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John Conyers: Still Made in Detroit

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

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.

Theres unintended subtext in the civil rights icons 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 Im scared for him.

The redrawn 13th district in which Conyers is running includes ample new territory in the citys 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 thats 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.

Im up against the most active competition Ive had in a primary in recent memory, Conyers said Monday. Ill think about passing the torch after I get re-elected.


Detroit isnt ugly; its 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 its 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 whos going to change.

As for the primary, I hopefully wont 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.

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, youre supposed to be able to say that. But its 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. Andersons 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, its often not for a good reason.

Hes 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. Its 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 Unions picnic.

Ive never lost yet, he said in a brief interview. Im not taking anything for granted. You cant do that in this kind of volatile electoral climate that were in.

But Democrats said they are only starting to see Conyers ramp up these types of appearances. His critics charge its 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 hasnt kept up with the times, his campaign aides reply thats not how Conyers wins.

Our goal is to keep the candidate visible, explained Ed Sarpolus, Conyers campaign director. You cant switch what people expect him to do. Hes 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 wifes jail sentence for corruption charges, for example.

Im a supporter of John Conyers over whats-his-name, said Ellis Martin, 49, a disabled transit driver.

Nonetheless, theres an underlying sentiment among even his most strident supporters that Conyers might want to consider leaving on his own terms.

I think hes going to make it, but this should be his last time, said Ted Ruff, an 81-year-old from Detroit. I think he did a great job while he was there. I just think its time.

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