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John Conyers Is the First Major Lawmaker Unseated in the Post-Weinstein Reckoning

The 88-year-old Michigan congressman, who is “retiring” amid multiple sexual harassment claims, insists that his son should run for his seat in the forthcoming special election

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Tuesday, embattled U.S. Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) told a Detroit radio host that he’s “retiring.” That’s one way to put it.

Effective immediately, Conyers is resigning. His disgraceful departure follows reports that he subjected female staffers to sexual harassment and then settled a 2014 complaint about his misconduct in secret. Two weeks ago, BuzzFeed broke the story of Conyers’s settlement with a former staffer who refused the congressman’s alleged sexual advances. The woman who filed the complaint, whose identitiy BuzzFeed withheld at her request, later revealed herself to be Marion Brown, a former deputy chief of staff for Conyers. Another accuser, Elisa Grubbs, has corroborated Brown’s accounts of his behavior; Grubbs also described Conyers groping her in a church. “Witnessing Rep. Conyers rub women’s thighs and buttocks and make comments about women’s physical attributes was a regular part of life while working in the office of Rep. Conyers,” Grubbs swore in a December affidavit. Together, Grubbs’s and Brown’s accounts describe abuses of power that drastically pervert the legacy of an otherwise popular legislator, who cofounded the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi initially defended Conyers from calls to resign, describing the 88-year-old as “an icon in our country” in a November 26 appearance on Meet the Press. Four days later, Pelosi yielded to criticism. “The allegations against Congressman Conyers are serious, disappointing, and very credible,” Pelosi said at a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday. “Congressman Conyers should resign.” Since Thursday, Conyers’s departure had seemed inevitable, even as his attorney Arnold Reed assembled a press conference to stress that Pelosi “sure as hell” wouldn’t determine the senior lawmaker’s political future. Now that Conyers has indeed resigned, he insists that his son, John Conyers III, should run for his seat in the forthcoming special election. To the bitter end, Conyers is loath to relinquish his control within a political framework that has shattered beneath his feet. Menacingly, he has insisted that his influence should nonetheless haunt this system forever.

So far, Conyers is the only major politician to fall to the greater national rebellion against powerful men who harass and assault their (often female) peers and subordinates. On Monday, President Donald Trump reiterated his endorsement of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, a Republican, whom several women have accused of gross misconduct, including sexual assault and child molestation. In the Senate, Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has called for an ethics probe of Minnesota Senator Al Franken, a Democrat, whom several women have recently accused of groping and unwanted advances. Schumer has declined to join the small chorus of liberal columnists and Democratic lawmakers calling on Franken to resign, and so has New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, who is spearheading an effort to reform the process for reporting harassment complaints on Capitol Hill.

As Conyers slips into obscurity, it is unclear whether his departure will jeopardize Franken, who has laid low for the past several days, and who embodies the possibility that all this renewed scrutiny of powerful men will subside. This week, the GOP’s last-ditch rehabilitation of Moore’s image may send the more powerful sign that sex abuse doesn’t warrant censure, much less resignation or impeachment, for U.S. legislators after all. Conyers has “retired” from the House only to find that his disqualifying behavior may well go unchallenged in the Senate.