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Should Congressman John Conyers make a graceful exit?

Jack Lessenberry

Congressman John Conyers is kicking off his reelection campaign today with two major rallies in his district planned in Detroit and the blue-collar suburb of Redford.

The election is almost a year away, and he is unlikely to have any significant primary opposition, but he may be announcing early, in case anyone gets any ideas. He has had challenges in the past, from ambitious younger people who thought he was too old, too erratic, and too out of touch.

But he’s always crushed them like bugs.

Nor has he ever had a real general election challenge, thanks in part to the belief that the Voting Rights Act specifies that legislators must draw two black-majority districts. If he is alive and on the ballot next November, expect him to get more than 80% of the vote.

That’s because he always does.

Conyers is, of course, a living legend.

He’s the lawmaker most responsible for making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. He got Congress to recognize jazz as a national treasure. He was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and arrived in Washington when there were only six African-American members.

There are 45 today, plus one on the White House.

Conyers has spoken up for civil liberties and against discrimination against Muslims, even when doing so wasn’t popular.

Nobody now serving has been in Congress as long as he.

When he arrived in Washington, Hillary Clinton was still in high school, President Obama not long out of diapers, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were years away from being born. Conyers was in Congress when Viola Liuzzo got murdered for trying to help people register to vote. He’s served with nine presidents, and when this term ends, will have been there for 52 years.

Nobody doubts his legacy. Yet, should he be running again?

Nobody doubts his legacy. Yet, should he be running again?

Next May, Conyers will be 87 years old.

For years, there have been times when he seems to be focused and incisive, and times when he seems to be somewhere else.

Stories of chaos and disorganization in his office are legion. But beyond all that – I’ve always been totally opposed to term limits, other than the ones we call elections.

But should anyone be "Congressman-for-Life"?

That’s clearly not what the Founding Fathers intended. Is there really nobody else among the 700,000 people he represents who deserves a chance to show what they can do for one of the poorest districts in the nation?

Last year, Senator Carl Levin, probably the youngest 80-year-old I’ve ever met, voluntarily retired from Congress. Had he run for reelection, he would have faced only token opposition. He was still vibrant, a powerful committee chair and excellent at his job.

I wonder if the idea of making a graceful exit has ever occurred to Congress’s soft-spoken and courtly gentleman John.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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