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.”
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.
“I’m a supporter of John Conyers over what’s-his-name,” said Ellis Martin, 49, a disabled transit driver.
Nonetheless, there’s an underlying sentiment among even his most strident supporters that Conyers might want to consider leaving on his own terms.
“I think he’s 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 it’s time.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.