers to step down when so many others in Congress – and higher – have been accused of similar behavior and worse.

 “It is interesting that we’re all here on this Monday morning. Some of us have differences on many issues. But we have one commonality today. And it’s called due process,” said Anthony.

“Everyone is entitled to due process. Why are we subverting one of the very pillars on which this nation is founded, on the back of a man who has served this nation for 53 ½ years? We are not here because we do not respect, love and appreciate women. Or men. You can look around; there are a number of women who are all here. We are here not because we do not respect them, because we have daughters, wives, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers.

But “Why is it that John Conyers is the only [Congressman] to be denied due process of law by the same body which is supposed to uphold and defend the due process of the law? It is apparent that if we are going to raise this unholy and unlawful guillotine calling for the head of John Conyers, then in fairness we must begin with the president of the United States. Mr. Trump currently has 15 women who have accused him of sexual harassment.

“This call for resignation before investigation cheapens our system of due process. And quite frankly, it suppresses the right to vote. …John Conyers is entitled to everything that every other citizen in America is entitled to, and that includes due process.”

Conyers is facing accusations of sexual harassment from several former staffers, one of whom recently appeared on a national news show to speak out not only against Conyers but against detractors who have portrayed her as an opportunist. Marion Brown, the accuser who appeared last week on the Today Show with host Savanna Guthrie, broke her confidentiality agreement when she appeared on the show, saying it was worth it to speak out in her own defense.

Conyers settled a wrongful dismissal complaint in 2015 with Brown who alleged she was fired because she would not entertain his sexual advances. Brown launched the complaint with the Office of Compliance in 2014. She ended up having to sign a confidentiality agreement to maintain her silence in exchange for that settlement, which came from Conyers’ taxpayer-funded office budget rather than the designated fund for settlements. Buzzfeed, which broke the story, based much of the story on four signed affidavits from former staffers alleging improper sexual behavior on the part of Conyers directed at them.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, like others who spoke, did not dismiss the allegations. Instead, he attacked the seemingly overeagerness on the part of some to trash Conyers before giving him his day in court.

John Conyers has spent more than 50 years protecting the rights of everyone in this country. The unmitigated gall and audacity to take those same rights away from him without due process is a sin and a shame. Due process is the foundation of what we are all entitled to.

This has nothing to do with being pro-John [Conyers] or being against women’s rights. It is about doing what’s right,” said Evans.

“Until we know what happened, I can’t even fathom a Nancy Pelosi, or a Dan Kildee or anybody else asking for the resignation of a man who has not been given an opportunity for due process. …You have a right to listen to your accuser, you have a right to respond to your accuser, and you have a right to have an independent body accept the facts and make a determination. Until that happens, they got nothing, and this is wrong.”

Wayne County Commissioner Irma Clark Coleman, who has known Conyers for years, took a much more personal approach.

“I’m not speaking about the John Conyers who I’ve been told about. I’m speaking about the congressman that I have known since the ‘60s. I’ve known John Conyers since before he became a congressman. John was always a gentleman. This man is an honorable man. I’m talking about the John Conyers that I know. I don’t stand here to dispute any allegations, but I know this man, and I know that he is a wonderful and honorable man. …If we allow this to happen then they can get up there and accuse me, or you or anyone else of wrongdoing.”

Later, in response to a question from a reporter, Anthony pointed to one of the most critical reasons why many of his supporters are so passionate about defending him aside from his right to due process; his hard-earned power and political capital in the halls of Congress that is now threatened.

“If the Democrats take the House back next year, he stands at the doorway of possibly becoming the chairman of the Judiciary Committee once again. Also, John Conyers has stood there when it comes to federal judges Those judges have to come through appointment. If John Conyers is not there, then the doorway is made wider and clearer for President Trump and others to put recalcitrant, regressive extremist judges on the federal bench which are lifetime appointments.”

Now that the absence of Conyers is no longer an ‘if’ but a certainty, we will have to see what the future holds.

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