Conyers Buffeted by Sexual Harassment Controversy

by: James Wright Special to the AFRO jwright@afro.com
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The controversy surrounding U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and his settlement of a sexual harassment case in 2015 by a former employee and accusations that he sexually harassed several other women hasn’t damaged the high reputation that he has among leading Blacks.

Rep. John Conyers, who has been a member of Congress since 1965, recently stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee because of sexual harassment accusations by former employees. (AP Photo)

“I have known him for a long time,” Dr. E. Faye Williams, president and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women, told the AFRO. “He has been a neighbor of mine for many years and I have worked with him on many projects. I am saddened by these recent developments.”

As a Democrat who represents a Detroit-based district, Conyers stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee on Nov. 26. He is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee. “I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger,” the representative said in a statement. “I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics.”

Conyers has served in the House since 1965 and has chaired the Judiciary and the former Government Operations committees. He is a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the last founder still serving in the Congress.

According to the Washington Post, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and members of the current Congressional Black Caucus were pushing Conyers to resign. Conyers has insisted he will not resign.

Paul Brathwaite is a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. Braithwaite told the AFRO that Conyers is a respected member of the House. “His legislative accomplishments are many,” he said. “He has a 50-plus year legacy of fighting on the front lines for justice in America and his record on that is commendable.”

Conyers prime legislative achievement is the 1983 passing of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Act, in which the slain civil rights leader’s life and legacy is honored annually on the third Monday in January. Conyers also played a key role in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act even though he was a freshman member of Congress at that time and the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. He is a supporter of District of Columbia statehood and full citizenship rights and pushed voting bills such as Motor Voter and Help America Vote, which made it easier for citizens to cast ballots.

Conyers has introduced a bill that would explore reparations for Blacks as a result of slavery during a number of sessions and recently proffered a bill that would establish a single-payer health care system in the United States.

Brathwaite said whether the fight was about voting rights, equality, or his oversight as the chairman or the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, “Conyers demonstrated at his core the belief that every American has fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”

According to news reports a second woman, Deanna Maher, also claims that Conyers made three unwanted sexual advances towards her when she served as his deputy chief of staff from 1997-2005. A total of four women have accused Conyer of sexually harassing them.

Doug Sloan, a Democratic political analyst and District resident, told the AFRO he thinks conservatives are being hypocritical when they attack Conyers. “These sexual harassment situations have happened with some Republicans,” Sloan said. He mentioned former U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) actions with a prostitute and former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) with his inappropriate interactions with congressional male pages.

Williams, Brathwaite, and Sloan agree that Conyers should remain a member of the House.

Williams has been outspoken over the years about sexual harassment, particularly when it comes to Black women. However, she is reserving judgment about Conyers’ situation. “I think he is an honorable man,” Williams said. “I need to see the evidence before I believe it.”

As Sloan sees it, there is no racial double standard at this time. “They have come down hard both on Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Conyers,” he said. He did note that Conyers agreeing to settle with the former employee is somewhat disturbing. He notes that no crime has been committed in the Conyers case, though.

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