For the second straight election, a veteran Michigan congressman faces being kicked off the ballot over a basic campaign matter, gathering nominating petition signatures.
This time around, it’s Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), first elected in 1964. In 2012, it was then-Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia), who had been in office for five terms. To get on the ballot for the U.S. House, a candidate must gather between 1,000 and 2,000 signatures on nominating petitions. In McCotter’s case, four members of his district staff had photocopied petition sheets to create duplicate signatures, cut and pasted signatures from previous petitions, and altered dates. The staffers, who had gotten away with these shenanigans for three previous elections, went on to plead guilty to election fraud charges, while McCotter was accused of gross incompetence in allowing it to happen.
For Conyers, the problem is incompetence, not fraud. His campaign paid Ronin America, led by political consultant Steve Hood, $8,500 to gather petition signatures for the Aug. 5 primary. Since 1966, Michigan law requires petition circulators be registered to vote, but Hood admitted that he failed to check the voting registration status of the eight circulators he hired. Three of these circulators weren’t registered to vote, with one of them, Daniel Pennigton, on the lam after skipping probation on a Battle Creek home invasion conviction and failing to appear in the 54A District Court in Lansing on an assault and battery charge. Two other circulators listed incorrect addresses on their petitions.
Following up on a complaint from Rev. Horace Sheffield III, Conyers’ Democratic primary opponent, Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett found that 764 of the 2,000 signatures gathered by the Conyers campaign were invalid. Of the otherwise valid 1,236 signatures, 644 were gathered by circulators who weren’t registered to vote or listed incorrect addresses, and were therefore thrown out, leaving Conyers with only 592 valid signatures. As a result, Garrett reluctantly pulled Conyers off the ballot on Tuesday.
When kicked off the ballot, McCotter initially said he would run a write-in campaign in the Republican primary. But an effective write-in campaign can cost $1 million, McCotter wasn’t much of a fundraiser, he had a poor relationship with the Oakland County Republican Party establishment, and received only qualified support from the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. McCotter soon dropped his write-in bid and subsequently resigned.
While Conyers isn’t a particularly good fundraiser, either, with $112,000 in his campaign coffers as of the end of March, he has a much better shot at staying in office. He will appeal Garrett’s ruling to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who must decide the issue by June 6.
But a better prospect is a lawsuit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan on behalf of Tiara Willis-Pittman and Chinita Terry, the other two unregistered circulators, and Ederl Moore, a longtime Conyers supporter, which challenges the constitutionality of requiring petition circulators to be registered voters. Garrett and Johnson are the defendants.
In filing the lawsuit, the ACLU pointed to a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a Colorado law requiring petition circulators for a ballot issue to be registered voters restricts core political speech, violating the First Amendment. Similar decisions were made by a federal court in Ohio in 2004 regarding Ralph Nader’s independent presidential campaign and by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in 2009 on a recall petition drive against then-state House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford). Conyers has joined the lawsuit, and a similar lawsuit filed by Highland Park School Board member and community activist Robert Davis was consolidated with the ACLU lawsuit. A hearing on the case is scheduled for next Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Matthew Leitman.
If the lawsuit and appeal fail, Conyers, who turns 85 tomorrow, plans to run a write-in campaign. If so, he will be in a stronger position than McCotter was in 2012, even though Conyers has been at times incoherent and his staff is notorious for its incompetence.
In his nearly 50 years in office, Conyers has distinguished himself as a leading voice for civil rights, while compiling one of the most liberal voting records in Congress. He was the major sponsor of making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday; was a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus; chaired the Judiciary Committee, and remains its ranking Democrat; and saw to it that Rosa Parks was the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda.
The longest serving African-American in the history of Congress, Conyers would become dean of the House if re-elected, due to the retirement of Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn).
With his long tenure and excellent connections, Conyers has the support of President Barack Obama, the Michigan Democratic Party, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Congressional Black Caucus, Michigan AFL-CIO and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). If it becomes necessary, a formidable write-in campaign could be waged.