On a recent weekday evening, Ian Conyers, who is running for his great-uncle’s Michigan congressional seat, hosted a fundraiser for about 80 young professionals. The bar top’s fluorescent glow made the room feel like a set piece on Insecure: Women in cocktail dresses nonchalantly held glasses of prosecco, and the guys in tailored suits, D’usse. The candidate rose before too long to speak about a better tomorrow.
Conyers cut an impressive figure, in a tailored suit with a pin identifying him as a state senator. He kept his speech short, then he asked for money, and then people went back to drinking. It was about as typical a political event as you could imagine, except for one small detail: Conyers was in New York.
It’s far from unusual for people running for office to their local area to raise money in New York City. In 2016, New Yorkers gave more than any other city in the US, making $66 million in political contributions, according to opensecrets.org. But Conyers, who is 29, wasn’t in New York for money. His campaign is tapping into his personal network and a network of people around the country with Motor City roots that Conyers calls the “Detroit diaspora.”
“I know what it’s like for folks around me to look for work and not have an opportunity,” Conyers told the audience that had gathered at Jay-Z’s 40/40 club in Midtown Manhattan. “What drew me back home was knowing that folks were going through that and needed someone with not only the experience but the acumen to create the environment for jobs to flourish.”
Conyers is making this Detroit-specific pitch as he tries to succeed John Conyers Jr. who retired late last year, amid allegations of sexual harassment, after 52 years in Congress and a storied career as a young civil rights activist. The Conyers name — and the elder Conyers’ newly complicated legacy — hangs over the race. And the field for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District is crowded: Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, state Sen. Coleman Young II, and, perhaps most intriguingly, Rashida Tlaib, a former elected official and working mother who, if elected, would become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress.
The young Conyers left Detroit for Washington in 2006 to attend Georgetown University on an academic and athletic scholarship. He played football and ran track. A member of Kappa Alpha Psi, Conyers worked on former Washington mayor Adrian Fenty’s campaign before working on Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. But to hear Conyers tell it, Detroit was always calling, a call he wants more native Detroiters to heed. “The Detroit diaspora is a very real part of the brain drain that’s affecting our city,” he said.
Two years ago, in the special election for the 4th District of the Michigan state Senate, Conyers emerged from a crowded field of eight, which included a long-serving member of the Michigan House. (The seat became vacant when its former occupant, Virgil Smith, pled guilty to felony charges related to shooting up his wife's Mercedes-Benz.)
That Conyers is galvanizing energy by telling Detroit’s story is not accidental. (Sometimes when he refers to his “track record,” he is referring to himself as a kind of self-styled ambassador for Detroit outside of the city.) If the 29-year-old state senator is successful, the seat will not just remain black but also belong to a younger generation. If his name doesn’t represent a change, Conyers clearly feels his youth — in contrast to black political leaders’ resistance to newer blood — does. In private meetings with donors, Conyers likes to say that what separates him from the other candidates is that winning the seat wouldn’t be a “cherry on top” of a long political career. (His leads the black candidates in the race in fundraising.) He’s effusive in his praise of Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Debbie Dingell and says he’ll run cycle after cycle, ensuring that as the city comes back, it continues to have strong leadership in Washington.
“The story of what’s happening in Detroit has become national,” Conyers told BuzzFeed News. “A lot of folks who left have tough memories of what happened, and those who stayed have tough memories of not being able to find a job. I want to change that narrative and show folks around the country that you can come back to Detroit and be successful. It’s a huge part of my candidacy and really is, I think, my life’s work, too."
The race has been closely watched, but primarily because of the candidacy of John Conyers III, son of the former Congress member. When the elder Conyers made clear it was his wish for his son succeed him in office — even after Ian Conyers told BuzzFeed News he intended to run if his great-uncle, mired in scandal, retired — it caused a stir in Detroit and Washington, leading one Michigander on Twitter to quip, “Does he have a niece?”
Ian Conyers is not eager to talk about his cousin or his cousin’s candidacy. He wants to be the only Conyers on the ballot: Last week, he asked the Wayne County clerk’s office to remove hundreds of signatures collected by John Conyers III from the ballot because they came from voters outside of the district, unregistered voters, or from voters who signed the petition twice. The story was first reported by the Detroit News.
“Everyone’s got a right to seek office,” he said before the formal challenge, answering a question about if he was concerned with the same Conyers on the ballot. “It’s a wide-open primary and we’re committed to bringing the quality of services that we brought to our Senate district to the entire congressional district.” Pressed again, he said as a representative of a Senate district that people know his track record, and that the district didn’t want a “laugh track” in the primary.
“[Ian Conyers] has a puncher’s chance if he can get his cousin off the ballot,” said top Michigan Democratic strategist Joe DiSano, who is bullish on the hold John Conyers Jr. has on the voters of the district. “Otherwise it's a wasted summer for Sen. Conyers.”
Even if John Conyers III does make the ballot, Ian Conyers said he’s confident he can win because he’s already serving. “They know who I am and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “I’ve been committed to our district and there’s no making that up. You can’t come to the 13th District overnight; they either know you or they don’t. Our voters are very smart folks.”
“They know the difference between me and anyone else.”