The allegations against Michigan Rep. John Conyers have shaken the Congressional Black Caucus, leaving the group’s members and staff in anguish over what to do about a man who is both a legend of the civil rights movement and someone accused of sexual harassment. Some privately hope he’ll resign.
One person close to Conyers seemed certain on Tuesday evening that the congressman would wait for the Ethics Committee to conduct an investigation, which Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called to be “expedited” earlier in the day.
For decades, particularly in black political circles, Conyers has been regarded as a living legend, a veteran, a civil rights giant. He helped found the CBC — and was thought to be beyond reproach, because he was at the seat of power and had legislated for black causes. But now, as doubts about these allegations linger, in private conversations some expressed embarrassment that someone was held in such high regard.
In a dozen interviews, people inside or close to the CBC seemed split over Conyers’ fate. Several expressed frustration that while no Democratic member has called for the resignation of Sen. Al Franken, who is facing allegations of groping from multiple women, New York Rep. Kathleen Rice has called for Conyers to step down.
In a carefully worded statement Tuesday night, CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond said any decision for Conyers to resign “is John’s decision to make,” and that Congress must “treat members who have been accused of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and other crimes with parity.”
But for others, Conyers’ alleged behavior had become an untenable distraction for a caucus that — among other top priorities — wants to help to turn out black voters for Doug Jones, the Democrat challenging Roy Moore, who is facing multiple allegations of making sexual advances toward teenagers, for an Alabama Senate seat. These black Democrats say you can both respect Conyers’ legacy and contribution to making life better for black Americans, and demand swift and immediate accountability for alleged sexual harassment. Either way, it’s a difficult situation.
“We all just don’t know what to think,” said one senior Democrat, who agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News on the condition of anonymity. “You don’t want to believe anyone just would lie about something like this. But you don’t want to believe he would do it, either, because we know him. And it’s one thing if it’s Harvey Weinstein, but it’s another thing when it’s somebody you know.”
Last week, BuzzFeed News reported on a $27,000 settlement reached between Conyers and a woman who had worked for him and accused him of making inappropriate sexual advances. Since then, BuzzFeed News has also reported on a public document — a lawsuit later dropped after a judge denied a motion to seal it — that also alleged impropriety. A former Conyers aide, Deanna Maher, in an interview with the Detroit News, said Conyers had sexually harassed her between 1997 to 2005.
Conyers has vehemently denied the allegations. He has stepped down from his post as ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. Late Tuesday, Conyers was also seen on a flight bound for Detroit.
The Maher allegation further intensified sentiment that Conyers was becoming a distraction and should resign, according to three separate sources inside the CBC with knowledge of the inner workings of the caucus. Several news outlets reported that an effort to urge Conyers to resign was underway.
Publicly, few Democrats have said much about the Conyers allegations. On Tuesday on Capitol Hill, several high-profile lawmakers, including Pelosi, walked past reporters, ignoring questions.
If the external communication from senior Democrats has been limited, the inside one hasn’t. Richmond phoned members over the Thanksgiving weekend, one person familiar with the communications said. A senior aide to a Democratic member said there was a series of calls between members last week after the initial report. Members discussed the substance of the allegations and received an overview of the situation. The Congressional Black Caucus Women — who most recently signed a letter demanding an apology from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly for his role in ascribing statements to Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson that she never made — also discussed the matter in a private call. An aide to Rep. Maxine Waters declined to confirm the call.
The prominence of Conyers has weighed on people involved. He reintroduces a slavery reparations bill every year, and has been one of the foremost legislative voices on civil rights and police brutality — core emotional issues at the center of the black political debate for nearly a century. But a national senior Democrat said the new climate of allegations had brought the question about how how you parse the line between wrongdoing and the restorative justice into sharp relief. The Democrat, who agreed to share their personal views based on anonymity, believes Conyers’ is a test case for how Democrats handle misconduct allegations against major figures.
“When you have these iconic figures who have been on front lines, you just don’t want to hear about that human side of them, that they have their faults, especially for someone like Congressman Conyers,” the person said. “But when do we ask, ‘What does rehabilitation and restoration look like?’ Is it possible to bring someone back into community?”
The Beat DC, an email newsletter that covers people and issues of color in Washington and covers the CBC closely, felt it had a responsibility to cover the Conyers issue in a straightforward manner amid what could be a cultural change in Washington.
“We cover people of color in politics. And even when they make headlines for things that aren’t flattering, we want to make sure our readers across the country are informed,” said Tiffany D. Cross, a founder and editor. “Sexual harassment isn’t specific to race, ethnicity, or political party. While Congressman Conyers maintains his innocence, The Beat DC wants to make sure young politicos on their way to DC know what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.”