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John Conyers: Still Made in Detroit

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

As Anderson drives through the streets there on Friday afternoon, he grips the wheel of his Ford SUV. At least two homes on every block are burned through. Stray fires destroyed these former drug havens or, in rare cases, neighbors committed acts of arson to prevent squatters.

“I know a lot of politicians who say they know exactly what to do,” Anderson said. “I know, as a politician, you’re supposed to be able to say that. But it’s absurd, the poverty.”

Anderson recalled riding along through the neighborhood with a police officer a few years ago. Residents gave them  thumbs up as they passed; they were so pleased to see an officer on their streets.

But these neighborhoods are not Conyers’ biggest problem in the Democratic primary. Anderson’s base of suburban Westland lies on the western side of the new 13th district. He will also run strong in nearby Garden City and Romulus.

In this predominantly Caucasian area, the spacious strip malls are filled with chain stores. Conyers has campaigned minimally in these suburbs.

As a result, if voters are familiar with Conyers, it’s often not for a good reason.

“He’s too old. Can I get this guy to cook?” said Bill Skotanis, the owner of the Olympic Coney Island, gesturing to an elderly man at the diner counter. “It’s exactly the same with Conyers. He ought to go enjoy his life.”

Candidate of the Street

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Conyers comes alone, unannounced, to campaign at Belle Isle, a green oasis on the Detroit River. Dressed in suspenders and shiny black patent-leather shoes, the Congressman holds court by the disc jockey and blaring speakers at a Service Employees International Union’s picnic.

“I’ve never lost yet,” he said in a brief interview. “I’m not taking anything for granted. You can’t do that in this kind of volatile electoral climate that we’re in.”

But Democrats said they are only starting to see Conyers ramp up these types of appearances. His critics charge it’s a sign of his less-than-modern campaign.

As of Wednesday afternoon, he had not started to air ads on Detroit broadcast television. His campaign website still pictured his current district instead of the redrawn 13th. He missed a Thursday night debate, a common occurrence, his opponents say. He made several public appearances over the weekend, but his staff only formally announced a Monday morning press conference.

In response to the criticism that his operation hasn’t kept up with the times, his campaign aides reply that’s not how Conyers wins.

“Our goal is to keep the candidate visible,” explained Ed Sarpolus, Conyers’ campaign director. “You can’t switch what people expect him to do. He’s a candidate of the street. And not just the safe neighborhoods — the neighborhoods.”

One by one, adoring supporters approach him at the SEIU event. They address him as a living legend. As he listened to them, he swept back his thinning hair with his right palm.  

For the most part, these Democrats are willing to overlook his political and personal woes — his wife’s jail sentence for corruption charges, for example.

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