DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now to a Michigan lawmaker who's fighting to keep his job. Usually, incumbents have the upper hand in congressional races, but with the latest redistricting, many House members find themselves vulnerable. Veteran Detroit Democrat John Conyers is among them.
WDET's Quinn Klinefelter reports.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN CONYERS: There's Nelson Mandela. And I've got one of Martin King and myself.
QUINN KLINEFELTER, BYLINE: John Conyers is in his Detroit office glancing at photographs of past allies in the civil rights movement he's been a part of since he was first elected to the U.S. House in 1965. For Conyers, partisan battles in Congress are nothing new.
CONYERS: That's the way it was when I got there. We were just getting the segregationist control wrested from Southern Democrats at that time.
KLINEFELTER: Conyers' work with civil rights icons like Rosa Parks endeared him to Detroit voters. Lately, though, the reputation of the 83-year-old co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus has lost a bit of its gloss. His wife, Monica, is doing prison time after being convicted of taking bribes while she was on the Detroit City Council. And Conyers upset White House officials with this radio interview in 2009, claiming he had to talk House Democrats into supporting health care reform because President Obama was being too generous to Republicans.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO INTERVIEW)
CONYERS: I'm getting tired of saving Obama's can in the White House. I mean, he only won by five votes in the House.
KLINEFELTER: After serving Detroit for 24 consecutive terms, Conyers has to woo a new constituency: voters in a redrawn Congressional district. Unlike Conyers' former 14th district, most of it in Detroit, one-third of the new 13th district includes more conservative suburban areas. Garden City is only about 20 miles from Detroit, but light years away politically. This is State Senator Glenn Anderson's turf. A fixture in the state legislature for more than a decade, Anderson is running for Congress in the Democratic primary later this summer because he says in the new 13th district, Conyers doesn't have an incumbents' advantage.
STATE SENATOR GLENN ANDERSON: He is known as someone that has fought hard for civil rights, and I think we should all give him credit for that. But it's not about what you did 40 years ago, but what you're doing for us today and what you're going to do for the district tomorrow.
KLINEFELTER: People in Garden City - like longtime resident Gomer Goins - know Anderson well. But Goins says he's heard of Conyers mainly from news stories about his wife's bribery conviction.
GOMER GOINS: I've read his record, and I believe he was in that thing with his wife up to his eyeballs. And I think it's time for old John to go.
KLINEFELTER: Political scholars say redistricting is forcing both Conyers and New York's Charles Rangel - two of the oldest and most liberal members of the House - into unusually tough re-election campaigns. American University Associate Professor Clarence Lusane says a Conyers defeat could lead to a big change in Congress.
CLARENCE LUSANE: What I think gets lost with Conyers is a history. Even with the younger members coming in, they simply don't know all of the civil rights organizations and human rights organizations that Conyers talks to on a regular basis.
KLINEFELTER: And John Conyers says he still has unfinished business on Capitol Hill: a full employment bill, his cherished single-payer universal health care legislation. He says he'll know when it's time to quit, just as he says his former congressional colleague Andy Jacobs did.
CONYERS: He turned to me and he said, John, these boots don't fit anymore. I'm not going to run anymore. And I don't feel like that at all.
KLINEFELTER: Your boots still fit?
CONYERS: My boots - yeah. My boots fit very well.
KLINEFELTER: John Conyers will need them this campaign. He says he'll be running harder for office than he has in more than four decades. For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter, in Detroit.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.