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Detroit Free Press Acknowledges Conyers' Work, Pretends Majority Positions Are "Fringe"
Conyers rises to take on Bush
BY RUBY L. BAILEY
FREE PRESS WASHINGTON STAFF
September 10, 2005
WASHINGTON -- At age 76, U.S. Rep. John Conyers -- long a hero to civil rights activists -- has grabbed a new torch: darling of the antiwar, anti-Bush far left.
Conyers, arguably President George W. Bush's harshest congressional critic on Iraq policy, openly proclaims that his goal is nothing short of impeaching the president.
That kind of rhetoric is fueled by his embrace of the Downing Street memos -- the eight British intelligence reports that activists from Rochester Hills to London believe are the smoking gun that proves Bush misled Congress about the case for war against Iraq.
Conyers, who is expected to speak outside the White House at a Sept. 24 antiwar rally, has had his staff feverishly working to complete a comprehensive report about the memos -- something he knows many of his colleagues won't read.
"It was only a few people who dared to first join Martin Luther King," he said in an interview last week of his small but growing support in Congress. "The mood is changing. I don't have any intention of stopping now."
In July, Conyers hosted a meeting about the memos at Wayne State University. Many of the 300 people, including Bruce Felt of Rochester Hills, said they came to see Conyers.
"He's my hero," said Felt, 50, who began following Conyers after the congressman investigated voting irregularities in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election. "He's the only one speaking truth."
Conyers is familiar with the political fringe: It's been his comfort zone over four decades in Congress. The second most senior member of the House, however, Conyers is a stark contrast to its most senior, Democrat John Dingell, whose district abuts Conyers' district. Dingell has forged bipartisan compromises and demands respect and gets it.
Republicans regard Conyers as more of a curiosity who has legendary problems with his staff and an awful attendance record, and is the sponsor of odd resolutions -- like National Tap Dance Day. (In 1989, it failed.)
"Some parts of his district don't see the world the way Congressman Conyers does," said Nate Bailey, spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party. "We have real issues to face and he's tracking down some British memo about a conflict that's been going on a couple of years."
Still, Republicans have posed little threat to his congressional career. His district was extended into a handful of Downriver suburbs after the 2000 census but is still overwhelmingly Democratic. He won in 2004 with 84% of the vote in the general election.
Those kinds of numbers -- and he's enjoyed them throughout his career -- allow Conyers to often behave more like the at-large representative of America's poor and dispossessed than the senior Democrat from Detroit. (Though the roles are hardly mutually exclusive.)
"After 40 years, the verdict is still out," Norm Ornstein, political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., said of Conyers. Ornstein has followed Conyers' political career since meeting him in 1970.
"Some Democrats said he's been a very effective leader as their ranking Democrat" on the House Judiciary Committee, said Ornstein. "But with the career path that he's chosen, he's hard to assess."
In recent months, Downing Street has been driving Conyers' international persona. When the controversy made headlines in London, Conyers began exchanging ideas with left-wing activists around the world on Internet blogs.
Earlier this summer, he announced plans for a hearing on the memos, but the House Republican leadership turned him down. He was relegated to a tiny basement room on Capitol Hill, and the meeting wasn't granted hearing status.
For added measure, Republicans added an unheard-of 33 roll call votes that Conyers missed while conducting his Downing Street discussion.
After the forum, Conyers headed to the White House with 500,000 letters petitioning Bush to answer more questions about the memos. The White House sent a low-level aide to meet Conyers, take the petitions and send him on his way.
Conyers didn't care about the slight. He got 128 Democrats to sign his letter to the president.
"I'm the one that's been driving this thing, man," Conyers said.
In the moment, usually
One thing about Conyers that's not debatable: He has a great sense of the moment.
Last week, he was front and center days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the gulf coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He offered an amendment to exempt hurricane victims from a new law that makes it harder to escape debts by declaring bankruptcy.
Four days after the 1968 death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Conyers sponsored the first bill calling for a holiday for the slain civil rights activist.
He also has cosponsored a constitutional amendment that would allow Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat born in Canada, and any other naturalized citizen (such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican) to run for president after 20 years of citizenship.
But for every brilliant move, there's a dud.
In 2003, he missed more votes during the first seven months in office than any other House lawmaker except U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., according to nonpartisan vote-tracking services.
His staff turnover is extreme. His office budget is often exhausted by December, forcing him to make employees take unpaid leave headed into the holiday season.
He has been under a House Ethics Committee inquiry that followed a 2003 Free Press report that alleged his staffers worked on political campaigns on congressional time.
Last year, his Detroit office lost turkeys intended for holiday delivery to poor people. He said it was a staff error that was corrected.
In 2001, with Detroit's hospitals struggling to survive financial crises, Conyers held hearings on the closing of D.C. General Hospital in Washington.
Every year since 1989, he has introduced a bill to create a commission to study whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of slaves. And every year, it's gone nowhere.
He doesn't report just to Detroit
If Democrats should regain a majority in the House in the 2006 elections, Conyers stands to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee, a powerful position.
But if that never happens his supporters won't turn away.
"Nobody cares about investigations or turkeys," said Alberto Clemmons, 43, a Detroit entrepreneur who attended the Wayne State event in July. "I judge Congressman Conyers by what he's done in the past year. And he's done more than most."
They see the role of at-large representative to the nation's dispossessed as heroic.
"We could not afford local Congress people" who didn't speak for poor people and minorities in communities across the nation, said Howard University Assistant Provost Alvin Thornton, who worked in Conyers' office during the early 1980s. "He had to be the congressman of Alabama, the congressman of Georgia."
Reflecting on the juggling act of representing his constituents in Detroit and across the country, Conyers said he thinks he's doing just fine.
"It's a balance," he said. "For 40 years I've been balancing sufficiently well."
History will judge whether Downing Street is just another odd entry into the long career of a sometimes brilliant, often distracted congressman.
Or something bigger.
"This is a guy that has challenged the most powerful people in our country and in our world, for that matter," said Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "He carries an awful lot of water."
Contact RUBY L. BAILEY at 202-383-6036 or bailey@freepress .com.