When you talk to State Senator Bert Johnson about running for Congress next year, the first thing he’ll tell you is that “this is not about John Conyers,” the man he‘s taking on in the Democratic primary next August. That‘s true, in a sense.
The newly configured Thirteenth Congressional District is slightly more than half Detroit; the rest is mainly blue-collar Wayne County suburbs. Conyers, who has been in Congress since nineteen sixty-five, doesn‘t live in the district, not yet, anyway.
Bert Johnson does live there, though he only represents about one-fifth of the new district in the legislature. The way he sees it is that “there really is no incumbent here,” That’s true …except that John Conyers does represent a good chunk of these people in Washington, and has for many years.
Yet there are increasing mutters that it is time for a change. The congressman is increasingly showing signs of age. At an event last month in which Arab-Americans discussed the impact of September 11, Conyers spoke to extol the greatness of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which wasn’t exactly the subject of the day.
Bert Johnson, who is forty-three years younger than Conyers, declines to talk about that issue. But he does note that Conyers has called himself “the Congressman from the Planet Earth,“ meaning his concerns aren’t limited by the district’s boundaries.
“We’ve had a national congressman for many years,“ the challenger says. “But if you look around this area, you have to ask yourself if the district’s needs are being met by Washington.
“And the answer is no.“ The new Thirteenth is one of the nation’s poorest urban districts, with neighborhoods in Highland Park and some parts of Detroit about as grim as you can imagine.
Other areas -- Garden City, Westland, Dearborn Heights -- are sturdier working-class towns, but are a long way from affluence. Johnson, who was first elected to the state senate less than a year ago, thinks he could make a difference.
His main causes have included trying to prevent foreclosures, and working towards bipartisan cooperation in Lansing. This mainly hasn’t worked over the past year; he admits; the Republicans, he says, haven’t been interested in compromise. But he thinks that’s the secret to governing.
Johnson thinks the only way to succeed is to bring people to the middle -- that, and make sure the issues affecting his constituents get a lot more national attention. That is, if he can get their attention first. People have thought Conyers was ripe for the taking before.
Eighteen years ago, a bright young lawyer took him on, but Conyers maneuvered a third candidate into the primary, split the opposition vote, and won with ease.
But things have changed now. So has Bert Johnson. When Conyers was battling for survival in that race. Johnson was in state prison, for an armed robbery he committed as a nineteen-year-old. He makes no effort to conceal his past. “I was a follower, and I was stupid,” he says. But he turned his life around.
His district is full of people who need to turn theirs around, economically and otherwise. He thinks if they take a chance on him, he can help them get a better shake and another chance.