After Nearly 50 Years In Office, Conyers Might Not Make The Ballot

A local elections official has ruled that Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, who's served in the House for nearly 50 years, has failed to collect enough valid signatures to appear on the Democratic primary ballot. He's appealing the decision; if he loses, it could be an ignominious end to a distinguished career.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

U.S. Representative John Conyers of Detroit is a legend. He's been in Congress almost 50 years. He was elected the same year the Civil Rights Act was enacted. He's a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and this year he's seeking his 26th term but a local elections rule is throwing a wrench into that effort. Conyers apparently didn't get enough valid signatures to get his name on the August Democratic primary ballot.

Conyers is appealing this in federal court but a lot of people are wondering if his distinguished career could be coming to an end. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been following this. Hey there, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hi Audie.

CORNISH: So what exactly what went wrong here? What was going on with the signatures that the Conyers campaign turned in?

GONYEA: Let me give you a couple of numbers - but just a couple, I promise. OK? You need 1,000 valid signatures to get on the ballot. Conyers' campaign turned in 2,000 but a lot of those were ruled invalid for the usual reasons. Still, he had more than enough. Then there was a challenge to his petition gatherers, the people out there collecting the signatures.

It was determined that two of them were not registered Michigan voters. That is a requirement under state law. So when you toss out the signatures they collected, suddenly he is way short of the number needed.

CORNISH: And we mentioned him appealing this a federal court. We know there was a hearing scheduled for this morning in Detroit. It's been moved to next week. What exactly is the legal argument Conyers' campaign is planning to make?

GONYEA: So his supporters and his attorneys say federal court rulings in other states have said you do not have to be a registered voter to collect signatures. What matters is that the person who signs the petition is a registered voter and meets all the requirements. So Conyers' people feel they'll win in court. Yesterday the congressman did an interview with our affiliate in Michigan radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN CONYERS: I feel very positive about the fact that I'm in this race as the prospective dean of the House, certainly dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, but I don't want to get into any details because this is going to go before the court very, very shortly.

GONYEA: And he also said he will mount a write in campaign if necessary.

CORNISH: Really? Now, how unusual is this for a member of Congress to be in this predicament?

GONYEA: It's really, really rare but it just so happens that it happened in Michigan just two years ago when Congressman Thaddeus McCotter, a Republican, failed to turn in the needed signatures. Now, that one was actually a case of fraud when petitions were turned in with names copied and pasted from previous years.

So it's a little different but, listen, this is politics 101. It's remedial. It's like there's a six inch hurdle that the candidate needs to jump over and sometimes the candidate and the campaign just trip over it.

CORNISH: Now, if he does need to resort to a write in campaign, I mean, that's never an easy way to go. What are his prospects?

GONYEA: Well, it just so happens there's also a precedent for this in the Detroit area. Detroit's current mayor Mike Duggan won a write in last year after he'd bee kicked off the primary ballot for another issue. Listen, John Conyers has great name recognition, but he will have to work very hard to make it work. And there are people, plenty of them, who say he's just been around too long.

And the best evidence of that is this Detroit Free Press endorsement of Conyers from the 2012 campaign two years ago. Here's what the Free Press said then: John Conyers gets our endorsement, but it is mostly with the hope that he will soon retire from Congress and the district will produce a more viable alternative. His energy has slowed and he is not delivering for his district the way he used to, or the way he should be.

So the paper is saying Conyers is not what he was decades ago. Detroit is certainly not what it was decades ago. We'll see where this goes.

CORNISH: Don, thanks so much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

CORNISH: NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea on the challenges facing Congressman John Conyers as he seeks his 26th term.

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