The stunning fall of Democratic Rep. John Conyers — who resigned Tuesday amid a growing sexual-harassment scandal — has left confusion, anger, resentment and bewilderment inside the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that Conyers helped found nearly four decades ago.
Many CBC members see a double standard at play. They won’t say the treatment of Conyers was racist necessarily — and all express strong support for his alleged victims — but they think white politicians accused of similar misconduct like Blake Farenthold, Al Franken, Roy Moore and Donald Trump get a “benefit of the doubt” that black politicians don’t enjoy.
Some members believe House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other party leaders moved too quickly in calling on Conyers to resign and should have let the process play out further, although they understand the pressure she was under. And still another faction thinks Conyers’ declining health and mental acuity after 52-plus years in Congress led to the debacle, despite evidence that Conyers allegedly had been harassing female staffers for years.
There is also significant anger inside the CBC aimed at one of their own: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). Conyers was going to announce his retirement from Congress last Friday. Then Monica Conyers, the congressman’s wife, and Jackson Lee got involved and stopped it from happening, said several Democratic lawmakers and aides. That decision dragged out the controversy for five more days, although the delay ultimately allowed Conyers to endorse his son, John Conyers III, for his seat. Ian Conyers, the congressman’s grand-nephew and a Michigan state senator, also may run, setting off an inter-family battle.
“Certainly it seems as if there is indeed a double standard,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who was involved in Conyers’ retirement negotiations last week before Jackson Lee and Monica Conyers derailed them. “When it happens to one of us, we’re guilty until proven innocent. They’re just finally starting to talk about Blake Farenthold, who is a member sitting here who paid out $84,000.”
A former Farenthold aide, Lauren Greene, received that payment after filing a lawsuit against the Texas Republican claiming gender discrimination and a hostile workplace, with sexual harassment a key part of that claim.
“Do I think he was treated like everyone? No, he wasn’t. I think it was an easy call for people to talk about him,” added Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), the CBC chairman. “You didn’t see Speaker Ryan calling for the resignation of Blake Farenthold, who settled a case. Conyers denies it, Franken admits it.” Franken, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, has been accused of inappropriately touching or attempting to forcibly kiss six women. Franken is now under ethics investigation but has refused to resign.
“It’s a horrible situation, and if the allegations are true, then retirement or resignation was appropriate,” Richmond added. “The problem for me was I had the congressman vehemently denying it, and I have very credible-sounding victims.”
“When the deal goes down, John isn’t well. He was beginning to suffer memory loss and physically, he isn’t well,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), who faced an ethics investigation and lawsuit over sexual harassment five years ago, both of which were later dismissed. “But sure, there are members of the Congressional Black Caucus who feel John was done in. I respect that, but I don’t have that feeling.”
Conyers allegedly harassed several former aides, including an ex-staffer who received a secret $27,000 settlement using taxpayer funds. After initially seeming to downplay the allegations against him, Pelosi quickly changed course, and by last Thursday, was calling for Conyers to resign. Conyers — who had been hospitalized for “stress-related” symptoms — refused to leave office initially, and there were signs he intended to try to fight off an Ethics Committee investigation.
“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,” Pelosi said in a statement. “But no matter how great the legacy, it is no license to harass or discriminate.”
“This was as much about Pelosi’s own politics as it was about Conyers,” said a CBC member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “I think she was forced into it, and I think it was very unfortunate.” Pelosi has come under fire for not taking a harder line against Conyers from the start, especially amid a broader push across the country to crack down on sexual harassment and assault.
Yet Richmond, for his part, doesn’t blame Pelosi. “I don’t think she was unfair to him,” Richmond said. “Part of it was unfortunately he got sick and went in the hospital and couldn’t defend himself. But only he knows and the victims know what happened. Looking at the amount of victims … it was troubling, and there was no way around it.”
Behind the scenes, there was an attempt to end this controversy last week, yet it fell apart under pressure from Monica Conyers and Jackson Lee.
According to lawmakers and aides, Fudge had brokered an arrangement that would save some face for Conyers while also removing a big problem for Democrats. After some delicate negotiations, Fudge was going to read a letter on the House floor last Friday announcing Conyers would retire at the end of December.
By calling it “retirement” and not “resignation,” the move would give a “last shred of dignity” to Conyers, said one source familiar with the discussions. Conyers would have time to clean out his Capitol Hill and Detroit offices. In return, Conyers would avoid an investigation by the House Ethics Committee that could lead to censure or expulsion.
Then Jackson Lee and Monica Conyers weighed in against the deal, and it was taken off the table, dragging out the scandal, said the sources.
“People are furious with her,” said one CBC member of Jackson Lee. “Absolutely furious.”
When asked about her interactions with Monica Conyers, Jackson Lee said she “cannot comment on anything involving Mr. Conyers. I am not Mr. Conyers.”
Jackson Lee added: “I have not spoken with Mr. Conyers. I have nothing to do with his decision.”
Jackson Lee would not discuss any conversation with Monica Conyers, who has emerged as a key player in the saga.
Monica Conyers was seen by CBC members and Democratic aides as the driving force behind Conyers’ refusal to resign. Some lawmakers even speculate that Monica Conyers was trying to position herself or one of her sons to run for the seat, which is what eventually happened.
Monica Conyers berated reporters staking out the family home in Detroit last week. “Do you all go and stalk other people’s houses?’’ she asked reporters, according to the Detroit Free Press. “Do you go and stalk white people’s houses or just come to the black neighborhoods and stalk our houses?”
The Conyers’ met when she was an aide on his campaign in the late 1980s. They were married in 1990 and have two children. She was elected to the Detroit City Council in 2005.
In 2009, Monica Conyers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery in connection with a Detroit sludge-hauling scandal. As a member of the city council two years earlier, Conyers cast the deciding vote in favor of awarding a $1.2 billion contract to Synagro Technologies Inc. She ended up serving 27 months in federal prison in West Virginia.
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