DETROIT— Seated in a front-row pew on Sunday, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) gazed up at the longtime friend he called to help him campaign for a 25th term.
“The living bridge between Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] and Barack Obama is John Conyers,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson proclaimed to a black congregation of about 3,000 people.
There’s unintended subtext in the civil rights icon’s words: Politics has transitioned to a new generation of leaders. They crossed the bridge.
But at 83 years old, Conyers faces the toughest primary of his Congressional career on Tuesday.
Democrats expect that he will survive based on his near-universal name identification. But his challenge punctuates a transition in a city that has experienced monumental change during his 48-year tenure.
“His production days are limited,” said Michelle Ashford, a 60-year-old retired bank teller and supporter of the lawmaker. “Conyers’ name is just an awesome name, but I’m scared for him.”
The redrawn 13th district in which Conyers is running includes ample new territory in the city’s western middle-class suburbs. State Sen. Glenn Anderson (D), who is white, hails from that part of the redrawn district. A couple of urban candidates will siphon black votes away from Conyers’ base, allowing Anderson to give the Congressman his toughest primary in a generation.
As part of his final primary push, Conyers is implementing an intense version of the strategy that’s delivered at least 77 percent of the general election vote for almost 50 years. He banks on turning out urban precincts by bringing in his closest allies and civil rights leaders such as Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and his Congressional Black Caucus colleagues.
But campaigns have changed in the past 50 years, and so has Detroit and his district — drastically.
“I’m up against the most active competition I’ve had in a primary in recent memory,” Conyers said Monday. “I’ll think about passing the torch after I get re-elected.”
Detroit isn’t ugly; it’s just empty. No major city in this country has lost more population in the past decade, and it shows. Throughout the 13th district, continuous blocks of boarded-up and graffiti-covered storefronts line the main streets. On Sunday morning, cars fill the parking lots near the church but nowhere else.
The decline is the reason why it’s hard for Terry Carmichael, a 54-year-old tool architect, to vote for any incumbent, including Conyers. Carmichael spends hours mowing the lawns surrounding his Redford Township home to make it look like someone lives there.
“Are things getting better?” Carmichael asked. “I would vote for someone who’s going to change.”
As for the primary, “I hopefully won’t be here,” Carmichael said.
Brightmoor is a town just a couple of miles away, in Conyers’ current district. Fifty years ago, Brightmoor boomed as a vibrant middle-class neighborhood. More recently, a local newspaper dubbed it “Blightmoor.”