Disputed Signatures May End Conyers' 50-Year Congressional Career

Image: Disputed Signatures May End Conyers' 50-Year Congressional Career

Monday, 12 May 2014 11:34 AM

By John Gizzi

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Democratic Rep. John Conyers is expected to be ruled ineligible this week for the Aug. 5 primary ballot in Michigan's 13th District, likely ending the lawmaker's congressional career after 50 years in office.

Barring a reversal of the expected decision by the Wayne County Clerk or the slim chance that Conyers, 84, can win the nomination as a write-in candidate, this is the last hurrah for the final U.S. representative to come into office as President Lyndon Johnson was winning a full term in 1964.

Urgent: Who Is Your Choice for the GOP's 2016 Nominee?

Michigan's election law requires that a minimum number of signatures from voters in a U.S. House district need to be legally verified in order for a candidate for Congress to be certified on the primary ballot. In Conyers' Detroit district, the number is 1,000 signatures. Conyers' office had told reporters he submitted 2,000 signatures.

But questions surfaced in late April about the ballot status of Conyers, one of the founders of the Congressional Black Caucus. The Rev. Horace Sheffield III, Conyers' primary opponent, filed a challenge to the veteran congressman's nominating petitions.

Sheffield's campaign specifically charged that two of Conyers' petition circulators were not registered voters when they gathered signatures, as is required by Michigan law. In addition, one of the circulators, 23-year-old Daniel Pennington, is reportedly a fugitive wanted for a parole violation after he pleaded guilty to a second-degree home invasion charge in Battle Creek in 2012. There is also an arrest warrant for Pennington in Lansing, according to the Detroit News.

The News reported that Conyers came up short by more than 400 valid signatures.

Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett is expected to officially rule Conyers is disqualified in a report to be issued Tuesday.

Sheffield is a pastor and the father of Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield. The pastor-politician told WJR Radio's Frank Beckmann in February that "people other than the congressperson actually make decisions for the interests of our district," and Conyers "is not all there."

Given the difficulties of a write-in candidacy and the embarrassment surrounding the veteran congressman in what should have been an easy task to get on the ballot for the 26th time, Sheffield is now in the catbird seat.

Fred Woodhams, spokesman for Michigan's secretary of state, told Newsmax that once the county clerk makes her decision on the status of a candidate's ballot position, "someone who doesn't agree with that decision has three days to file a written appeal with the [Michigan] circuit court."

Ballot position needs to be settled "by early June," Woodhams said, so the secretary of state's office can prepare the primary ballot.

Conyers' political team could opt for a write-in candidacy in the primary. But history is overwhelming against this move. In the 20th century, only five U.S. representatives were elected as write-in candidates and all but one was fueled by outrage at the incumbent or party bosses for heavy-handed techniques.

When Democratic Rep. Harold Runnels of New Mexico died suddenly in 1980 and Democratic Party chieftains replaced him on the ballot with then-Gov. Bruce King's nephew, Republicans were denied the right to nominate a candidate because no one had filed for nomination against Runnels. But Republican Joe Skeen then ran as a write-in candidate and won.

Present Democratic Reps. Dave Loebsack of Iowa and Jerry McNerney of California have both won primaries as write-in candidates. But both faced minimal opposition, without a substantive candidate on the ballot, which Sheffield clearly is.

Last year, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan did win the Democratic primary as a write-in candidate after being bounced from the ballot for not meeting residency requirements.

But in 2012, after Republican Rep. Thad McCotter of Michigan was ruled off the ballot, local GOP leaders were alarmed at the thought of the nomination going to the lone candidate on the ballot, Ron Paul supporter Kerry Bentivolio.

They rallied behind former state Sen. Nancy Cassis. But because the filing deadline for the primary ballot had passed by the time of McCotter's June 2 exit, Cassis could run only as a write-in candidate. Her campaign materials read: "Nothin' Fancy. Just write-in Nancy," and she spent more than $200,000 of her own money on the late-starting campaign.

The last EPIC-MRA poll before the vote showed Cassis defeating Bentivolio by a margin of 55 percent to 38 percent among likely primary voters. But a write-in vote is difficult in Michigan — it involves writing in the name as well as shading in an oval spot on the ballot — and Bentivolio prevailed with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

Conyers won his first Democratic primary for Congress in 1964 by 78 votes over Richard Austin, who later became Michigan's secretary of state. Since then, Conyers has coasted to renomination and re-election with little need for campaign organization. Whether he can cobble one together now for the difficult task of winning as a write-in candidate remains to be seen.

Urgent: Who Is Your Choice for the GOP's 2016 Nominee?

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.

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