Long-term Democrat challenged in Michigan's 13th Congressional primary race

Jul 28, 2014

Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr. talks with Michigan Radio's Lester Graham. Conyers is facing a challenge in the 13th District primary.
Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr. talks with Michigan Radio's Lester Graham. Conyers is facing a challenge in the 13th District primary.

Primary elections in Michigan will be held on August 5. Voters in parts of Detroit and Wayne County will decide between two Democratic candidates in the 13th Congressional District. The incumbent is John Conyers Jr. The challenger is The Rev. Horace Sheffield III.

Before we start talking about 2014, let me take you back 50 years:

“In your heart, you know he’s right. Vote for Barry Goldwater.”

“Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

In 1964, the televisions were black-and-white. The issues were near the boiling point.

Civil Rights. Voting rights. Vietnam.

That year, an aide to Congressman John Dingell, a civil rights activist named John Conyers Jr., decided to run for Congress in a neighboring district. He won.

Now, John Dingell is retiring. He is the current dean of the U.S. House of Representatives. If John Conyers is re-elected for a 26th term, he becomes the dean of the House – the longest-serving member.

“Isn’t that incredible that the person that came in to assist him now ends up being the one succeeding him," Conyers reflected.

Congressman Conyers says if he becomes dean, it would be more than symbolic. It would mean political clout for Michigan.

“It’s more than honorary for me and I think for the people that I’m working with,” Conyers said.

By the time a winner is sworn in, the city of Detroit should be through bankruptcy proceedings and will be in need of strong representation in Washington. Conyers says he’s a friend of President Obama and they’ve talked about Detroit.

“There’s a reserve fund that we have in the federal government for these kinds of activities. And, it’s my hope that we’re going to be able to be eligible for them,” Conyers said.

But Conyers faces competition for the Democratic nomination from another well-known activist, The Rev. Horace Sheffield III. Sheffield says the 85-year-old Conyers might be good at espousing policy, but the district needs someone to bring home the bacon.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield III is challenging John Conyers Jr. for the Democratic nomination in the 13th Congressional District.
The Rev. Horace Sheffield III is challenging John Conyers Jr. for the Democratic nomination in the 13th Congressional District.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“I have some issues with whether or not he’s capable at this point. It’s a little bit more than what he can handle at this point,” Sheffield said.

Sheffield says if he’s elected to Congress, he’ll not only work to help a post-bankruptcy Detroit, but he’ll try to shift the focus of the federal government.

“I mean it’s not just bailing Detroit out. We spend billions of dollars overseas and I just think we need to change our focus to what we can do to help American citizens.”

Both candidates carry some baggage.

Sheffield is facing a defamation lawsuit and an assault charge, and a building he owns is arrears on an electricity bill by $250,000.

“I mean, I haven’t lived the perfect life. I would tell you most of the trouble I’ve been in in my life has been me helping other folks. And that has caused me to maybe make some bad judgments or to overextend myself. But, at the end of the day I can live with me because I know I didn’t just think about me,” Sheffield explained.

Sheffield’s reports to the Federal Election Commission show he’s not raised any money for the campaign. The incumbent, Conyers, has received a lot of PAC money as well as individual contributions.

The baggage Congressman Conyers is dragging around is a bungled petition drive to get on the ballot. Unregistered voters gathered the signatures, a violation of Michigan election laws. A federal judge ruled Conyers back on the ballot because the judge felt it was likely that state requirement is unconstitutional.

Whoever gets the Democratic nomination will run against Republican Jeff Gorman, who is unopposed in the primary. But the 13th District is heavily Democratic. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination is likely to win the general election in November.