After days of speculation, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has decided to retire effective immediately, an announcement that he made live on The Mildred Gaddis Show in Detroit on Tuesday.
Conyers insists that he is retiring because of his doctor’s advice that the 88-year-old—the longest-serving member of Congress—cannot handle the rigors of another campaign. According to the radio interview, this retirement is totally not about the myriad accusations that Conyers ran his congressional office like a personal dating service, engaging in consensual and not-so-consensual acts with subordinates, in addition to doling out perks and punishments on a whim.
What Conyers is accused of doing, to several women, is disgusting and worthy of condemnation, full stop. However, given the behavior of many other members of Congress, let alone recent allegations against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), you have to wonder whether there is a double standard regarding who harasses whom and how they’re held accountable.
Marian Brown, a former staffer of Conyers’, has come forth accusing Conyers of sexual harassment from 2003 to 2014, when she worked on his staff. She claimed that he wrongfully terminated her in 2014 for refusing his advances, and the congressman’s office finally settled the suit in 2015. He wanted me to be “his side piece,” she claimed in an interview for the Detroit Free Press earlier this week. Brown isn’t the only woman coming forward to accuse Conyers—she just happens to be the only one who’s gone public.
What distinguishes the Conyers situation from, say, Franken’s, or those of the dozens of other Congress members behaving badly we’ve heard about over the years, is age, finances and race. First, Conyers has been in Congress longer than anyone else, and many members, even Democrats, have simply wondered if it wasn’t time for the 88-year-old to finally retire and let some new blood into the Congressional Black Caucus.
This is a train of logic that makes no sense to Lauren Victoria Burke, a White House reporter and editor of the Crew of 42 blog, about the CBC.
“Everyone thinks wheeling these older members in here [in wheelchairs] is cute, but not when they’re black,” Burke said. “I remember when it was [Sen.] Strom Thurmond [R-S.C.]; no one ever said it was time for him to go, and he was a serial sexual harasser.”
The other issue that may have led to Conyer’s resignation is the money he used to settle with his accuser. While there were rumors circulating around the internet that there was some sort of congressional “slush fund” for wayward members to pay off their mistresses and abused employees, that’s not necessarily what happened with Conyers. He paid Marion Brown’s settlement (a “mere” $27,000, considering some of the other payouts) out of his own congressional office budget, which is perfectly legal but unseemly. The behavior he was accused of was bad enough, but paying for it with tax dollars, as opposed to out of his own pockets, is a bad look all around.
Now that Conyers is stepping down, it mmediately opens up the door for what will be an interesting and possibly confusing race within one of the most influential political families in Michigan. While in many cases an official’s spouse may run to replace them, the congressman’s wife, Monica (who was born in 1965, the same year John Conyers was first elected to Congress), is a nonstarter. She’s known to get into fights with eighth-graders and confuse City Council members with big green ogres, and she’s served 27 months in jail on bribery charges.
During the radio interview, the congressman said that he will endorse his son John Conyers III to run for his seat, a mere days after Ian Conyers, his great-nephew, announced that he will run in Michigan’s 13th District. A special election date has not yet been set, but it’s likely to occur sometime early next year, before the 2018 congressional primaries.
Is there a double standard here between how Conyers was treated by his Democratic colleagues and how Franken has been treated? Most definitely. However, there are some slight and not-so-slight differences between their situations. Most of Franken’s accusers speak to behavior before he was in office, and none of his accusers currently work in Congress. Unlike Conyers, Franken is in the Senate, and while Minnesota is a pretty safe Democratic seat, the party margins in the Senate make Franken more valuable to Democrats in Washington, D.C., than one seat in the House of Representatives, where the GOP margin is huge.
Also, Franken is an older white guy who was a founding writer at Saturday Night Live, and Conyers is an older black guy who was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. It was always pretty clear which one of these two would be shown the door by Democrats first, regardless of what’s fair or equitable.
“I’ve seen too much; there are so many members who’ve done what Conyers is accused of,” says Burke, discussing Conyers’ impending resignation last week. “I don’t like double standards—and that’s what this is. If I were John Conyers’ staff, I would’ve said, ‘I’ll resign for sexual harassment when Donald Trump does!’ And left it at that.”
Conyers didn’t decide to hold on to his position in defiance and anger. In fact, his interview with Gaddis was somewhat confusing and meandering. However, two things are for sure: John Conyers is leaving Congress after over 50 years of service, and more likely than not, somebody with the name “Conyers” is going to replace him.