Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

July 22, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Change coming up for Conyers?

Nearly half a century ago, on the night Lyndon Johnson crushed Barry Goldwater in the nation's last liberal landside, John Conyers was elected to Congress.

This year, the nation's second-longest-serving congressman is counting on winning yet another term. Most expect him to do so.

But the district has changed, the congressman has changed, and two longtime black legislators are challenging the elderly Conyers in the Democratic primary. If either State Sen. Bert Johnson, State Rep. Shanelle Jackson, or both poll a significant number of votes, it's not hard to imagine a fourth candidate, State Sen. Glenn Anderson of Westland, scoring a huge upset.

The math is compelling. While perhaps 55 percent of the residents are black, past patterns indicate as many white voters as black are apt to show up Aug. 7. The district is so Democratic the primary winner is virtually assured of victory.

While there is another white candidate, Westland councilman John Goci, he has little money or name recognition. Anderson has both. Plus, his generally liberal record and longtime NAACP membership may make him acceptable to some black voters.

Once, the thought of anybody beating Conyers on his home turf would have been unthinkable. But the nation is hardly the same place that sent a young firebrand black lawyer to Washington in 1964. Most people have been born since then. LBJ is long dead, his Great Society social programs mostly forgotten. The Vietnam War is something many voters today know only from the History Channel. America is vastly different today. But Conyers remains in Congress, though more voters wonder not only how effective he is, but, to put it charitably, to what extent the 83-year-old is aware of what is going on.

It's been years since many people thought about the possibility the old lion could be defeated. The last major effort came in 1994, after Conyers, minus shoes and socks, was seen waving frantically to passing cars from a median strip.

Melvin "Butch" Hollowell ran an aggressive campaign with the support of Detroit's newspapers. But the congressman beat him almost 2-1.

However, that was when the district was nearly all African-American. Today, Conyers is running in the newly configured 13th District, though he doesn't now live there.

Slightly over half the district lies within Detroit. The rest is a collection of mainly white, mainly blue-collar suburbs, including Westland, Garden City and Dearborn Heights.

Glenn Anderson has represented the western half of the district in the state senate for nearly six years. Cheerful and hard-working, the 58-year-old doesn't fit the expected profile of a white suburbanite. A Tennessee native, he and his dad arrived in Westland, a postwar suburb named after a shopping mall, in 1969, after a divorce split the family. Glenn was just 15.

After completing high school, Anderson, like many Detroiters before him, got a job on the line at what the workers call "Fords." He worked there for more than two decades, eventually becoming a realtor on the side. He fell in love with politics when he was 11, thanks to Robert Kennedy's brief and tragic campaign.

He took classes at Wayne State, but never quite graduated. Finally, in 1991, he ran for Westland's city council, and won.

After nine years, he was elected to the first of three terms in the Legislature.

He thinks he can pull another upset this time. He is careful to speak respectfully of the incumbent. "I wish he would have chosen to retire with dignity," he said. He adds that he hasn't seen Conyers "doing much for Detroit or the suburbs," in recent years.

The Detroit Free Press agreed with him about that, but supported Conyers on July 16 in a bizarre endorsement. The endorsement left readers scratching their heads.

Anderson said that if he does win, he hopes to do anything he can to bring jobs and education opportunities to the district.

"All I can do is hope people look at my career and what I have done. If they do, I think we'll be OK."

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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