Rules for Everyone, Except Conyers

Member Group : Salena Zito

John Conyers did not do the simplest part of his job. And for his failure, a federal judge rewarded the incumbent Michigan congressman.

The judge allowed Conyers to remain on the primary ballot even though he didn’t legally gather the number of signatures needed to run for office.

Which is more egregious; that this veteran Democrat (whose district includes Detroit, a city desperately in need of stewardship) failed to get a minimum of 1,000 people to legally sign his petition, or that both he and a federal judge decided that the rules apply to everyone but him?

Conyers appealed a ruling by the Wayne County clerk that he didn’t submit enough valid nominating petitions to qualify for the ballot; state election officials agreed.

But Conyers conveniently found a judge, Matthew Leitman, an Obama nominee who just took his seat on the federal bench a couple of months ago, who overruled the county and the state.

So Conyers, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who has held his congressional seat since 1965, was put back on the ballot even though he failed to meet the very simple filing requirements.

This story is about leadership, about doing the right thing and following the rules.

Conyers’ supporters say the judge rightly concluded that the ballot rules are unconstitutional.

But those are the rules, nonetheless. Just as a speed limit is a rule; you may think being limited to 25 mph on a straightaway is stupid, but most people won’t get a high-priced lawyer to argue that their constitutional rights were violated when they get a speeding ticket.

If Conyers believed so strongly that the requirement of gathering 1,000 signatures from his constituents was unconstitutional, why didn’t he address it before he failed that simple task?

Better yet, why didn’t he lead by example and pursue a write-in candidacy? He probably would have won easily.

If he had done that, he would have shown his constituents, many of them struggling to survive in a frighteningly depressed city, that he plays by the rules and upholds the law.

Instead, he showed them that he is an elitist who believes the rules are for everyone else.

The intersection of good governance and serving the citizenry should be paved with trust. We should demand that those who represent us, who shape the country we live in, will uphold the laws, just as they expect us to do.

Detroit deserves better, should aspire for better, than John Conyers. He has been in power since Detroit peaked and started to turn ugly, and he has stayed in power by managing – not stopping – the decline, by dangling favors in the form of pork projects.

He is no stranger to scandal and controversy, either.

In 2006, CNN reported that former staff members claimed that he forced them to baby-sit his children, to run his errands and to work on political campaigns while they were on his congressional payroll. He was implicated but never investigated when his wife, Monica Conyers, was sent to prison for taking cash kickbacks while serving on Detroit’s city council; the Detroit Free Press reported that he repaid $5,682 to the U.S. Treasury to cover his son’s use of a 2010 Cadillac Escalade hybrid that was leased at taxpayers’ expense.

Such behavior should outrage his constituents; such elitism should make voters throw their hands in the air – and then throw the bum out.

Yet none of that is likely to happen.

Instead, Conyers likely will win his primary challenge in August, based on name recognition and an electorate that is unwilling to toss him, either because of malaise or a fear of change.

And this latest controversy?

In all likelihood, it either will be forgotten long before Election Day or people will say “That’s just Conyers” and go about their business, because his constituents have bigger things to worry about – things like jobs, quality of life, crime, school safety, a quality education for their children and keeping their families together under the weight of all of Detroit’s stresses.

Sadly, too many Detroiters have become accustomed to a guy who gets away with things because of his power and his privileges in elected office.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]