Rep. John Conyers (D)
Michigan 14th District
Detroit’s early auto factories—Packard, Hudson, Ford Highland Park, Dodge Main, Briggs, Ford Rouge, Cadillac, Kelsey-Hayes, Chrysler, Plymouth, DeSoto—were built between 1905 and 1925 about five miles from the city’s center and at the edge of urban development. Almost instantly the flat farmlands all around were platted in grid streets and filled with wooden bungalows and brick prairie-style houses, often with a driveway at the side and a single elm in the front. Commercial strips lined the mile-square and radial main streets, stretching straight as far as the eye could see. Detroit’s neighborhoods filled up with factory workers and civil servants, professionals and maintenance men, corner-store owners and management personnel, Catholics and Protestants and Jews: a middle-class melting pot. With one exception—Detroit in those days had few blacks; they did not begin their big migration here from Alabama and the rest of the South until around 1940, when defense plants began hiring African-Americans in large numbers.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The history of black Detroit is one of conflict and uplift, inspiration and tragedy. The wartime mixture of Appalachian mountain whites and Deep South blacks in Detroit proved volatile, resulting in a violent race riot in June 1943. During the war years, blacks were pent up in a few severely overcrowded neighborhoods like the Black Bottom, most of it now covered by the Chrysler Freeway. After 1945, when African-Americans began moving outward, real estate agents played on racial fears, and in the 1950s, whole square miles of Detroit changed racial composition in a matter of months. In the 1960s, there was hope that the civil rights movement, encouraged by Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers union, and antipoverty programs would improve blacks’ fortunes, and in fact many black Detroiters found good jobs and made good incomes, bought their own homes and built community institutions. Then came the riot of July 1967, followed by extensive white flight and terrible increases in crime. Detroit’s first black mayor, Democrat Coleman Young, elected in 1973, responded with policies that may have seemed appropriate in the 1960s but had disastrous results in the 1970s and 1980s: He pressured major employers like the Big Three auto companies to build facilities in Detroit, raised taxes to support a vast army of city employees, and attributed city problems to white racism. Violent crime became a part of everyday life, and arson became common.
Detroit took on a garrison atmosphere. Crime reduced the value of residential real estate to near zero, and the city’s population dropped from 1.7 million in 1960 to 919,000 in 2007. In political dialogue, most black politicians called for an ever-increasing public sector. Yet the existing public sector, which took a larger share of residents’ income than almost anywhere else in the country, served citizens poorly. Turnaround came agonizingly late in the 1990s, when Democratic Mayor Dennis Archer, elected in 1993, worked to fight crime and encourage private-sector growth. Incomes rose, and the median housing value doubled from $32,000 to $63,000. But the city has remained in decline by almost any measure, from the high rate of home foreclosures and to the low achievement of students in public schools.
The 14th Congressional District of Michigan consists of nearly half of Detroit, with the exception of the downtown area and some disparate suburbs. Its part of Detroit is north and west of where the old auto plants were built and is mostly residential—square mile after square mile of grid streets, some always working class, some middle-class, a few upscale, such as Palmer Woods, Sherwood Forest, Rosedale Park. In most of them, abandoned houses and empty lots are commonplace, and yet in many neighborhoods, residents struggle to maintain their houses and patrol their streets. Commercial frontage on Detroit’s straight-line avenues is still patchy and often vacant. Politically, this is one of the most Democratic districts in the United States.
The suburbs of the 14th are diverse. Highland Park is like much of Detroit; Hamtramck still retains the flavor of its original Polish immigrants (on Fat Tuesday, this is where to find the best paczki), who made it America’s fastest-growing city in 1910-20. It had 56,000 people in 1930 but only 21,000 in 2007. The 14th District now includes most of Dearborn, including the Ford headquarters, the Ford Rouge plant and Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. It is known today as the home of the nation’s largest Arab-American community, with 30% of residents claiming Arab ancestry, among them Lebanese, Iraqis and Yemenis. From Dearborn, the district extends south, to take in the working-class suburbs of Melvindale, Allen Park, Southgate, Riverview, Trenton, and Gibraltar.
Rep. John Conyers (D)
Elected: 1964, 23rd term.
Born: May 16, 1929, Detroit .
Education: Wayne St. U., B.A. 1957, LL.B. 1958.
Family: Married (Monica); 2 children.
Military career: National Guard, 1948-50; Army, 1950–54 (Korea), Army Reserves, 1954-57.
Professional Career: Legis. asst., U.S. Rep. John Dingell, 1958–61; Practicing atty., 1959–61; Referee, MI Workmen's Comp. Dept., 1961–63.
The congressman from the 14th District is John Conyers, the second most senior member of the House behind fellow Michigan Democrat, John Dingell, and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He is the first African-American to chair the important congressional committee. First elected in 1964, he was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and has been among the most liberal members of the House. The son of a left-wing UAW operative, he grew up in Detroit. He played cornet at Northwestern and Cass Technical High Schools and watched jazz greats at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. In 1987, he passed a resolution declaring “the sense of Congress that jazz is [a] rare and valuable American national treasure.” He served in the Army in Korea, practiced law and worked on the staff of a young John Dingell. Conyers was one of six blacks in the House when he was first elected in 1964, and the only one to take a militant approach to politics. He won his primary, in which 60,000 votes were cast, by 108 votes. Civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, who by then had moved to Detroit, worked in his 1964 campaign and then worked in his Detroit office until her retirement in 1988. Upon her death, he sponsored the resolution that she lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the first woman so honored. His response to the 1967 riots was to introduce the first bill for a guaranteed annual income. He sponsored the original Martin Luther King holiday bill just days after the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968, and he persevered until it passed in 1983. Since 1989, he has sponsored bills to establish a commission to examine slavery and its lingering effects, and to consider whether reparations should be paid to descendants of slaves. He opposed the most controversial elements of the crime bills of the past three decades and the welfare changes of the 1990s.
|John Conyers (D)||227,841||(92%)||($1,196,772)|
|Richard Secula (Lib)||10,732||(4%)|
|Clyde Shabazz (Green)||8,015||(3%)|
|John Conyers (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (85%), 2004 (84%), 2002 (83%), 2000 (89%), 1998 (87%), 1996 (86%), 1994 (82%), 1992 (82%), 1990 (89%), 1988 (91%), 1986 (89%), 1984 (89%), 1982 (97%), 1980 (95%), 1978 (93%), 1976 (92%), 1974 (91%), 1972 (88%), 1970 (88%), 1968 (100%), 1966 (84%), 1964 (84%)
In the early part of this decade, Conyers was the ranking minority member of Judiciary and worked hand-in-hand with the Republican chairman, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, on anti-terrorism legislation in the tense weeks after the September 11 attacks. They agreed that the government could detain immigrants suspected of terrorism without bringing charges, but only for seven days, and they introduced the anti-terrorism bill together. In April 2002, Sensenbrenner got Conyers’s support for splitting the Immigration and Naturalization Service into two agencies by agreeing to add counsel positions. Over time, Conyers displayed an ability to work with Sensenbrenner on a number of issues, despite the extreme ideological differences between the liberal Conyers and the conservative Sensenbrenner. In 2006, they passed through committee an amendment to prohibit telecommunications and cable companies from blocking or degrading Internet services. Conyers opposed the Iraq War resolution in 2002, and he co-sponsored New York Democrat Charles Rangel’s bill to reinstitute the military draft and then, along with Rangel, voted against it on the floor. The exercise was their way of suggesting the war was going to consume more of America’s troop strength than the Bush administration was willing to admit.
Conyers is the only member of the House ever to have served on two committees handling presidential impeachment, in 1974 and 1998. In May 1972, a month before the Watergate burglary, he called for impeaching Republican President Nixon because of his conduct of the Vietnam War. Later, as the hearings on Democrat Clinton’s impeachment opened in 1998, Conyers, the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, performed ably. For all his criticisms of Clinton, Conyers rallied behind him and managed to craft an alternative investigation resolution that gave Clinton supporters a rallying point. In December 2005, he called on Congress to censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney for misleading Congress and the American people on the rationale for invading Iraq and called for creation of a special committee to investigate. Later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in an effort to calm partisan tensions after the 2006 elections, said that impeachment would not be considered by the new Democratic majority.
Ascending to Judiciary Committee chairman in 2007, after Democrats won control of the House, Conyers examined the Bush presidency, including alleged abuse of presidential signing statements that went beyond the terms of the legislation. However, he drew criticism from liberal and anti-war activists who wanted to continue the pressure for impeachment proceedings, including Rep. Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio liberal who ran for president in 2008. But Conyers did not shrink from legal action against the White House in other matters. He pushed contempt charges against Bush White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former Counsel Harriet Miers after they refused to give sworn testimony to his committee about the firings of U.S. attorneys across the country for alleged political reasons. During heated debate to extend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which some feared was resulting in government eavesdropping on innocent Americans, Conyers sought measures to curb secret surveillance. He also sponsored a bill to end racial profiling. He successfully led opposition to a proposal for land transfers to allow two Indian tribes to open casinos in Michigan that would have competed with those in Detroit. Taking a hand in the huge government bailout of the financial sector in 2008, Conyers pushed to allow bankruptcy judges to lower mortgage rates or the principal for homeowners who go bankrupt.
Over the years, Conyers—described by the Detroit News as “part showman, part junkyard dog, part evangelist”—has been re-elected mostly without difficulty. He made two runs for mayor of Detroit, in 1989 and 1993. But he ran a desultory campaign the first time and almost no campaign the second, and came in far behind. During his long congressional tenure, he had two serious primary opponents in the 1994 House race, but finished well ahead of both, with 51% of the vote. He was an early supporter of Barack Obama for president.
In recent years, he has been the subject of negative news stories at home. In 2003, the Detroit Free Press reported that Conyers assigned his congressional staff to work on his political campaigns and also made them run personal errands and baby-sit his two children. In 2006, the House Ethics Committee concluded an investigation of the allegations by saying Conyers must take “a number of additional, significant steps to ensure that his office complies with all rules and standards regarding campaign and personal work by congressional staff.” Then, in June 2009, his wife, Detroit City Council President Pro Tem Monica Conyers, pleaded guilty to taking bribes for helping a company called Synagro Technologies get a sludge-hauling contract with the city.