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There is only the slightest undulation in the voice, a dry monotone like that of actor John Malkovich, expressive within a narrow bandwidth of sound. It is a curious voice for a member of Congress who specializes in raising issues of great emotion, an unreconstructed — and unapologetic — liberal first elected to Congress during the Democratic landslide of Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964. When John Conyers Jr. becomes chairman of the House Judiciary Committee this week — his first time ever — it will mark the beginning of his 43rd year on the panel, which he joined immediately after being elected, one of six African-Americans then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is a divisive figure, both revered and reviled, in part for the contentiousness of the issues he champions and in part for the doggedness with which he champions them. Often criticized as irrelevant because his focus strays so far from home — South African apartheid and poverty in Haiti, for example — or because he affixes himself to issues that have almost no chance of success — such as the impeachment of President George W. Bush or reparations for African-Americans — Conyers claims to carry a torch for the entire planet, not just Michigan’s 14th Congressional District. “Every vote I cast is a vote that affects everybody in the United States,” he says. “I am sent by the people from the 14th Congressional District, and so I represent them in a very particular and direct way. But everything else I do, there is a national and frequently international consequence. . . . It’s always made a lot of sense to me since I’ve always believed we have these 221 countries on the planet and that we have a responsibility to each other that has come about because the United States happens to be the most influential nation on the earth. So that’s why I have a national flavor,” he adds, “but my concerns are global.” It’s the sort of comment, sensible on one level and bombastic on another, that his supporters find so attractive and his detractors find so easy to ridicule. It is also the kind of comment that a member who is consistently re-elected by 80 percent or more of the voters can afford to make. “I have members that say, �John, I would really like to go with you on this anti-war resolution, but my district, man, I got these crazy farmers or this group or that group.’ And by me not having that . . . I’m supported in my district and, thank goodness, I always have been.” Conyers, 77, is natty and well-dressed, with a thick, graying mustache, thinning hair he combs backwards, and long, broad fingers. He is reserved — at the Judiciary Committee’s annual holiday party last month, Conyers fixed a plate of food and sat by himself on the rostrum while Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) leaned over to chat. When he finished, he quietly left through a side door. Still, as members of Congress go, he is not terribly stiff and, in person, can exude a courtly, old-school charm. He showed up at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headquarters for an interview the week before Christmas in a dark blue sweatshirt and bright red blazer. At times he can appear distracted and inattentive, a rap that was especially prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s, although, as the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment, he is credited with devising a successful counterattack that characterized the proceedings as a GOP effort to undo the 1996 presidential election. “He can be the most engaged member, or the least engaged,” says one House Judiciary Committee staffer. He is an active blogger at his own Web site. And he’s generally quick on the uptake, albeit in his accentless, airless speech. “Let her rip,” he said, just before his painted portrait was uncovered in a Capitol Hill ceremony in November to honor his 1989-1994 tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations. After viewing the result, he quipped, “Well, and that’s why we use artists instead of photographers.” Adds the staffer: “He can sound sympathetic to your position while he’s drawing the air out of your tires.” THE DEAN It can be difficult to grasp just how long John Conyers Jr. has been a member of the House. When he was elected, House Judiciary subcommittees were numbered, not named; African-Americans were called “Negroes”; and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, was still four years away from being elected. Conyers arrived in Washington before the first Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965, and he worked on renewals and amendments to the act in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. He was in Washington 10 years before Detroit elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, in 1974. He is the only member of Congress to serve on the impeachment panels of Presidents Nixon and Clinton. Conyers is dean of the Congressional Black Caucus and was one of its founding members in 1969, although he has never been its chairman. The next-longest-serving black member is Democrat Charlie Rangel, who took Adam Clayton Powell’s Harlem seat in 1970. “A lot of young people need to be called �chairman of the CBC,’ ” says Rangel, who was chairman of the group in the mid-1970s. “ But having a gavel of the CBC doesn’t mean a goddamn thing. You can’t hurt or help anyone.” Conyers has been in office longer than every Republican member of the House and every Democratic member except one: John Dingell, whose Michigan district adjoins Conyers’ and for whom Conyers worked as district director in Detroit from 1958 to 1961. “John has been re-elected every two years since 1964,” says Dingell, who was first elected in 1954. “That doesn’t happen if you’re not fairly competent, if you’re not liked, and you don’t have friends.” More than most members, Conyers, who was born in 1929 and lived all of his life in Detroit, is a product of his background — and two powerful forces there: a city that was among the most racially segregated in the country and his father, John Conyers Sr., who was an early and popular black labor movement leader who never graduated from high school. In 1937, the elder Conyers helped organize Local 7 at the Dodge Main factory. He later became an international representative for the United Automobile Workers, a senior union position. “My dad was as left-wing as you could get,” says Conyers’ brother, Nathan, 74, who owns a Detroit Jaguar dealership. Adds Conyers: “When I first ran for office, people would say to me: �Are you Johnny’s son?’ “ “I’m the senior African-American auto dealer in the world,” Nathan says, “and the footsteps he made in his lifetime are larger than I or John Conyers will ever make in ours.” In 1965, Conyers hired Rosa Parks, then working as a seamstress in Detroit, to be the receptionist in his Detroit district office; she worked there until she retired in 1988. He pushed through legislation declaring Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. Conyers introduced the bill four days after King was shot; it became law 15 years later, in 1983. “John has been shaped like very few others still here by the centrality of that fight and experience,” notes Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who was first elected in 1980 and served 24 years with Conyers on the House Judiciary Committee. “He really is a Hugo Black-esque figure,” adds Frank. “We have religious fundamentalists; Conyers is a constitutional fundamentalist.” And a jazz fanatic. Conyers played the trumpet in a combo and big band while in high school in the early 1950s; at the time, Detroit was one of the country’s major jazz centers. “The first time I heard Charlie Parker was at the old Flame Show Bar in Detroit,” he says. “I think Duke Jordan was on the piano.” He is known as one of the art form’s most avid promoters. In 1987, Conyers sponsored House Concurrent Resolution 57, which designated jazz a “rare and valuable national American treasure.” “I mean, what would they care about a legislative resolution?” says Conyers. “But the musicians went crazy about it.” The popular jazz club on 14th Street Northwest in Washington, H.R. 57, is named after the resolution. “Conyers lives music,” explains Michael Remington, a partner at Drinker Biddle & Reath and a former subcommittee counsel with House Judiciary in the 1980s. “I think he believes that music emanates from an individual, and he empathizes a lot with individuals, with individual creators, with laborers, recent immigrants, certainly minorities. He’s very pro-intellectual property. It’s a little beyond liking music as a sideline or a way to relax,” says Remington, who was also treasurer of Conyers’ re-election campaign committee. “If you look at his zeal on his issues, you might expect him to be a table-pounder,” adds Frank. “But his style reflects this kind of jazz motif. It’s improvisational. Don’t get overly excited. Care, but don’t fulminate.” A PRODUCT OF THE WEST SIDE Inside Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, Detroit’s oldest jazz spot, Alma Smith was playing the club’s worn 7-foot Steinway and singing about a three-handed woman — “right-handed, left-handed, and underhanded, too.” And during the break, in what seemed a mostly local crowd, it wasn’t hard to find someone who had a John Conyers story. “He had a nice, clean shirt on every day,” recalls John Smith, who is also 77. “John only lived a block and a half from our school, Smith Elementary, but his mother would take him there and pick him up every day. “I used to take his last strike. �You can’t take my bat,’ he’d say. I was a bully.” The Conyers family grew up on the east side of Detroit, in a neighborhood called Black Bottom, and moved to a working-class neighborhood on the city’s west side when Conyers was about 10 years old. Conyers had three younger brothers. Carl — “the nonconformist son, the most handsome, the smartest,” recalls Nathan — was killed at the Twenty Grand nightclub in the mid-1960s. (John Conyers named his second son for him.) The youngest brother, William, died of leukemia in his 20s. Nathan says his father’s sister, Mary Conyers, used to tell the story of her father — John and Nathan’s grandfather — who was sired by a Georgia plantation owner and called “Brown Conyers” because of the color of his skin. “There was a lot of miscegenation in those days,” says Nathan over drinks at the once-segregated Detroit Golf Club. “And my father’s father was born as a result of one of those unions.” After high school, Conyers’ father got John a job at the Lincoln Motors Co., “on a great big riveting machine that riveted floor pans on Lincolns,” remembers Conyers. “That was heavy-duty work.” He joined the Army Corps of Engineers, went to officer candidate school in Fort Belvoir, Va., just 18 miles from Washington, and then found himself in Korea for a year. “We’d be backing up the Air Force at their air strips, and these Chinese planes would be coming in laterally and scaring the bejesus out of us,” he recalls. After the service, Conyers received his college and law school degrees at Detroit’s Wayne State University. By then, he was active in the Young Democrats and was a Democratic Party precinct delegate. Years later, he would make two quixotic bids for mayor of Detroit, in 1989 and 1993, each time ending up near the bottom of the vote count. Conyers was recently the subject of an informal House Ethics Committee inquiry into allegations that he had staffers pick up his children from school and help his wife, Monica, a Detroit city council member, in her failed bid for a Michigan state Senate seat. On Dec. 29 the Ethics Committee closed its investigation. It imposed no sanction but said Conyers acknowledged a “lack of clarity” in explaining to staff members their official duties. “Let’s face it,” Conyers said earlier. “Somebody helping your wife’s campaign — if that’s the level of ethics problems in Congress today, we’d all be in pretty good shape.” YOUNG, GIFTED, AND BLACK There has been an arc to Conyers’ 42 years in Congress, a curve that comes back to the same Judiciary Committee he fought so hard to be assigned to when he was a freshman congressman in 1965. “His big objective was this audacious objective to become a member of the Judiciary Committee, which was considered to be a major committee,” recalls Larry Horowitz, whom Conyers hired to run his Washington office a few days after he was sworn in. A handful of seminal Supreme Court decisions, beginning with Baker v. Carr in 1962 and Wesberry v. Sanders in 1964, which mandated that congressional districts be roughly equal in population, led to a major redistricting in almost every state, especially those with large urban populations such as Michigan. Michigan already had one of the nation’s few black congressmen, Charles Diggs Jr., who had been elected in 1954. The new congressional seat in Detroit was also heavily Democratic and predominantly black; Conyers’ primary opponent was Richard Austin, Michigan’s first African-American CPA; the elected auditor for Wayne County, which includes Detroit; and the local labor movement’s handpicked candidate. Because the new district had few Republicans, the winner of the primary would end up in Congress. Conyers quit his state job as a workman’s compensation referee and spent a year campaigning for the seat. “For me, it was a very homey campaign, because only friends of mine — who were relatively unsophisticated politically — were participating,” Conyers told Richard Bruner in his 1971 book, Black Politicians. Conyers credited his victory, in part, to a newspaper strike that was going on during primary day. “I believe that if there hadn’t been a newspaper strike, I would not have been endorsed by the newspapers, and I would have lost.” He won by just over 100 votes; after Austin called for a recount, the margin dropped to 44. It was the only close race in Conyers’ career. “He was 35, I was 24 years old,” recalls Horowitz, who had previously worked for Rep. Al Ullman (D-Ore.). “I remember this guy sitting in his office. The place was disheveled, he didn’t even have any pictures on the wall. He’d been sworn in a few days before, and he clearly was looking around for what the hell does he do now. �I’m looking for a staff assistant,’ he says. I had never heard of him before, although I knew there was a new black congressman from Detroit.” Horowitz took the job and began trying to figure out how to get Conyers onto Judiciary. Back then, Horowitz recalls, Democratic committee assignments were determined by the House Committee on Ways and Means, which meant that Ways and Means member Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.) had effective veto power for committee assignments for freshmen in her state. “And Martha had supported Dick Austin,” says Horowitz, “so I knew she could blackball John.” A three-pronged strategy was devised: Apply pressure to Griffiths; Manny Celler, the Brooklyn Democrat and dean of the House in his 42nd year in office; and House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts. “Everyone wanted John to go on Ed and Labor,” says Horowitz. The House Committee on Education and Labor was then chaired by Adam Clayton Powell. “But John wanted to be his own guy; he didn’t want to be dominated by Mr. Powell. In 1965, the action for black politics in America was the Judiciary Committee. That’s what would control civil-rights legislation.” John Conyers Sr. used some of his contacts to have union officials in Brooklyn and Massachusetts speak with Celler and McCormack, stressing that it was of historical importance that Conyers become the first African-American on Judiciary. In the end, says Horowitz, “Martha got told by the speaker and Mr. Celler that she should support Mr. Conyers.” Although there were five other black members of Congress when Conyers came to Washington, he was the youngest and most politically outspoken; two of them, Pennsylvania’s Robert Nix Sr. and William Dawson of Illinois, had been born in the 19th century. Conyers would have to wait four years, until 1968, before three like-minded contemporaries — Missouri’s William Clay, Ohio’s Louis Stokes, and New York’s Shirley Chisholm — were elected. That brought the number of African-Americans in the House to 10, “the largest number of blacks in history in the House,” recalls Stokes, now a senior counsel at Squire Sanders. “It was a very significant moment in history. We felt it, all black people felt it. And there was a sense from black people in America that we were not going to come and just represent our districts. They expected us to come and represent them.” By 1983, as Conyers was entering his 18th year in Congress, there were 21 black members in the House. When the 110th Congress is sworn in this week, only three of those members — Conyers, Rangel, and New York’s Edolphus Towns — will still be in office. ON THE PULSE OF MORNING From his perch on the Judiciary Committee, Conyers has been a consistently outspoken voice. Since 1989 he has sponsored a bill that would set up a commission to study whether reparations should be paid to descendants of slaves. It’s the type of issue that resonates strongly in the black community — Conyers’ district is now about 62 percent African-American — but which for others typifies what they see as Conyers’ radical agenda. “He’s seen as an extremist, and this constant refrain of reparations is one that sticks in our craw,” says L. Brook Patterson, who for 14 years has been the elected executive of Oakland County, a suburb of Detroit just north of Conyers’ district, that is about 80 percent white. “As my folks who came over here from Europe in the 1800s say, �We never owned a slave and feel no obligation to pay Conyers a dime.’ There’re a lot of us who resent that drumbeat.” Conyers’ bill is only designed to study the impact of slavery and the possibility of reparations, but that distinction is lost on most people, notes Harvard Law School’s Charles Ogletree, who has been active in an ongoing legal battle on the issue. “Reparations puts blood in many people’s eyes,” he admits. “But read what Conyers is saying. He’s saying, �Let’s study our race history.’ “ Over the years, Conyers has sponsored bills that would ban racial profiling, allow convicted felons the right to vote once they are released from prison, eliminate the sentencing disparity in crack and powder cocaine convictions — something Conyers says he plans to revisit once he’s chairman — and develop a universal health care system, an issue that’s not part of the Judiciary portfolio but which he has championed for years. He infuriated President Lyndon Johnson by opposing the war in Vietnam, something Johnson, who was proud of his civil-rights accomplishments, considered a personal affront from a black member of Congress, recalls Horowitz. “Johnson contacted [United Auto Workers president] Walter Reuther and asked him to find a candidate to run against John in 1966,” Horowitz recalls. Conyers still won that year with 88 percent of the vote. He was one of 20 people on President Richard Nixon’s enemies list, with this notation by Nixon counsel Chuck Colson: “Has known weakness for white females.” When Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Penn.) introduced a resolution in November condemning the Paris suburb of St. Denis for naming a street for Mumia Abu-Jamal, the prison activist who was convicted for slaying Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981, it was Conyers and his Judiciary Committee colleague Bobby Scott (D-Va.) who argued against the resolution on the House floor. Or, rather, Conyers used the resolution to point out the problems of “46 million Americans who every day go without health insurance” and “roughly 38 million people in America who currently live in poverty. . . . Let us agree to let the French government focus on the needs of its people while we focus on the needs of everyday, hard-working people here in America,” he said. A reasonable conclusion, perhaps. But difficult to sustain when set against the counterargument of outgoing Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who characterized the resolution like this: “It tells a suburb of Paris to butt out in terms of making a statement [about] the murder of Officer Faulkner.” In retrospect, the Dec. 6 debate on the House floor over naming a street in France after Abu-Jamal was vintage Judiciary Committee business: an inflammatory issue on which the two opposing sides are starting from such different premises that they don’t have a chance of reaching an agreement. How Conyers will fare as chairman of the most naturally contentious committee in the House, with its blunt-speaking membership, is anybody’s guess. “Both Mr. Conyers and I have problems with members at the end of our respective daises and in the bottom row,” says Sensenbrenner, who leaves this week after six years as chairman. “I won’t mention any names.” In the past, Conyers has managed to lead with some measure of distinction. His staff is quick to make known a 1994 column by the late investigative journalist Jack Anderson, which lauds Conyers, who was then chairman of government operations, as a “quintessential outsider who has mastered the insider game.” Conyers chaired the Judiciary subcommittee that held the evidentiary hearing in the impeachment of African-American federal trial judge Alcee Hastings (now a Florida Democratic congressman) in 1989, and he gave the opening argument in the Senate trial. “There have been a lot of problems in our judicial system in which race has been involved. This is not one of them, or I would be the first person in the Congress to tell you so,” he said. “[W]e did not wage the civil-rights struggle in order to substitute one form of judiciary corruption for another,” he told the Senate, which voted to convict Hastings for corruption and perjury. “The image is that he’s a radical, and he is a radical on many issues,” adds Sensenbrenner. “But if you get to know him, he’s also an institutionalist — that the way to get things done is through the system.” Conyers says he also plans to be a loyalist, following an initial leadership agenda of “issues that will grow our support in the country”: lobbying reform, immigration, sentencing issues. “The judiciary,” he says, “I can tell you, they are so happy to see me.” Conyers is well aware that his ultimate reputation, even after four decades on the Hill, could depend on the next few years. “This is the beginning of the most important part of my congressional tenure,” he says. “To take over the committee that I consider to be the most important one that I’ve ever served on. “It’s like, this is the first day of the rest of my congressional life.”
T.R. Goldman can be contacted at [email protected].

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