This week WDET begins examining the upcoming primary elections in Michigan.
We start with a look at the race in the 13th Congressional District, a Democratic bastion dominated for more than five decades by U.S. Representative John Conyers.
This year Conyers faces a well-known challenger, Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey.
The Dean of the House
Across the street from the Familiar Faces Barber and Beauty Salon in Highland Park, a temporary campaign office is plastered with stickers bearing a familiar name in Metro Detroit: Conyers.
Inside the office the longest-serving member currently in Congress looks at a book featuring heroes form the civil rights movement.
John Conyers says the fight for civil rights is part of a continuing struggle he’s undertaken in the U.S. House from the mid-1960’s to the partisan battles of today.
“That’s what the job is all about,” Conyers said. “Taking positions that you feel are too conservative and then trying to put together a larger amount of people that support a progressive agenda. And to me that’s invigorating. I am in no ways tired of that.”
It’s not a stretch to wonder if Conyers could be weary of Capitol Hill.
He’s running for his 27th term in Congress.
That longevity helped Conyers become the ranking member of the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
“I’m not like a member of Congress that has faded into the background,” he said. “Or that you don’t hear of much or you wonder if he’s still in Congress or is this his last term. Because I’m right in there moving with all the major issues that I always have. I still love my job, I like the work that I’m doing and I’m going to keep it up.”
Conyers, long-known as one of the most liberal legislators in the House, has fought many a political battle. He pushed recently against limits on voter registrations and joined other Democrats in calling for expanded background checks for those buying firearms at gun shows or online.
Conyers maintains that dealing with those issues plays a part in earning the loyalty of voters. He says solving high-profile problems makes a true impact on both his district and the nation as a whole.
“That’s always the dual role of a federal legislator. Not only take care of his constituents in his particular district but to think of the broader scheme of things in terms of national policy. And so it’s going to play in quite rationally,” Conyers said.
For the full interview with candidate John Conyers (U.S. Rep., D-MI) click here
The Clerk’s Verdict: Neglect
But some critics complain that as Conyers’ clout grew nationally, he grew more aloof from those who elected him to office.
In the Motor City Java and Tea House on Detroit’s northwest side Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey sits at a worn table.
She says the tea room has been a refuge of sorts for her over many years, a place to contemplate life and remember those who came before, who battled strife to promote racial equality.
Winfrey says that list includes John Conyers.
“But 52 years later the fight has changed, his drive has diminished. And I think the national focus that he’s had has caused great neglect in the district,” Winfrey said.
The current City Clerk nods at the rough neighborhoods surrounding the Tea House, an area embedded in a 13th district that covers portions of Detroit, Highland Park and Garden City, among other areas.
It’s a district hard-hit by poverty, crime and unemployment.
And Winfrey charges that Conyers has done little to stem the decline.
“The 13th Congressional District has been neglected for some time now,” Winfrey bristled. “So much so that we’re one of the poorest congressional districts in the state. As a resident, a taxpayer, I take offense at that. As a community leader I feel I not only have a right, I’m required to do something about it. To address that neglect.”
Winfrey acknowledges that challengers have made the same charge against Conyers for decades and lost elections to him every time.
In fact, supporters of the longest-serving African American in the history of Congress say Conyers, and by extension his district, carry more-than-normal weight in the U.S. House, giving him an ability to push the right buttons to get things done.
Winfrey counters that she was not versed in the intricacies of being a city clerk when she was first elected to the post 10 years ago.
But she says she quickly grew into the job precisely because she focused on the needs of her community, bringing services directly to voters rather than having them come on bended knee to the halls of political power.
“Eventually, because none of us live forever, someone is going to have a first day on the job (in Congress.) I can be that person,” Winfrey vowed. “Somebody is gonna be the next representative for the 13th Congressional District. And it might as well be someone that you know, that’s demonstrated leadership skills and someone that’s kept their nose clean and served the constituency.”
For the full interview with candidate Janice Winfrey (Detroit City Clerk) click here
Detroiters know Winfrey.
But they also know Conyers, and have for a long time.
How that plays out at the ballot box will become apparent August 2nd.
That election will in effect dictate who serves the district.
A Democrat has occupied the 13th Congressional seat for more than half a century.
John Conyers’ campaign site:
Janice Winfrey’s campaign site: