The race to succeed U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., who until his recent retirement announcement faced allegations of sexual harassment from former staffers, is off to a bad start.
The sibling rivalry playing out publicly before our eyes makes it look as if we are headed to probate court with an executor or an administrator of the Conyers estate.
The simmering tug of war between John Conyers III and his cousin state Sen. Ian Conyers began Tuesday — the day Conyers announced his immediate retirement from Congress — about who will replace the congressman. It did not help matters the elder Conyers endorsed his son John III as the heir apparent for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.
The surprising move goes against the grain of participatory democracy and political equality that the congressman himself has fought for over the years, insisting that the people ought to decide on their representation and that the electorate should make the equitable decisions regarding their well-being.
He championed with extraordinary flair many causes that centrally focused on the exercise of political power and the need for the will of the people to not be superseded by anyone. That the notion of freedom also means allowing the people to freely make their own choices and arrive at their own conclusions without telling them who to support. That has been the hallmark of Conyers as a stalwart of democracy and the Constitution.
That is why he has been one of the most forceful voices in Congress for safeguarding the interest of minorities and others who have been historically excluded from participating in the electoral franchise.
That is part of the reason why Conyers is regarded in the civil rights community as one of the last remaining vital members of the Moses generation — the generation that ended Jim Crow and fought for African-Americans to have the right to vote.
But in as much as Conyers retains the right to declare his choice to take his seat, it is ironic that he would do so as opposed to submitting to the will of the people who have kept him in office.
The result of his decision is also going to heighten what potentially could be a nasty family battle. But democracy demands that succession should not be based on inheritance and no one has an automatic birthright to the seat.
The 13th Congressional District race should be open to anyone who is eminently qualified to run for the seat. The race should be based on the merits of the candidates and not on name recognition.
Voting solely on name recognition could simply be seen as an another way of subverting the democratic process. People sometimes feel cornered or obliged to vote for a certain candidate because of his or her family name as opposed to their positions on policy issues, life experiences — including their body of work.
“We must do all we can to listen to all interested candidates who request our consideration for support. I hope people who are toying with the idea of running for the seat, do a lot of soul-searching,” said Jonathan Kinloch, chairman of the 13th Congressional District Democratic Party.
Kinloch believes the seat is a coveted one and anyone who is planning on running should be able to prove their mettle.
Lavonnia Perryman, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus, agrees.
“A successful candidate will need to be a unique individual with a strong skill set, understanding both the governmental and constituency aspect of the job,” Perryman said. “They will need to be a serious and capable individual with a large heart for the people.”
It will be a tough act to follow Conyers, she said. Other possible contenders for the seat include state Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, Detroit City Council president Brenda Jones and Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, among others.
Two years ago, when Conyers became the first African American to serve as dean of Congress — a title given to the longest serving member in the legislative body — he told me, “We still have our work cut out for us when it comes to achieving real social and economic inclusion.”
He recalled how when he first went to Congress in 1965 there were fewer than 10 black members of the House. Today that number is more than 40.
“I have worked successfully to pass legislation to create the Martin Luther King holiday, reduce egregious sentencing disparities, expand protections against hate crimes, prevent and punish violence against women and to help bring tens of millions of Americans access to healthcare, help accelerate the recovery from the Great Recession, help prevent and end unjust wars abroad,” Conyers said at the time.
And about receiving the endorsement of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Conyers said: “Dr. King’s endorsement was, without a doubt, one of the greatest honors of my life. Far from a burden, it’s been a ‘North Star’ for me as I’ve navigated tumultuous waters of politics and policy over the last 50 years.”
“I’ve tried to stay true to his mission of striving not only for political and social equality but also economic equality and full employment.”
The sexual allegations aside, Conyers has been a consequential member of Congress.
To find his successor requires a rigorous search for the best candidate, not just anyone who bears the Conyers name. His district deserves to make that call without undue influence.
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