john conyers

Susan J. Demas: African-American Women Want Conyers’ Seat

The race to replace former Dean of the House John Conyers Jr., who angrily resigned in December after a series of sexual harassment allegations, promised to be a rollicking free-for-all.

And so far, it hasn’t disappointed.

When all is said and done, more than a dozen Democrats could appear on the August ballot for the Detroit-based 13th congressional seat. And to add to the confusion, many, if not all, will appear twice — once for the special election to fill the remainder of Conyers’ term and another for the next term starting in 2019.

So far, most attention has been on the two men named “Conyers” vying for the seat, but there’s another important story of African-American women yearning for more representation.

In its typical snarky style, Vice noted how Michigan’s penchant for dynasties could play a role in not just the open 13th, but the 9th district this year: “Lord Conyers of Highland Park [sic] has two relatives trying to replace him; and retiring Representative Sander Levin (brother of former Senator Carl Levin and resident of perfectly named Royal Oak) is trying to get his son Andy to win the nomination for his old seat.”

Right before tendering his resignation, Conyers endorsed his son, John Conyers III, a hedge fund manager and political novice. The scion’s campaign isn’t subtle — his committee is titled “Conyers to Conyers.” After his father’s historic civil rights career ended in scandal, the younger Conyers could bring more of the same to Congress, as he was busted for driving a taxpayer-funded Escalade and arrested in 2017 for domestic violence.

State Sen. Ian Conyers (D-Detroit), has also declared. The congressman’s great-nephew, who won a special election in 2016, was considered leadership material in the Legislature. He’s also been an ally of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, but failed to earn his blessing this time around.

Instead, Duggan, fresh off a thunderous re-election, just threw his weight behind Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, with whom he’s worked on rebuilding Detroit post-bankruptcy. They mayor’s early endorsement — before the field has even been set — sends a message to rivals and key organizations that Jones is the favorite. TV Judge Greg Mathis, who briefly flirted with a bid, is on board. Look for the UAW to follow suit.

Jones is a logical standard-bearer. She’s the former president of Communications Workers of America, Local 4004 and won the National Organization for Women’s Sojourner Truth Award. Jones has pledged to uphold Congressman Conyers’ civil rights legacy and fully restore the Voting Rights Act.

She would also join U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) as the second African-American member of Michigan’s congressional delegation (and, as it stands now, she’d be only the third woman). Many politicos, by the way, underestimated Lawrence in the open 14th primary back in 2014. Her longtime adviser, Christy Jensen, who’s one of the savviest Dems in Michigan, now works for Jones.

Two other African-American women have declared in the 13th and it’s no coincidence. They’ve been leading the resistance against President Trump, after 94 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In last year’s special Alabama U.S. Senate election, 98 percent of African-American women voted for Democrat Doug Jones, putting him over the top in the blood-red state.

“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said after the Alabama election.

But many black women still feel taken for granted. Many Democrats remain obsessed with winning back working-class white men and sneer at “identity politics.” There’s never been an African-American female governor in the nation. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is only the second black woman to serve in the body. And there are just 19 African-American women serving in the U.S. House.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), a former educator, is also running in the 13th. But she has some baggage as a fiery defender of Conyers and one of only 11 representatives to vote against a resolution calling for Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon to resign over the Dr. Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

Former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson (D-Detroit), who lost her primary bid to Conyers in 2012, is set to run again. She’ll face blowback for her job as director of government relations for the Moroun family’s Detroit International Bridge Company, whose business and environmental policies have long rankled progressives.

One of them is former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who just declared for the 13th and won’t be shy about banging on the Morouns or her other foes, like Duggan. She’s also a master at getting media attention. In 2016, more than a dozen protesters were tossed out of Trump’s speech at the Detroit Economic Club, but the only name anyone ever remembers is Tlaib’s.

She would be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. But although Tlaib won three terms representing a majority African-American district in the state House, it remains to be seen if she can muster the same support for a far larger congressional seat.

Everyone is always looking for political analysts to whip out their crystal ball and definitively declare winners. That’s always a recipe for folly.

That’s especially true in the diverse 13th, which features two concurrent elections with so many candidates and dynamics. Anyone who tells you they know how this one will end is lying.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Can Levin and Conyers Hand Down their Seats to their Sons?

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This is America, where we instinctively detest monarchies and political dynasties … until a dynamic scion catches our particular fancy.

For every Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton (who’s yet to even run for anything yet) that the political class bemoans as tiresome emblems of nepotism, there’s a George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Joseph Kennedy III whose political pedigree and charisma captures their hearts.

The difference between disdain and acclaim usually comes down to whether people believe a family-connected politician has earned his/her position and therefore the right to run for a more prestigious office. And that’s, of course, somewhat subjective.

Michigan has a fine tradition of rewarding powerful political families at the ballot box, including two members of Congress. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) succeeded his uncle, Dale Kildee, in the MI-5 in 2012 after serving as Genesee County treasurer and founding the nonprofit Center for Community Progress.

Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) was elected to the MI-12 in 2014 after the retirement of her husband, former Dean of the House John Dingell Jr. (who had succeeded his father, John Dingell Sr.). Mrs. Dingell has been a Democratic National committeewoman, Wayne State Board of Governors chair and longtime Democratic fundraiser.

It’s safe to say that the extensive résumés of both Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee would put them in the “worthy” category of familially linked politicians, although the former is derided more than the latter (which naturally isn’t uncommon for women).

But even if you disagree, consider the fact that neither of them have faced any real competition in their respective Democratic primaries, even though there are plenty of ambitious politicians (often stunted by term limits) who would have run in a heartbeat if they thought they had a chance. So if Kildee and Dingell were just riding their families’ coattails with no significant accomplishments of their own, you can bet they would have had to overcome serious rivals.

For the last week, political nepotism has been back in the news, thanks to two other Michigan members of Congress who announced they’re stepping down. There’s Sandy Levin (D-Southfield), who will next year under favorable circumstances, and John Conyers (D-Detroit), who left this week in shame amid several women accusing him of sexual harassment.

Conyers has declared he wants his son, John Conyers III, to succeed him in the MI-13, while his great-nephew, state Sen. Ian Conyers (D-Detroit) is almost certainly expected to run. Even Conyers’ once-estranged wife, Monica Conyers, has been mentioned as a candidate, even though she went to prison over a bribery scandal when she was on the Detroit City Council.

It’s pretty clear that Monica Conyers has no business running — having a felon replace her scandal-plagued husband would send a terrible message. Their son, John Conyers III, got busted for driving a taxpayer-funded Escalade and is a 9/11 truther (as a prolific social media user, he also tweeted in 2010 that his dad is a “f------ player and reckless as hell.”) It’s safe to say that if his surname wasn’t Conyers, no one would take him seriously as a candidate.

His cousin, Ian Conyers, hasn’t put in decades in politics like Kildee and Dingell did — he’s only 29. But he’s been a congressional aide, worked on President Obama’s 2012 re-election and was elected to the state Senate in 2016. Conyers is a serious candidate, but not so formidable to chase off other Dems. He’ll have to fight his way through a crowded primary next year.

Meanwhile, Levin — who’s the brother of former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin — has long wanted his son, Andy Levin, to take his place in the MI-9. When the younger Levin revealed right before Thanksgiving that he wouldn’t run for governor, most politicos took it as a signal that his father was retiring. Less than two weeks later, Sandy did. And Andy promptly declared for the seat on Wednesday.

Like his father, Andy Levin is a Harvard-trained lawyer, but he has never held elective office. He lost a state Senate race in 2006 and the consolation prize was go to work for the Gov. Jennifer Granholm administration, where he briefly served as director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. Afterwards, he founded Levin Energy Partners.

Is that enough to win his father’s seat next year? Time will tell. But other Democrats don’t seem particularly intimidated and a big field is expected.

The next generation of Conyerses and Levins will have their work cut out for them if they want to carry on their respective political dynasties.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.