John Conyers Jr., 26-Term Congressman Hit by Scandal, Dies

David Henry

(Bloomberg) -- John Conyers Jr., a Democrat who was serving his 26th term in the U.S. House when he resigned from Congress after allegations that he sexually harassed employees, has died at age 90.

Conyers’ death at his home in Detroit on Oct. 27 was confirmed by a family spokeswoman, the Washington Post reported. No cause of death of given.

The representative from Michigan’s 13th district entered the U.S. House in 1965. During his tenure, he introduced legislation on civil liberties, voting rights and violence against women while advancing the causes of black Americans by co-founding the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969.

Conyers was the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and the longest-serving member of the House when, in November 2017, several former staff members accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior. Conyers denied any wrongdoing but announced his retirement several weeks later. He acknowledged agreeing to a $27,000 settlement in 2015 with a former aide who said she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances.

Complicated Legacy

“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we are going through now,” he said in an interview with a Detroit radio station. “This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children.”

He endorsed his son, John Conyers III, to succeed him. Rashida Tlaib ultimately won the seat, becoming one of the first Muslim-American women in Congress.

Tlaib called Conyers “our congressman forever” who “never once wavered in fighting for jobs, justice and peace.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that the Detroit community and Congress mourn the loss of a civil-rights champion and public servant.

“Chairman Conyers’ life was lived in service to achieving true equality in America,” Pelosi said. “His leadership made a difference in the lives of countless Americans.”

Conyers, who handily won re-election contests over the decades, initiated the measure that created the national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and employed civil-rights icon Rosa Parks for 23 years.

For more than a decade, he pushed the U.S. National Health Care Act, which would provide taxpayer-funded treatment for all citizens free of charge. His vision for universal health care, similar to that of the U.K.’s National Health Service, went beyond President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Conyers saw as a platform to build toward a full single-payer health system.

‘Never Wavered’

The Conyers bill’s supporters, such as Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, said it would save more than $200 billion a year.

“I’ve been a champion of justice for the oppressed and the disenfranchised,” Conyers said in a letter to colleagues when he left office in December 2017. “I never wavered in my commitment to justice and democracy.”

Conyers was known to snub opponents, refusing to debate them in election campaigns, and criticized his party when he disagreed with policies it advocated.

Supporting Jesse Jackson’s presidential candidacy in 1984, he said the Democratic Party had “become stale and lifeless” with an “allegiance to a corporate order that owes little loyalty to national goals.” He called for a protest march on the White House after Obama cut a deal with the Republicans to raise the U.S. debt ceiling in 2011.

Nixon’s Enemy

Conyers was on the “enemies list” that President Richard Nixon’s administration compiled to target political opponents through tax audits and other methods in the early 1970s. The Michigan representative was later on the Judiciary Committee for the 1974 hearings on the Watergate impeachment process. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.

Among other issues that Conyers spoke out against included Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War; the Republican push to impeach President Bill Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal; and the Republican drive to ban abortions in the District of Columbia in 2012.

John Conyers Jr. was born May 16, 1929, in Detroit. He was the oldest son of Lucille Simpson and John Conyers, who worked at the Chrysler plant.

During the Korean War, he served in the National Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before attending Wayne State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1957.

He then became a legislative assistant to John Dingell, the Michigan representative, for two years. Conyers became a partner in the law firm Conyers, Bell & Townsend and was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to promote racial tolerance in the legal profession.

Medicare Legislation

As a congressman, Conyers co-sponsored President Johnson’s Medicare legislation and the 1965 Voting Rights Bill. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he oversaw the Justice Department and the federal courts, and dealt with civil-rights and consumer-protection issues. He sponsored the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and introduced the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to improve the voting system after the presidential election in 2000 needed a recount to determine a winner.

Conyers also wrote a 2006 report, “The Constitution in Crisis,” that outlined attempts by George W. Bush’s administration to manipulate intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He recommended censuring Bush.

He and his wife, Monica, had two sons: John III and Carl. In 2010, Monica Conyers was sentenced to 37 months in prison for accepting bribes while she was serving on the Detroit City Council.

(Updates with comments from Pelosi, Tlaib from seventh paragraph.)

--With assistance from Mark Niquette.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Henry in Frankfurt at sgittelson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Crayton Harrison at tharrison5@bloomberg.net, Jodi Schneider, Ros Krasny

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