Facing a surge of pressure from his fellow Democrats, Rep. John ConyersJr. (D-Mich.) stepped down from Congress on Tuesday over mounting allegations of sexual harassment, marking an extraordinary fall for the longest-serving member.
Speaking to a Michigan radio station, the 88-year-old Conyers was defiant in both maintaining his innocence and defending a legacy he insisted “can’t be compromised or diminished.”
“This too shall pass,” Conyers, speaking from a hospital, told host Mildred Gaddis. “And I want you to know that my legacy will continue through my children.”
Aiming to help that process along, Conyers endorsed his son, John Conyers III, to replace him, setting up a potential family showdown for the seat, as the lawmaker’s great-nephew, Ian Conyers, told The New York Times recently that he also plans to enter the race.
Conyers’s remarks — at times rambling and ambiguous — led to some initial confusion about his immediate intentions. Prodded by Gaddis, he finally revealed that he’s “retiring today.” Moments later and miles away, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) went to the House floor to read a “retirement” letter from Conyers, in which he lamented “not being afforded the right of due process” while citing his declining health — but not the harassment charges — as the reason he’s bowing out.
“I recognize that in this present environment, due process will not be afforded to me,” Jackson Lee read aloud.
Several hours later, Conyers filed a letter of resignation with Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who had requested such action last week, ending one of the longest congressional careers in history. The one-sentence letter gave no explanation for his stepping down.
The decision marks a victory for Democratic leaders, particularly House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who have been walking a fine line between fighting on behalf of the harassment accusers while also arguing the need to ensure due process for the accused.
Publicly, Democratic leaders had maintained that Conyers’s fate should hinge on the outcome of an Ethics Committee investigation launched in the immediate wake of the allegations, and Pelosi had initially defended Conyers while casting doubt on his accusers. After heavy criticism, Pelosi changed her tune, and last Thursday she called publicly for his resignation.
“Zero tolerance means consequences — for everyone,” Pelosi said. “No matter how great the legacy, it’s no license to harass or discriminate.”
Pelosi’s announcement broke a dam of silence among a long list of Democrats who had also wanted Conyers out, but were nonetheless arguing publicly that he should be afforded rights of defense before the Ethics panel.
A blizzard of statements followed Pelosi’s, with top Democrats including Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.), Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) and Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) all joining Pelosi in urging Conyers to resign.
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), had privately urged Conyers to resign even before Pelosi’s announcement, warning Conyers directly that his situation would be likely “to get worse” if he remained in place to fight the charges.
“I spoke to him, and I said to him … ‘I think it’s in everybody’s best interest if you were to step aside,’” Clyburn told The Hill recently.
On Tuesday, Clyburn said he’s pleased that Conyers took his advice.
“He’s doing what I asked him to do, so it’s fine with me,” he said.
In the eyes of Conyers’s defenders, however, the calls for resignation employed a double standard, since most of his Democratic critics have declined to recommend the same punishment for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who is facing his own string of sexual harassment allegations going back more than a decade.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), former head of the CBC, decried the push to oust Conyers “without even hearing what had happened,” suggesting the effort was part of a longer campaign to put a fresher face at the top of the Judiciary Committee, where Conyers had reigned for years.
“He is the only person in this body that that has happened to,” she said. “If you remember there was an effort even last year to have him [lose] his chair of the committee. And I think that this is just a continuation of that.”
Hoyer, addressing the seeming discrepancies in the Democrats’ response to the various harassment cases, urged the adoption of reforms to guide the process in future cases.
“It’s complicated. It’s muddled. We need a process, open, transparent and timely, to make a determination,” he said.
By congressional standards, Conyers’s fall came swiftly. But in the eyes of the Democratic leaders scrambling to mitigate the political fallout and shift the discussion back to the Republicans’ tax bill, it was a tortuous 14 days of mixed messages and ever-growing desperation to push him out.
Allegations first emerged as part of a Nov. 20 BuzzFeed News report revealing that Conyers had paid out a $27,000, taxpayer-funded sexual harassment settlement in 2015 to a former staffer who said she was fired because she refused the congressman’s sexual advances.
Other former employees also alleged that Conyers made requests for sexual favors, inappropriately touched staffers and used congressional resources to transport women with whom they believed Conyers was having affairs.
Attorney Lisa Bloom on Monday revealed the allegations of another accuser, Elisa Grubbs, who said in an affidavit that Conyers touched her inappropriately in a church while she was working for him. She also alleged that Conyers exposed himself to her in his home in a separate incident. Grubbs notes in the affidavit that she is the cousin of another Conyers accuser, Marion Brown, and says she saw Conyers touch Brown inappropriately.
Even some of Conyers’s closest allies said the decision to step down was probably the right one.
“Congressman Conyers is a great friend, he’s a great American, and I’m sure after consultation with his family he made the right decision,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), another former CBC chairman.
“I would think that had he continued in the House, that would be a news story that would distract from … the Democratic agenda.”
Conyers’s decision to bow out marks an ignominious end for the iconic liberal lion of Detroit — a veteran of the Korean War who had served under 10 different presidents and voted on some of the most significant legislation of the last century, including the creation of Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, the Clean Water Act and ObamaCare. Along the way, he gained prominence as a vocal Vietnam War protestor, helped found the CBC and rose to chairman of the House Oversight Committee before taking the reins of the Judiciary Committee for two terms beginning in 2007.
Conyers’s exit leaves a vacancy for the top Democratic spot on the Judiciary panel, setting the stage for a fierce battle to fill the seat. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who sat just below Conyers on the committee, had assumed the role of acting ranking member. But Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who’s next in line behind Nadler, told fellow Democrats last week that she intends to challenge Nadler for the post — an election that’s expected to occur the week of Dec. 18.
Lofgren might not be the only challenger. Jackson Lee, who sits right behind Lofgren on the panel, said recently that she’s not ruling out a bid in the event the seat is vacated. She declined, however, to comment further following Conyers’s resignation.
“The dust needs to settle,” she said.
Cristina Marcos and Max Greenwood contributed to this report.
Updated 4:45 p.m.