Much of Washington assumes John Conyers III will almost certainly replace his father, John Conyers Jr., who resigned late last year. John Conyers III apparently thinks so, too.
“I recognize my name is John Conyers III, so I didn’t fundraise at all in the first quarter,” he told The Intercept. John Conyers Jr. first won the Detroit-area seat in Congress in 1964, serving a legendary stretch until he was forced to resign amid sexual harassment allegations.
John Conyers III, who has the endorsement of his father, later clarified in a follow-up interview that he was focused on gathering signatures to get on the ballot ahead of an April 24 filing deadline, and that he hasn’t had time to make fundraising calls.”I don’t want to make excuses, but I wouldn’t ask people to collect signatures if I weren’t also doing it myself,” said John Conyers III, who announced his candidacy for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District in February.
When he does start making calls, he may find that another Conyers has already been on the line. Ian Conyers, a state senator and the grandnephew of the retired congressional representative, is also running for the seat and raised just over $88,000 in the first quarter of the year, according to the latest Federal Election Commission records.
But after more than a half-century of being represented by a Conyers, the family may be fighting for second place.
A former state representative, community activist, and attorney, Rashida Tlaib, hauled in almost $589,000 in the first three months of this year, FEC records show, giving her a real chance to come out on top in the crowded primary. Tlaib is running on a progressive platform and won the endorsement in March of the Justice Democrats.
The notion that a Conyers will waltz into the seat ignores the way in which the last Conyers walked out — driven from office by a sexual harassment scandal. Conyers himself may be iconic for his decades of work on behalf of civil rights and social justice, but his family’s name carries more baggage than merely his forced resignation. His wife, Monica Conyers, was released from federal prison in 2012, after serving time for a conviction related to a bribery scandal that arose during her time on the Detroit City Council. Tlaib thinks she can overcome the family name.
“Back home, Conyers is not considered in the lead at all or kind of relevant in some ways, and I think here in D.C. it seems like, ‘Oh, it must be a shoo-in,’” Tlaib said. “A lot of folks, outside especially of the city of Detroit, are kind of tired of this so-called approach of inheriting the seat, and they want people to earn a seat.”
John Conyers III has so far built only a skeleton of a campaign. He announced his candidacy in February, and though he’s posted about his campaign on his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, his blog features only his campaign announcement, and his website does not yet have any information. (His Instagram bio reads, “just trying to be the @beyonce of politics.”) “My primary and singular focus has been to make sure that I have my name on the ballot,” he said. “After April 24, that is when you will see the website go up, campaign slogan, and all that.”
Conyers said he will focus on the issues that he thinks matter most to the people of the district, which comprises 12 cities, including parts of Detroit: access to income (at least a $15 minimum wage), access to education (including by subsidizing college education), and mental wellness advocacy (including by putting counselors in schools who know “how to unpack trauma that’s unique to black and brown bodies,” noting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has carried out raids in the heavily Latino district).
At 27 years old, John Conyers III has no prior political experience, but he thinks his youth is an advantage, saying that it’s time people of his generation “step up to the plate.” It’s long been his plan to run for office, he said, and he used to spend time on Capitol Hill, sitting in on meetings of the House Judiciary Committee, when his father was the top-ranking Democrat. “People don’t know that my father was going to retire in 2020, and I was going to run then,” the candidate said. “But things happened as they happened, and I’m running now.”
He hasn’t been asked about his father’s exit from Congress or his mother’s criminal history when talking to people about his campaign, he said. The candidate himself was arrested last year on suspicion of domestic violence (prosecutors declined to charge him, and he told The Intercept that the accusation was not true), but constituents haven’t asked about that either, he said.
He doesn’t take his name for granted, he added. “My name is John Conyers III, and that might mean that I can do things a little differently, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to show up or campaign.” He’s raised about $3,000 so far, he told The Intercept, a combination of money from his parents, himself, and a few people who reached out and said they wanted to donate.
The presence of two Conyerses in the race threatens to split that portion of the vote. “It’ll be a very dynamic race,” said Ian Conyers. He said that as he goes around the district campaign, he doesn’t hear much about the unpleasant way his great uncle left office. “It’s more focused on all that’s been done and the concern of losing a fighter for civil rights and economic justice — someone who’s going to be there for the long run,” he said.
Ian Conyers, who is in his 20s, is making his young age central to his campaign — he noted that he went to Georgetown with the also-youthful Jon Ossoff, a failed 2017 Democratic candidate in a Georgia special election — arguing that by getting into office now, he’ll be able to build up the seniority he would need to be able to direct federal resources back to the district, which is one of the poorest in the country. “As Democrats, we build by seniority, but not by merit,” he noted.
He added that Ian/John III confusion hasn’t been an issue. “I think there’s enough local knowledge of who’s who, though it’s probably hard to see that from a national level,” he said.
The race is unusual because a special election to replace the outgoing Rep. John Conyers will be the same day as the primary for the 2018 cycle. Candidates can be on both ballots and, theoretically, could lose one and win another on the same day. (Although without enough valid signatures, a candidate won’t make the ballot at all.)
Bill Wild, mayor of the town of Westland in suburban Detroit, is also making a bid, though fundraising records are so far unavailable. Wild threatens to further split the vote, and could gobble up a chunk of the progressive, suburban vote that might have otherwise gone to the Conyers legacy on name recognition and reputation alone. Wild’s campaign website does not include any information on his platform; it simply features an email list and a call for campaign donations. His campaign did not return multiple requests for comment.
So far, only two other candidates have filed financial records with the FEC: Michael Gilmore, who raised about $37,000 in the first quarter, and state Sen. Coleman Young II, who’s brought in about $16,000.
These dynamics could create just enough of a path for Tlaib to emerge on top in the August 7 primary. She built up a grassroots base with her community work and as a state representative, making a name for herself by getting billionaire Matty Moroun, who owns the controversial Ambassador Bridge between Detroit and Windsor, jailed — if only for a day — and organizing pushback against the dumping of Canadian oil waste in Detroit.
She has a plausible claim to being the most progressive candidate in the race. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., has been campaigning with his fellow progressive Muslim candidate. As deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, however, Ellison doesn’t endorse in competitive primaries. He also has a long history with Conyers and is now carrying his “Medicare for All” bill. Still, his public appearances with Tlaib make his preference in the race clear.
In March, Tlaib came to Washington hoping to win the endorsement of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, formerly chaired by Ellison, though doing so will be a challenge given Conyers’s legacy. (The Intercept interviewed Tlaib on camera at the CPC PAC’s headquarters.)
If elected, Tlaib would be the first American-Muslim woman in Congress. The grassroots support she has from the Michigan communities she has served is bolstered by the support she is seeing from Muslims across the country. (At least three other Muslim women are running this year: Fayrouz Saad, in Michigan’s 11th District; Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, in Massachusetts’s 1st District; and Deedra Abboud, vying for a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona.)
“It’s been kind of inspiring to hear from American Muslims around the country that — it’s a huge pressure on me — getting elected means they’re welcome here, that getting elected means he’s wrong,” Tlaib said, referring to President Donald Trump. “There’s people that are getting involved in our campaign that have never been involved before.”
Tlaib has been endorsed by Emgage PAC, a political group that focuses on American Muslims, and she has held multiple fundraisers with Muslim communities across the country, tapping into an energy Ellison created after he was the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006. “Rashida and others going to other states to raise money from the Muslim community for their campaigns is actually something that was trail-blazed by Congressman Keith Ellison,” said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who spoke to The Intercept in a personal capacity and not on behalf of CAIR.
Ellison’s candidacy gave hope to the American-Muslim community, Walid added, “that if we could get one Muslim in Congress, that it would pave the way for others, to encourage others to run for political office.”
Tlaib is looking to donors outside Michigan because it would be difficult to raise $1 million in the district, which largely comprises working- and middle-class families, she said. Her supporters include an “American-Muslim woman in Ocala — she’s incredible — another sister in southern California, but also Muslims in New Jersey have reached out,” Tlaib said. “I think as people are hearing about me, more and more American Muslims are really excited and want to contribute.”
Still, Tlaib’s appeal as a candidate has much more to do with her service to her constituents over the years than her religious identity, said Walid, noting that the voters who elected and re-elected her to the Michigan House were predominately not Muslim.
“There are Muslims who are supporting Rashida, but a large number of people who are supporting her campaign on the ground are people who are not Muslim, and that’s the only way she could get elected to begin with,” said Walid, who met Tlaib 13 years ago, when she was an immigrants’ rights advocate at ACCESS, a Dearborn-based community organization. “She can’t be the Muslim candidate in that congressional district — she has to be the most viable candidate in that district who just happens to be Palestinian-American and Muslim.”