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Jack Lessenberry

Jack Lessenberry

Trying to Topple
a Political Icon

October 28, 2011

HIGHLAND PARK — State Sen. Bert Johnson looked out the window of the Cornerstone Bistro, the only restaurant in his desperately impoverished city apart from fast-food joints.

“If I took you on a tour of Highland Park and the rest of this district as configured today, you would ask yourself, “do they even have representation in Congress?” he asks.

Two blocks from where he was eating breakfast are homes without roofs, and squatters in abandoned houses. (In fact, even the Cornerstone Bistro is run by a rescue mission.)

The senator has a point. Both his enclave city and much of the Detroit portion of the newly configured 13th Congressional District are home to some of Michigan’s grimmest streets and neighborhoods, though there is also a collection of aging working-class suburbs, including portions of Dearborn Heights.

Much of this district has, in fact, been represented in Washington by John Conyers, who has been there since 1965, longer than any other member except John Dingell.

Bert Johnson regards Conyers “as an icon.” But next year he means to take the icon’s job away. He is going to take the congressman on in next August’s Democratic primary. (In general elections here, any Democrat on the ballot wins.)

Beating Conyers would seem a formidable task. When Conyers first arrived in Congress, not only was Johnson, who is now 38, not yet born, his parents weren’t even teenagers.

The congressman is indeed an icon, one who marched with Martin Luther King, sponsored the bill making the civil rights leader’s birthday a national holiday and went on to become the first African-American chair of the House Judiciary Committee.

But there are increasing whispers that Conyers, who will be 83 next year, is not the man he was. It has been a difficult year for him. His wife, former Detroit City Councilwoman Monica Conyers, remains in federal prison for conspiring to commit bribery in a sludge-hauling case. He lost his committee chairmanship in January, when the GOP took control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The congressman has long been mercurial. Last month the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn held a symposium on life a decade after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Late in the day, Mr. Conyers dropped by and was invited to speak.

He told a mostly baffled audience that the best thing Arab Americans could do was appreciate the genius of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. On another occasion, he told an interviewer he considered himself “the Congressman from the Planet Earth.”

Bert Johnson thinks that his area needs a congressman from the 13th District. “We’ve had a national congressman for many years, but when you have to ask whether the district’s needs are being met by Washington, the answer is no.”

The challenger says he “unquestionably” could do a better job. But it is far from certain that he’ll ever get that chance. He has his own baggage, which he is quick to admit.

The last time Conyers had serious opposition, Johnson was sitting in state prison in Ionia, for armed robbery and breaking and entering, felonies he committed at age 19.

“I was a follower. I make no excuses. It was stupid, and it taught me a lot,“ he says. “That was as real as real gets.”

He credits former Oakland County Judge Jessica Cooper with enabling him to turn his life around. “‘I’m giving you a shot,’ she told me. ‘It’s up to you to take it from there.’” She sentenced him to 18 months to 30 years, depending. He was out of prison in 14 months.

After that, Johnson worked as a manager in his father’s law firm, taking care of case files. Later, when his friend Bill McConico became a state representative, he put Johnson to work for him.

“He turned me loose in the district, and I found I liked the people side of politics, not the partisan games,” he said. When McConico’s time was up, thanks to term limits, Bert Johnson was elected to succeed him.

He served two terms in the House, and then was elected to the state Senate last November. But life there is frustrating. Thanks to the GOP landslide last year, Democrats have only a dozen of the 38 seats.

Essentially, they are powerless. So in July, after a family conference with his girlfriend and three kids, Johnson decided to run for Congress. He expects a hard-fought battle.

“He’s certainly a credible candidate, and has done much better politically than anyone would have thought, given his start in life,” said Bill Ballenger, the longtime publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. “But I still would have to give Conyers the edge.”

The last time Conyers had a serious challenge was in 1994, when a vibrant young lawyer took him on in the Democratic primary. But a third candidate then entered the race, and with the opposition vote split, the champ won easily.

That could happen again this time; State Rep. Shanelle Jackson is also said to be thinking about entering the race.

If that happens, Ballenger noted, it might have an entirely unintended consequence; a white candidate from someplace like Westland could conceivably enter a crowded primary and win. If that happens, Ballenger speculated earlier this week, it could have an entirely unintended consequence; the emergence of a white candidate in a district which is, after all, more than 40 percent white. Sure enough, State Rep. Glenn Anderson (D-Westland) had jumped into the race by Thursday.

Nobody now knows how this will all play out. But one thing is clear — some day, in some way, John Conyers will leave Congress.

Increasingly, some are thinking that time may be soon.


Former Congressman Howard Wolpe died Tuesday night, and even though he wasn’t terribly old, chances are you don’t remember him. That is, unless you follow politics closely, or grew up in Kalamazoo.

He was a good and decent man who ran one of the worst campaigns for governor I can ever remember, and who, oddly enough, was the only man ever to beat Debbie Stabenow.

And his doing so was the best thing possible for her career, which proves how crazy politics can be.

You can hear the rest of the Jack’s Michigan Radio commentary on Mr. Wolpe here.

Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.

October 28, 2011 · Filed under Jack Lessenberry Tags: , , ,

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 harvey bronstein // Oct 31, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Howard Wolpe ran a great primary campaign in 1994 and then he thought he was done. John Engler thought otherwise.

  • 2 Sylvia McCollough // Nov 28, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Labor backed Howard in the primary against Debbie, then proceeded to take over the general campaign and did an abysmal job, thus loosing against the ever political savvy strategist, John Engler. I remember Coleman Young lamenting that if WE had a John Engler in the Democratic Party, we would never loose an election! Unfortunately, Howard allowed the so-called Democratic “guru’s” set his strategy, which is really what defeated Howard Wolpe, one of the nicest and most dedicated people in Michigan politics. I don’t know if he would have made a good governor, but he certainly was a good human being, and a pleasure to know.

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