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John Conyers, longest serving black congressman, dies at 90

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AP Detroit
Former US Rep. John Conyers, one of the longest-serving members of Congress whose resolutely liberal stance on civil rights made him a political institution in Washington and back home in Detroit despite several scandals, has died.
He was 90.
Conyers, among the high-profile politicians toppled by sex harassment allegations in 2017, died at his home on Sunday, said Detroit police spokesman Cpl. Dan Donakowski.
The death "looks like natural causes," Donakowski added.
Known as the dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, which he helped found, Conyers became one of only six black House members when he won his first election by just 108 votes in 1964.
The race was the beginning of more than 50 years of election dominance: Conyers regularly won elections with more than 80 per cent of the vote, even after his wife went to prison for taking a bribe.
That voter loyalty helped Conyers freely speak his mind. He took aim at both Republicans and fellow Democrats: He said then-President George W. Bush "has been an absolute disaster for the African-American community" in 2004, and in 1979 called then-President Jimmy Carter "a hopeless, demented, honest, well-intentioned nerd who will never get past his first administration."

Throughout his career, Conyers used his influence to push civil rights. After a 15-year fight, he won passage of legislation declaring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, first celebrated in 1986.
He regularly introduced a bill starting in 1989 to study the harm caused by slavery and the possibility of reparations for slaves' descendants. That bill never got past a House subcommittee.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Sunday that without Conyers there would be no King holiday "no doubt about that." "He was one of the most consequential congressmen," Jackson said.
His district office in Detroit employed civil rights legend Rosa Parks from 1965 until her retirement in 1988. In 2005, Conyers was among 11 people inducted to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.
But after a nearly 53-year career, he became the first Capitol Hill politician to lose his job in the torrent of sexual misconduct allegations sweeping through the nation's workplaces. A former staffer alleged she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances, and others said they'd witnessed Conyers inappropriately touching female staffers or requesting sexual favours.
He denied the allegations but eventually stepped down, citing health reasons.
"My legacy can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we're going through now," Conyers told a Detroit radio station from a hospital where he'd been taken after complaining of lightheadedness in December 2017. "This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children."

Conyers was born and grew up in Detroit, where his father, John Conyers Sr., was a union organizer in the automotive industry and an international representative with the United Auto Workers union.
Before heading to Washington, Conyers served in the National Guard and with the US Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War supervising repairs of military aircraft. He earned his bachelor's and law degrees from Wayne State University in the late 1950s.
His political aspirations were honed while working as a legislative assistant from 1958 to 1961 to US Rep. John Dingell, a fellow Michigan Democrat who, when he retired in 2014 at age 88, was Congress' longest-serving member. That mantle then was passed onto Conyers. Dingell died in February.
Conyers was the only House Judiciary Committee member to have sat in on two impeachment hearings: He supported a 1972 resolution recommending President Richard Nixon's impeachment for his conduct of the Vietnam War, but when the House clashed in 1998 over articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, Conyers said: "Impeachment was designed to rid this nation of traitors and tyrants, not attempts to cover up an extramarital affair."

Conyers also had scandals of his own.
In 2009, his wife Monica Conyers, a Detroit city councilwoman largely elected on the strength of her husband's last name, pleaded guilty to bribery. The case was related to a sludge hauling contract voted on by the City Council, and she spent nearly two years in prison.
Three years earlier, the House ethics committee closed a three-year investigation of allegations that Conyers' staff worked on political campaigns and was ordered to baby-sit for his two children and run his personal errands. He admitted to a "lack of clarity" with staffers and promised changes.
But he couldn't survive the last scandal. An ethics committee launched a review after a former longtime staffer said Conyers' office paid her more than USD 27,000 under a confidentiality agreement to settle a complaint in 2015.
She alleged she was fired because she rejected his sexual advances, and other said they'd witnesses inappropriate behaviour.
Conyers initially said he looked forward to vindicating himself and his family, but he announced his immediate retirement in December 2017 after fellow Democrats called for his resignation. The chorus included Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the House's top Democrat.
Along with his wife, Conyers is survived by two sons, John III and Carl.

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First Published: Oct 28 2019 | 4:38 AM IST

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