Young State Lawmaker Eyes Primary Challenge
Veteran Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said Wednesday he is hoping that a young state Senator will change his mind about challenging him in the August Democratic primary.
State Sen. Buzz Thomas (D), 34, filed to run against Conyers just before Tuesday’s filing deadline, setting up a potentially explosive intergenerational primary fight.
Conyers, who has served in Congress longer than Thomas has been alive, said he considers the state lawmaker a legitimate threat.
“He’s a respected member of the state Legislature,” said Conyers, who turns 75 on Sunday. “He served in the House and the Senate in the state. He’s very effective so I have to consider him as a serious challenger.”
After vacillating back and forth about whether to run against the 20-term Congressman, Thomas waited until the final moments to file his candidacy papers for the Detroit-based seat. But he made no public announcement and has been mum since — refusing to return repeated calls from Roll Call over the past few days.
Several observers of Detroit politics said that Thomas, who does not have to sacrifice his Senate seat to run for Congress this year, may simply be trying to place himself at the head of the line of potential successors when Conyers eventually does retire.
“He’s got everything to gain and nothing to lose by running,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a political newsletter.
“The name recognition is the key to Detroit’s politics,” said Wilbur Rich, a political science professor at Weslyan University and biographer of Detroit’s first black mayor, Coleman Young. “Everybody’s trying to get in the queue to see who’s going to take that spot.”
But Thomas and the Conyers family also have a history. Term-limited from the state House in 2002, Thomas ran for an open state Senate seat in a Democratic primary against the Congressman’s wife, Monica Conyers.
In a four-candidate field, Thomas got 54 percent of the vote, and Monica Conyers took 36 percent.
While the nomination fight was not particularly nasty, Thomas spent upwards of $120,000 on the primary “and really had to sweat blood to win it,” Ballenger said.
Thomas may also have his sights set on Congress because he recently lost a battle to become the No. 2 Democrat in the state Senate, which would have set him up as the likely future Senate Democratic leader.
Conyers said that while he believes contested primaries are part of the process, others in the state were taken aback by Thomas’ challenge.
“People are in some degree of shock by his decision,” he said. “There are various stages of shock.”
A primary between Conyers and Thomas would certainly be a study in contrasts, and not just because the two are so far apart in age. Conyers and his family have a long background in left-wing Michigan politics. His father was one of the early black leaders of the United Auto Workers.
Thomas, the great-grand-nephew of the first black ever elected to the Michigan Legislature, is a former homebuilder who touts his business background and has made technology one of the key components of his political appeal.
After being dominated by figures like Young and Conyers for decades, Detroit politics is well into a generational changing of the guard. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick — son of Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D) — is only in his 30s, and several younger elected officials are said to be eyeing Conyers’ seat whenever he decides to move on.
The list of potential future candidates includes state Sen. Hansen Clarke, state Rep. Kenneth Daniels, state Rep. Tupac Hunter, state Rep. Bill McConico, and Detroit City Councilwoman Sharon McPhail, whose daughter is a former Conyers staffer.
All are black Democrats. The 14th district is about 61 percent black.
Conyers said he remains hopeful that Thomas will decide to withdraw by Friday’s deadline for getting out of the race.
“We have candles burning in every religious institution in the state,” he quipped.
If the race proceeds, Conyers, despite having just $99,000 in his campaign account as of March 31, would be the favorite, given his seniority and stature as the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member.
“That job is just too valuable for a guy that age to take it,” Rich said of the prospect of Thomas trying to wrest Conyers’ seat from him. Thomas “looks like he just got out of high school.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Conyers has nothing to worry about, adding that CBC members would strongly get behind their colleague if there is a primary.
“Anyone who wants to challenge him, and they have the right to do so, I can assure you that trying to defeat him would be like trying to go up a mountain of ice on skates,” Cummings said.
But even though Conyers admits he’s uneasy about the prospect of a Democratic primary fight, the veteran lawmaker insisted he’s not pulling out of the race.
“Unemployment is a dismal prospect for me,” he said.