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Rep. John Conyers Jr. will leave Congress in wake of harassment claims

Rep. John Conyers Jr. will leave Congress in wake of harassment claims

'My legacy can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we're going through now'
Rep. John Conyers Jr. will leave Congress in wake of harassment claims
Rep. John Conyers, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, in Washington on July 26, 2017.
Photographer: Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Rep. John Conyers Jr., under intense pressure to resign amid multiplying allegations that he sexually harassed former employees, announced Tuesday that he would leave Congress immediately, and he endorsed his son, John Conyers III, to succeed him.

Conyers, 88, the “dean” of the House and the longest-serving African-American in history, acquiesced to weeks of pressure from fellow Democrats, but by trying to keep his Detroit-area seat in the family, he touched off a family feud between his 27-year-old son and his great-nephew, Ian Conyers, a state senator from Michigan who also plans to run in a special House election.

In a phone interview, Ian Conyers said his great-uncle had encouraged him to run for the seat days before deciding to step down. Now the two younger Conyers will most likely face off in what may become a battle over the legacy of John Conyers, D-Mich., considered an icon to many black people.

“I said, ‘Sir, if you decide that you’re going to retire, give me a heads-up because I’m going to run for your seat and keep doing the work that you have been up to,'” Ian Conyers said. “He said, ‘Absolutely. You go for it. Run.'”

Conyers held out for weeks after BuzzFeed News published documents last month that showed he had settled a sexual harassment case with an employee who said she was fired after refusing his advances.

But by Tuesday morning, he had given in.

“I am retiring today,” he told “The Mildred Gaddis Show,” a local radio program, from a hospital in Michigan. “I am in the process of putting together my retirement plans.”

He continued to deny that he had harassed former employees and said he did not know where those allegations came from.

On Tuesday morning, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, also announced Conyers’ retirement on the House floor, saying Conyers had informed the House speaker, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the minority leader. He also informed Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan.

“I think the legacy of John Conyers will speak for itself,” Lee said later in an interview. “His last words were that he didn’t want to be a distraction and that he will continue to fight for jobs, justice and peace.”

She added that Conyers’ years of working on issues like voting rights and mass incarceration “cannot be erased.”

Conyers tried to make the same case as he endorsed his son."My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we are going through now,” he said during the radio interview. “This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children.”

John Conyers III, who has not held elected office before, was cited on suspicion of speeding in his father’s congressional vehicle in 2010, according to The Detroit Free Press. His father reimbursed the Treasury Department more than $5,600 for the commandeering of a government vehicle for personal use. The younger Conyers also released a rap song, “Rich Glorious,” and describes himself as “a partner at Detroit’s first minority-run hedge fund.”

The retiring congressman took his House seat in 1965, the last sitting lawmaker to help enact the Great Society programs conceived by President Lyndon B. Johnson. But Conyers’ exit has been ignominious. He stepped aside as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee last month in the face of swirling allegations of sexual impropriety, then watched as one Democrat after another called for his resignation.

Conyers, however, remained protective of his time in Congress. “I am very proud of the fact that I am the dean of the Congress,” he said Tuesday. He appreciated the “the incredible, undiminished support” that he had received from his state and the country, he added.

He also did not waver from his stance that he did nothing wrong and called the accusations against him false. “Whatever they are, they are not accurate,” he said. “They are not true. I cannot explain where they came from.”

Conyers said the allegations were just part of life as a lawmaker.

“This goes with the issue of politics, the game of politics which we are in,” he said. “We take what happens. We deal with it. We pass on and move on forward as we keep going trying to make as much as we can of this tremendous opportunity that has been given to me for so long.”

Ryan and Pelosi had each said Conyers should resign after a woman who settled a sexual harassment claim against him said on television that he had “violated” her body, repeatedly propositioned her for sex and asked her to touch his genitals. Other former staff members have since come forward to say he harassed them or behaved inappropriately.

Pelosi, in a statement Tuesday, greeted Conyers’ announcement unsentimentally.

“Congressman Conyers has served in the Congress for more than five decades and shaped some of the most consequential legislation of the last half-century,” she said. “But no matter how great the legacy, it is no license to harass or discriminate. The brave women who came forward were owed the justice of this announcement.”

Ian Conyers said that despite the accusations, he believed that Michigan voters would reward his family’s work in politics by electing him.

His great-uncle “still enjoys healthy support in our district,” he said.

He added, “People are ready to support our dean and to support our family as we continue to fight, as we have for leading up to a century, for people from Southeast Michigan.”

The decision by John Conyers came as several other lawmakers face allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the most senior House member for his state delegation, announced last week in an interview with The Dallas Morning News that he would not seek re-election after sexually suggestive online messages he sent to a constituent came to light.

Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, is facing pressure after it was revealed last week that he used $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment claim with Lauren Greene, his former communications director. She accused him of regularly making comments to gauge her interest in a sexual relationship, including saying he was having “sexual fantasies” about her.

And last week, an Ohio Army veteran became the fifth woman to accuse Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., of inappropriate touching. Senior House Democrats have also begun calling for Franken to resign.

Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., a member of the House leadership, hinted at a double standard in the intense pressure Conyers faced.

“I’m a little bit interested, though, in why the speaker of the House called for his resignation and had been radio silent on Blake Farenthold,” he said. “His settlement was three times what Conyers’ was. He’s accused of the same thing. And the speaker has not said a word. What is the difference?”

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