Rep. John Conyers said Sunday he was stepping down from his post as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee amid accusations of sexual harassment that have put his party’s leaders in a bind.
The decision by the Michigan lawmaker — who has held his seat since 1965 and who denies the harassment allegations — followed several days of internal deliberation and pressure from Democratic colleagues, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who wanted Conyers to leave the high-profile post but didn’t want to be seen as forcing him out.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and assistant Democratic leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) reached out to some CBC members over the Thanksgiving recess to take the temperature of the caucus, according to multiple sources. The group is arguably the most powerful bloc within the House Democratic Caucus and is fiercely protective of its members, particularly Conyers, who was a founding member.
In an interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Pelosi seemed to underscore the cautious approach by taking pains to praise Conyers’ record and call for “due process,” even as she said she believed “he will do the right thing.” She also referred to Conyers as an “icon” for his lengthy service and work “to protect women.”
“John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women,” Pelosi said. “He’s entitled to due process. But women are entitled to due process as well.”
After criticism on social media of her use of the word “icon,” Pelosi quickly endorsed Conyers’ decision to step aside from the committee post.
“No matter how great an individual’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment,” she said in a statement.
Privately, Pelosi has been working behind the scenes with leaders of the CBC and Conyers to figure out his next steps. One senior Democratic aide said she was trying “to lay groundwork for him to step aside gracefully.”
Since the allegations first surfaced last week, Conyers has faced mounting internal pressure to relinquish his ranking member post even as Democratic members danced around the topic publicly. Still, Democratic leaders hoped Conyers would step down from the Judiciary panel he has led for more than a decade before lawmakers returned on Tuesday.
“After careful consideration and in light of the attention drawn by recent allegations made against me, I have notified the Democratic Leader of my request to step aside as Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee during the investigation of these matters,” Conyers said in a statement Sunday.
Conyers is accused of sexually harassing two female staffers, including settling a claim with one former aide who said she was fired for not giving in to his sexual advances, an incident first reported by BuzzFeed.
Another former aide, Maria Reddick, who worked as his scheduler, filed a lawsuit against Conyers earlier this year, saying he was a “repeated and habitual offender” who tried several times to get her to go home with him and engaged in unwanted touching, including rubbing her shoulders and kissing her forehead. Reddick dropped her lawsuit after a judge ruled it would not be kept confidential.
More details of the accusations against Conyers may be forthcoming. Lisa Bloom, an attorney for a woman who filed a sexual harassment complaint against Conyers in 2014, said Sunday that her client was “forced to sign a confidentiality agreement” when she initially filed her complaint. She asked the congressional office that handles harassment charges to release her client from her confidentiality agreement “so that she may have a voice to tell her own story.”
Bloom also said her client would be freed from her confidentiality obligation if she were subpoenaed by the House Ethics Committee or any other body probing the allegations, and she said her client, who is remaining anonymous for now, would be happy to cooperate with any such investigation.
Separately, a dozen women who previously worked for Conyers released a statement Sunday saying that they did not condone sexual harassment but that, in their experience, the congressman “was a gentleman and never behaved in a sexually inappropriate manner in our presence.” The group said they supported the ethics investigation underway.
Multiple Democratic sources said they don’t expect widespread calls for Conyers to resign from the House altogether — at least not yet. Privately, according to aides and lawmakers, there is an effort to preserve Conyers’ legacy on issues ranging from voting rights to the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday as much as possible while trying to avoid the appearance of washing their hands of multiple serious sexual harassment accusations.
In the meantime, Conyers’ departure from the judiciary position opens a powerful committee post and adds to turmoil roiling Capitol Hill amid a series of sexual harassment allegations against members and aides. Conyers served as chairman of the panel when Democrats controlled the House from 2007 until 2011. But he has faced increasing questions about how long he would lead the committee given the fact that he is 88 years old.
A group of Democrats tried to force Conyers to step aside last December — spurred by an episode in which he showed up at the Capitol wearing pajamas — but he refused to step down.
Second-ranking Democrat Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another senior member on the committee, have been privately jockeying to succeed Conyers as ranking member since then, assuming he would step down after 2018.
Nadler is widely assumed to become the acting ranking member of the committee now that Conyers has stepped down, but Democratic sources say allies of Lofgren are pushing for her to take over the top spot.
Democratic Caucus rules say the next most senior Democrat, in this case Nadler, automatically assumes the post if a ranking member or chairman is indicted, but they are less clear on what happens in an instance such as this. There is no precedent for a contest to replace a ranking member who steps aside midterm, aides said.
“This is no coronation. Zoe is definitely in the mix,” said a Democratic aide close to Lofgren’s office.
Nadler said in a statement that he would “do everything in my power to continue to press on the important issues facing our committee, including criminal justice reform, workplace equality, and holding the Trump Administration accountable.”
“Ranking Member Conyers has a 50 year legacy of advancing the cause of justice, and my job moving forward is to continue that critical work,” Nadler added.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who has become an outspoken advocate for victims of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill, said Sunday that Conyers should step down from Congress if the allegations against him are true — and she has called for an overhaul of the Capitol’s harassment reporting process, which she and dozens of others say is stacked against victims.
“The allegations are very serious, and that’s why the Ethics Committee needs to move very swiftly, not wait years, but very swiftly,” Speier said on ABC’s “This Week.” “Staff up if necessary to determine whether or not those allegations are accurate. And if they’re accurate, I do believe that Congressman Conyers should step down.”
“We say zero tolerance, but I don’t believe that we put our money where our mouths are,” Speier said.
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