Now the real fight begins for Congressman John Conyers

Wayne County clerk says veteran politician is not qualified for primary ballot


DETROIT – The build-up outstripped the final decision.

Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett decided last Friday congressman John Conyers would not make the August 5th primary ballot. But that was an internal staff report. The anticipation was for the final,final report, with breathless headlines over the weekend and yesterday, foreshadowing the big announcement that came today.

It did not change the outcome at all and, in fact, it was a bit of a snoozer. Cathy Garrett did express her deep regret and clearly was not happy or comfortable being the person who left a Detroit political legend off the ballot. Conyers has been in Congress for 50 years and looks, at age 84, for a 26th term. Garrett made it clear it was not her doing. She had no choice but to follow the law as it exists today and make a determination based on the best information available. Still the final, final decision from Cathy Garrett is really just the beginning.

View/download: Full news release
View/download: Wayne County clerk's final determination on Conyers' ballot status

Local 4 caught up today with John Pirich, Congressman Conyers' election attorney. He is extremely confident he can get Cathy Garrett's decision overturned and there are any number of ways that might happen. Pirich will either appeal Garrett's decision to Secretary of State Ruth Johnson [he said in the interview he would likely do so by Friday if it helped his case] or to a circuit court.

But he is also watching the other federal lawsuits that have been filed on the congressman's behalf. AFSCME and federally indicted union activist Robert Davis sued the Highland Park City Clerk essentially asking for permission to use unregistered voters in his campaign. He believes it unconstitutional for Michigan law, that has existed since the mid-1960s, requiring petition circulators in partisan elections to be registered voters. There are several court rulings including one from the U.S. Supreme Court stating that in non-partisan elections circulators do not have to be registered voters.

Davis, along with constitutional scholars, say it is impossible to maintain that split. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a similar suit. Both of those would help the congressman because many of the signatures were thrown out in this case based on the finding that some of Conyers' circulators were not registered voters at the time they collected signatures.

But there is a flip side to this coin. Eric Doster is Rev. Horace Sheffield's election attorney. He says the first problem for the Conyers camp is the fact that even if the two circulators whose signatures were disallowed because of improper voter registrations were allowed, the congressman is still unlikely to make the ballot. Doster says three circulators have fraudulent petitions. He cites Chinita Terry, the woman who hired Conyers' circulators at 75 cents a signature. She signed and turned in her signatures with a Detroit address. In the middle of the process back in February 2014, she moved to Oak Park and registered to vote in Oak Park. By turning in signatures with the wrong address and signing the sheets she invalidates her signatures which number more than 300.

Then there is the problem of it would take an unprecedented judicial opinion to overturn the constitutionality of the circulators but then allow a candidate who did not clear the bar onto the ballot after the fact. Davis and the ACLU are looking forward, asking for future permission to use unregistered voters in partisan elections. The Conyers case would require looking back, something Doster points out has never been done and he has no expectation it would be in this case.

All of this will end up fought over, and it will be a hard fight. Whether it is the Secretary of State's Office hearing the arguments, a circuit court judge, a federal judge or any combination of the three, this will be a tough slog. There remains the question whether a write-in candidacy is going to be necessary, but seeing how this process has played out so far, Congressman Conyers will certainly have to start preparing for one.

Michigan State Senator Bert Johnson has taken over the congressman's campaign and says he is preparing for either eventuality. For the congressman, this will mean a lot of money will have to be spent that he is not prepared to, at least as of now, to spend. He had not fundraised at a high level because he has been a shoo-in for so long it hasn't been necessary. He will have to expend a lot of energy needed on the campaign trail he hasn't had to in a generation.

The Rev. Horace Sheffield is now saying he's going to campaign without worrying whether the incumbent congressman will make the ballot. Why wouldn't he? The toll this incident has taken on the congressman's campaign is doing far more damage than he could have in a month of town hall meetings. So now we wonder which it will be.

Will Detroit and the many supporters who believe the congressman has been wronged here carry him over the finish line a winner, or will Detroit decide the congressman's finest days have passed?

Stay tuned to a fascinating story.

About the Author: