Raw Story interviews Rep. Conyers
By Larisa Alexandrovna and John Byrne | RAW STORY Editor
Raw Story’s John Byrne and Larisa Alexandrovna spent some time yesterday speaking with Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.).
Although many people have only recently discovered Rep. Conyers through his investigation of Ohio voting irregularities, Conyers has in fact been a prominent force in the civil rights movement for over 35 years.
Conyers is one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and is now the second ranking member in the House of Representatives. Conyers’ legislative accomplishments include the 1983 Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Act, the Jazz Preservation Act of 1987, the 1988 Alcohol Warning Label Act, the 1993 Motor Voter bill and the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.
Rep. Conyers was also the driving force behind the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. He is the leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Conyers was kind enough to meet with us to discuss the issues that are of serious concern to so many Americans.
We were nervous in preparing for our meeting in speaking with such a notable leader of the original civil rights movement and who continues, today, to be the voice for ethics in government. Conyers was warm, open, and welcoming in our conversation, and answered every question asked.
Conyers: I wanted to congratulate your Web site for the tens of thousands of people you have informed.
John: Thank you, thank you.
Conyers: You know, it’s a funny thing. I am still opening up Christmas cards and things that compliment us for taking up an effort that you’d think we would have a solid majority of members in the Congress behind us on. Just asking about the irregularities and how we can find on what really went on and how we can get them corrected.
John: There is a great deal of support.
Conyers: But out here among citizens there is a stronger feeling about this than there is among some of the leaders of Congress.
Larisa: The opposition looks larger; things look bigger on TV. But many people are very much behind this effort.
Conyers: Here we are two presidential elections in a row, one state determines the winner, and each time that state has the highest number of irregularities, unusual procedures, outright violations of election law. It does not require political science to get the connection
John: You don’t think that was simply because there was more focus on, say, Ohio in this election, and Florida in the last?
Conyers: It all came down to the same thing, John, the one state that would make the difference was the one state that was plagued with the most irregularities and the most complaints. I did not pick Ohio, Ohio leapt to our attention because that is where the majority of the calls came from.
Larisa: Congressman Conyers… I do want to tell you that there were significant problems in Florida.
Conyers: Well, I think that if Ohio had not come into such prominence, Florida would have again been the most contentious state in the union, don’t you?
Larisa: Well, I think Ohio overshadowed Florida. …The office of the inspector general for the state of Florida basically in an audit released shortly after the Nov. 2 election cited serious violations with regard to Federal law as well as the NAACP settlement of 2000. The audit fell largely on deaf ears. Just to give you a brief background summary, as you know in the 2000 election, there was a “fake” felon list that listed non-felon African Americans as felons, falsely…
Conyers: Of course.
Larisa: As part of the 2001 NAACP settlement addressing this problem, the state, going forward, would have to notify the NAACP of any changes in the vetting of the felon list. In addition, the state was required to notify the Justice Department with regard to procedural changes. The state did neither. The state also hired a third party, again, not within state regulation, to vet the felon list. The company hired was Accenture (formerly Arthur Anderson).
Conyers: Oh boy…
Larisa: …Accenture’s external lead director is also the director of Anglo American PLC, considered by many to be one of the pillars of South African Apartheid. I have been trying to get Jesse Jackson or someone from the NAACP to address the Florida election .
Conyers: Boy, it just gets worse and worse and worse. Well, what we are doing and what makes it so important that we use the 1877 law, which has never been used like this before, is that we established the fact that we are not taking these massive irregularities and violations of election law lying down anymore. And we are also going to begin asking on our Web site, we are asking people for suggestions on changes that they would like to see in the federal law because It is clear that just as we did the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) between 2000 and this election, we have to do another law between this election and 2008.
Larisa: Since the election has been officially certified, do you plan to continue the 2004 investigation or are you moving forward to correct issues for the next election?
Larisa: What can the investigation accomplish should it bear fruit?
Conyers: What we want to do now, we will have our letter to chairman [Republican Rep. F. James] Sensenbrenner up tomorrow, what we want to do now is go into it…We can go into all of the things we could not do in our capacity earlier, we will now be able to do as the formal Judiciary Committee using its oversight powers to examine these things. That is why the 101-page report and the witnesses’ testimony that was taken by court stenographers in both Washington and in Columbus, Ohio is so vital, it gives us a base to go from which would have otherwise been eradicated by the time we got to the hearings and no one would have been around to tell us anything about it. So the battle goes on.
Larisa: Do you expect the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee to fully support the investigation?
Conyers: I don’t expect them to fully support it. All I have to do is persuade chairman Sensenbrenner that it is in all of our best interests and that he support it because he can unilaterally grant the hearings. I don’t need all of their support. Now we are moving forward on this. We are urging people to visit our Web site and recommend changes that we might want to consider that have come out of their experiences, good bad or indifferent in the Nov. 2 2004 election… This survey will give us another avenue at looking [into] this election, with the intent to improve the next election.
Larisa: So essentially this past election is considered over, even if your investigation should bear fruit and [the survey and investigation] is for moving forward?
Conyers: I would not say it is over because if there are criminal violations they can be prosecuted still.
Larisa: This brings me to Kenneth Blackwell who is not seemingly cooperating…
Conyers: What a piece of work he is.
Larisa: How do you plan on handling Mr. Blackwell because he does not seem to want to cooperate?
Conyers: Once we get the committee hearing approval, this is my very next immediate task. Obviously we need him as a witness, and I would be willing to invite him to come forward. And if he refused I would seek a subpoena.
Larisa: You mentioned in your letter to your supporters that you have gotten some negative feedback and opposition. Why do you think there has been such resistance to your investigation among some elements of the Democratic Party?
Conyers: I think some of our Democrats feel it is a hopeless task and it will not accomplish much. They don’t realize that all of the people who were deeply hurt or angered or
ed by the way they were treated are looking for someone to help them remedy the situation. Otherwise we run the risk of having fewer people participate in the next presidential election.
Larisa: Because they are discouraged.
Conyers: Right, they are discouraged and there are a number of people, sad to say, they are not even going to come forward to me or my committee. They have just given up, they feel the process is hopeless, how many of them are there I don’t know.
John: Congressman I wanted to ask you some questions unrelated to the election, if you don’t mind.
John: Thank you. I know it is the Senate’s role to confirm the president’s cabinet nominees, however, I wonder if you had specific questions and reservations about the president’s nominees: Dr. Rice, Chertoff, and Gonzales?
Conyers: Well certainly with Condoleezza Rice, bringing her forward is absolutely incredible. Now we have a Kissinger protégé who is now going to make Colin Powell look like a progressive in comparison.
John: I know that you fought for civil rights through your tenure in Congress and if I remember correctly you were the first to propose the Martin Luther King Day, Jr., holiday in 1979. Some have said they see great promise in the diversity of the president’s cabinet specifically, I mean, he put Colin Powell in there, Condoleezza Rice and now also Gonzales. Do you have any comment on that?
Conyers: Well, I think now we have to examine more than just the color of an appointee, we’ve got to examine their record and their philosophy and where they’re going to take us. We have Clarence Thomas we now have Condoleezza Rice. We had Colin Powell, who many thought that he should really [have] stepped down way before the end of his term because of the way he was being ignored and diminished in his role as Secretary of State. I think that he did himself a great disservice by staying until the end of his term.
John: Larisa, did you have a follow-up on that?
Larisa: Yes. I have heard that some people were concerned that the Bush administration was using the diversity of the nominees to deflect criticism.
Conyers: Oh absolutely. Well the Hispanic aspect, with Gonzales; Rod Paige. But very few people can be fooled for long when the Secretary of Education denominates a teachers’ national union as a “terrorist organization.” Or Colin Powell gives support to rebels that are destroying the first democratically elected government in Haiti in its history… Condoleezza Rice who rationalizes preemptive strikes; or Gonzales who condones torture and believes that there are many important exceptions to the Geneva conventions which we’re not bound to. Those kinds of people, those kinds of positions are not going to be erased because of the ethnicity or race of the person [who is] presenting them.
Larisa: Do we know in actuality who is at Guantanamo or how many people are there?
Conyers: I think there are published figures; I can’t attest to their accuracy, though.
John: On another subject, what are your thoughts on the Social Security situation and do you have a sense of what strategy that you and other Democrats are planning in the House?
Conyers: Well, the Social Security private accounts would be laughable except that [the administration] is actually moving forward on them. There’s no way, there’s no way that we can ask seniors to play
the stock market and have any better luck than professionals who frequently lose considerable amounts of money in managing other people’s money. I mean, to ask these grandmothers and elders trying to pore through the stock exchange in the Wall Street Journal – it would make a nice comedy sketch except they’re serious. What if you don’t pick the right stock?
I would like to continue this conversation, and I want to continue looking more closely at your website. Keep up the good work.
John: Yes, we would very much like to as well.
Larisa: Yes. Thank you, sir. Thank you for your time.