Over the past few weeks, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich, has been accused by multiple former employees of sexual harassment. On Tuesday, Conyers sent a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Gov. Rick Snyder announcing his retirement effective immediately. He made the same announcement in a radio interview while also denying the accusations against him. His retirement came after multiple politicians on both sides of the aisle called for him to step down. The Michigan Daily Editorial Board believes our government officials must be held accountable for their actions regardless of the standing of their character and career.
Conyers, who was first elected to Congress in 1964, co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus and sponsored legislation to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday. Conyers also served as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee for many years and has been a principal supporter of single-payer health care legislation. He has built a robust legacy as a champion of civil rights; the day before his retirement announcement, a rally in Detroit attended by local politicians, faith leaders and activists was held in support of Conyers and his status as an icon of the civil rights movement.
Despite his legacy, Conyers still abused his power as a government official and employer — actions we cannot condone. As his egregious actions have come to light, he can no longer be trusted to uphold important standards of conduct that we expect of any politician. Furthermore, in 2015, Conyers used $27,000 of taxpayer money to settle a wrongful dismissal suit against a former employee who alleged she had been fired for resisting his sexual advances. While the use of taxpayer money for the settlement was entirely legal, we still find this deeply unsettling.
While we live in an increasingly polarized political climate, party politics should not make a difference when addressing sexual harassment on Capitol Hill. We understand that seats in Congress can make or break important legislative initiatives, like we saw with the Republicans’ multiple failed attempts to reform health care. This issue, however, should not pose concern in Conyers’s case. Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, which he represented prior to his retirement, has historically voted democratic. Nonetheless, the issue of sexual misconduct in Congress is not one of politics, but of ethics. If the Democratic Party wishes to be the party that champions women’s rights, they must condemn sexual misconduct within their ranks — even in for elected positions with tighter races.
This expectation goes beyond Conyers and includes Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who has been accused of sexual misconduct by eight women. There has been valid criticism concerning a dual standard shown by democratic leadership, one that favors Franken over Conyers. We would expect the same zero-tolerance policy from the Republican Party, particularly when it comes to Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore. Implicitly or explicitly supporting certain people accused of sexual misconduct while condemning others must stop.
With these allegations and his abrupt retirement, Conyers will now have a complex legacy. We must recognize and accept that people and their legacies can be complex. By looking past this complexity, we lose the accountability we need within our institutions.