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Will Conyers really leave?

Jack Lessenberry

Editors' note: Rep. Conyers announced his resignation Tuesday morning, after this story was published. Read more here.

It seemed last week that the career of Congressman John Conyers was coming to an end. Many women had come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment.

The 88-year-old congressman came back to Detroit from Washington and had to be hospitalized, evidently for stress. We had conflicting signals from his aides, but some of them at least hinted that he might soon resign from the office he’s held for more than half a century.

Some commentators glibly said if he didn’t resign, Congress was honor-bound to toss him out. Well, it’s a week later, and Conyers is still there. And resistance to his resignation has been building among his longtime supporters in the African-American community.

Yesterday, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and The Rev. Wendell Anthony, head of the Detroit NAACP, were among those who denounced former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other congressmen, most of them white, for saying Conyers should resign.

Evans said Conyers was entitled to due process of the law, and others were even more forceful in calling on him to hang tough and hang in there. Well, the congressman’s lawyer was to have made an announcement about his future this morning. But here’s something few realize.

If John Conyers doesn’t resign, it may be very, very hard, if not impossible, to expel him from Congress. In fact, despite all these accusations, and the fact that he did indeed make a secret settlement with at least one woman, he might well get reelected next year if he chooses to run.

Here’s why it’s hard to imagine him being expelled. Throwing out a congressman is not just a matter of an up-or-down vote. First, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, usually known as the House Ethics Committee, has to form a subcommittee, hold an investigation and collect evidence, and then make a recommendation to the full House.

Then, if they recommend expulsion, two-thirds of those members present and voting would have to agree to remove Conyers. But this would take time, and next year is an election year. The last thing Democrats want is to alienate black voters.

And they don’t want a weeks-long spectacle focused on the alleged misbehavior of one Democratic congressman, when they really want the conversation to be about what Donald Trump and the Republicans are doing to the country and the middle class.

Last week, some were saying behind closed doors, well, what about a deal where Conyers finishes out his last year and then doesn’t run again? Well, some in Congress felt they had reached such a deal with the congressman a few years ago, but he then ignored it.

And sophisticated political observers know that no matter what, if he does run, he isn’t going to be easy to defeat. Most of his constituents weren’t even alive when Conyers first went to Congress. In past years, whenever he has seemed vulnerable, his supporters have made sure that there were multiple names on the primary ballot to dilute the anti-Conyers vote.

I don’t know what lies ahead in this saga, or what the nation’s currently longest-serving congressman will do. But until we see his signature on a letter of resignation, or someone else is elected to that seat, be careful about assuming he’ll soon be gone.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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