When you look toward the dais in the powerful House Judiciary Committee, you can’t help but be struck by the large portraits of the two most recent lawmakers to serve as chair. The one on the right is of Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who was sent to Washington in 1965; that made the 88-year-old the longest serving member in Congress until he resigned on Tuesday amid numerous sexual harassment allegations.
The swift departure of the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus has brought with it accusations of racism and calls for other lawmakers to resign, and has rekindled a debate among female lawmakers over how Congress should deal with allegations of sexual harassment and assault going forward. For his part, Conyers continues to maintain his innocence while trying to ensure he’s remembered for his work on civil rights issues rather than the first lawmaker in this Congress to quit in the wake of sexual misconduct accusations.
The calls for Conyers to resign mounted after it was reported that he used more than $27,000 of taxpayers’ money to settle a 2014 harassment claim brought against him by a subordinate. According to a BuzzFeed investigation, Conyers’ accuser “alleged she was fired because she would not ‘succumb to [his] sexual advances,'” and said she was blackballed after she accepted the settlement. (Conyers denies any wrongdoing.)
“This goes with the issue of politics, the game of politics which we are in,” Conyers told radio host Mildred Gaddis from a hospital bed in Detroit Tuesday. (Conyers checked into the hospital Friday, citing stress caused by a “media assault” over the allegations against him.) “We take what happens. We deal with it. We pass on and move on forward as we keep going trying to make as much as we can of this tremendous opportunity that has been given to me for so long.”
Sexual harassment allegations currently hang over four sitting lawmakers, and some of Conyers’ colleagues are questioning why he’s so far been the only one to resign.
“Once again, the same double standard exists that our president uses for black people: We are guilty until proven innocent,” Democratic Rep. Marcia Fudge, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters at the Capitol.
Conyers was one of the 13 founding members of the CBC and is regarded for helping pass the Voting Rights Act and for recently being a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform.
Fudge and others point to the women who have accused Democratic Sen. Al Franken of groping them, and are frustrated that Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, were so swift to call for Conyers to leave Congress but not their white colleagues.
“I’m not upset with [Pelosi] for doing it. I think she was under a lot of pressure, and I think she did what she thought was best for this caucus,” Fudge said. “What I am upset about is the fervor about it in the first place. That forced her or anyone else to do it without giving him due process and without even hearing what had happened. He’s the only person … in this body that has happened to.”
Franken has asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the accusations against him, which so far has insulated him from calls to resign from party leaders. But members of the CBC are wondering why Conyers wasn’t afforded the same treatment.
“It is, I think, a tradition of those of us who have been un-empowered and have had to fight for civil rights. It does not negate anyone’s allegations – it just says that due process is an important element,” Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee told reporters.
But even some Democrats brush aside those calls for due process.
“This is not a criminal procedure,” Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier told reporters. She’s been a leading voice in pushing her House colleagues to rethink how they handle sexual assault cases, including recently ushering through legislation that mandates sexual harassment training for all lawmakers and staffers who work at the Capitol.
Besides Conyers and Franken, Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold is accused of settling a sexual harassment claim with $84,000 of taxpayer money, which he’s now promised to pay back.
“Farenthold’s got to go, Franken’s got to go and Conyers has got to go – it’s pretty straightforward,” Speier tells Rolling Stone. “If you’ve conducted yourself in a manner that’s either severe or pervasive, that’s sexual harassment.”
President Trump is still serving under the specter of the 16 women who have accused him of sexual harassment or assault, and he’s now endorsed Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election, after Moore was accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct with teenagers when he was in his 30s.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says that if Moore is sent to Washington, he will refer his case to the Ethics Committee – but he says it’s now up to Alabama voters to decide if they believe the allegations against Moore.
While that high-profile case hangs over the Hill, Democrats want House Speaker Paul Ryan to help police his own party and call for Farenthold to step down.
“I don’t think it’s between Conyers and Roy Moore; it’s between Conyers and Blake Farenthold,” Rep. James Clyburn, the number three House Democrat, tells Rolling Stone.
Still, now that Conyers has announced his resignation, some Democrats, including members of the CBC, are hoping they can focus on policy issues.
“I would think that had he continued in the House, that would be a news story that would distract from our agenda – the Democratic agenda,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a former chair of the CBC, told reporters.
Conyers’ open seat is now pitting members of his family against one another. The retiring lawmaker has tossed his support behind his son, John Conyers III, but it looks like he’ll be facing off against Ian Conyers, the grandson of Conyers’ brother, who has also announced a bid for the seat.
“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we are going through now,” Conyers said Tuesday. “This too shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children.”
When asked about Conyers’ legacy, Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings tells Rolling Stone it will likely be bittersweet. “Shakespeare comes to mind: The good that men do dies with them; the evil that they do lives on in the minds of some,” Hastings says. “My position is the deeds that he has done will speak for him, and I always regret when people in the final analysis are put out to pasture. That’s what it boils down to. But he had a great career.”