Rep. John Conyers announced Tuesday he is leaving Congress immediately and endorsed his son, John Conyers III, to replace him following allegations of sexual harassment.
“I’m in the process of putting my retirement plans together, and I will have more about that very soon,” Conyers, 88, told a Detroit radio station.
“I am retiring today,” the Michigan Democrat added. “And I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the support — the incredible, undiminished support I’ve received across the years from my supporters, not only in my district but across the country as well.”
Conyers is the first member of Congress to relinquish his seat amid the growing national uproar over the mistreatment of women that has toppled powerful figures in Hollywood, the media and now Washington.
Conyers made the announcement that he was ending his congressional career in Detroit, his home and political base for more than five decades. The unofficial “dean of the House,” he was first elected in 1964 and is the longest-serving member of the body — and one of the longest-serving House members in history.
Conyers became a congressional aide in 1958, working for the legendary Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). His margin of victory in most of his 27 congressional races was overwhelming, though Conyers lost two bids for mayor of Detroit.
Conyers’ fall from grace was swift, but there were growing signs of trouble for him in recent days. Last week, some of Conyers’ closest allies in the Congressional Black Caucus — a group he co-founded — started urging him to step aside.
While Conyers has denied any wrongdoing, he also admitted paying out $27,000 to a former aide over sexual-harassment allegations. That incident was first reported by BuzzFeed. Conyers used a congressional fund that normally covers office expenses, which concealed the payment.
Another former aide had filed a lawsuit against Conyers earlier this year alleging numerous instances of improper sexual behavior, before later withdrawing the civil action. A third former female aide came forward last week to say that Conyers had propositioned her for sex.
With news outlets searching frantically for additional victims, Conyers’ support among his Democratic colleagues quickly eroded, especially among younger female members who had not served with the Michigan Democrat for long. Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) called for Conyers’ resignation, and more Democrats were expected to follow their lead.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), stung by the backlash over her initial comments that appeared to support Conyers, threw her support behind an effort to have the Ethics Committee investigate the veteran lawmaker. Behind the scenes, Pelosi and other top Democrats, including CBC members, were pressuring Conyers, telling him he didn’t want to go through an ethics investigation that could ruin his legacy.
Last Thursday, Pelosi called on Conyers to resign, dramatically upping the stakes.
“The allegations against Congressman Conyers, as we have learned more since Sunday, are serious, disappointing and very credible,” Pelosi said at her weekly news conferenceThursday. “It’s very sad, and the brave women who came forward are owed justice. I will pray for Congressman Conyers and his family, and wish them well. However, Congressman Conyers should resign.”
Conyers announced his plans from the hospital, calling it a “retirement” even though his departure was effective Tuesday.
“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now. This, too, shall pass, and I want you to know that my legacy will continue through my children,” Conyers said.
“I have a great family here, and especially in my oldest boy, John Conyers III, who incidentally I endorse to replace me in my seat in Congress,” he continued. “So we’re all working together to make this country a better one, to make equality and justice more available for any.”
Conyers was born in Detroit and attended public schools there. After seeing combat in the Korean War, he returned home and enrolled at Wayne State University. Conyers later received a law degree from Wayne State Law School.
Conyers served as an aide to Dingell and as counsel to several labor unions. He also worked for Michigan’s workmen’s compensation department.
He formed ties to the ACLU and NAACP, and Conyers went to Selma, Alabama, in 1963 to help register black voters.
By 1964, Conyers was elected to the House, winning easily. He continued to do so for decades to come.
In 1989 and 1993, Conyers ran for mayor of Detroit but didn’t perform well either time.
Conyers has a long record of legislative and institutional accomplishments in the House. He chaired both the Judiciary Committee and the Committee on Government Operations (now the Oversight and Government Reform Committee) during his tenure.
Conyers also helped to co-found the CBC in 1969. That group has now become a major power bloc within the House Democratic Caucus.
The Michigan Democrat focused on civil rights, especially on making it easier for average Americans to vote. He helped pass the 1988 Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act, 1993 National Voter Registration Act (also known as the “Motor Voter Bill”), the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, and the 2002 Help America Vote Act, among other bills.
In addition, Conyers worked to enact a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. He pumped hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid into his district, a poor minority-majority area that has suffered from long-term economic distress and high unemployment.
Conyers, though, has faced several ethics scandals over the past decade. These incidents, as well as Conyers’ physical and mental deterioration over the past several years, led to internal discussions in January about replacing him as ranking member on Judiciary. However, the CBC strongly objected, and Conyers kept his post.
In 2006, Conyers was investigated by the Ethics Committee for allegedly using his staff for personal errands, including baby-sitting his children. No formal action was ever taken against him by the panel.
Three years later, Conyers’ wife, Monica, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges and was sentenced to 37 months in prison. While Conyers was unaffected politically by his wife’s criminal case, there were later reports of serious troubles in their marriage, leading to a divorce filing by Monica Conyers that was later withdrawn. The two had met when she worked for his campaign in the late 1980s. They were married in 1990. He was 61; she was 25. They have two children.
In 2016, Conyers came under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics for paying his former chief of staff, Cynthia Martin, for six months after she pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property, a misdemeanor. Conyers refused to cooperate with the OCE probe, and the Ethics Committee took no action.
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