- Associated Press - Monday, May 14, 2012

DALLAS — For two decades, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson has been an outspoken voice for Democrats in her signature bright blazer and multicolored scarf.

Now the first black woman to represent North Texas in Congress faces serious opposition in the May 29 primary election, and the effort to unseat her is just one of several challenges against some of the longest-serving black members of Congress.

“I will always be ever more grateful for the trails that she has blazed,” said Eva Jones, owner of a barbecue restaurant who was chairwoman of Ms. Johnson’s first House campaign in 1992. But “there has come a time where we need new leadership, like in any business, like with anything.”

Longtime black incumbents in Dallas, Detroit and New York City are being challenged by a younger generation of black office-seekers who aren’t waiting for retirements by the old guard, including nationally known figures whose activism dates to the civil rights movement.

In Michigan, several people are challenging 82-year-old Rep. John Conyers Jr., the oldest black member of the House.

One of his rivals, Michigan state Sen. Bert Johnson, said people who have voted for the congressman for decades in his Detroit district recognize that “perhaps we’re not trying to integrate lunch counters so much” as work to prevent foreclosures in struggling neighborhoods.

“Those people know that there is a nexus between their experience, and the youthful vigor and zeal that I bring to the table,” said Mr. Johnson, who at 38 was born eight years after Mr. Conyers took office in 1965 following his work with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

In Texas, Ms. Johnson’s two challengers are careful not to criticize her directly, but say they hear increasing doubts from voters in south Dallas, where neighborhoods have struggled long before the recession.

“North Texas has seen a lot of economic growth. Unfortunately, this district and our community hasn’t really shared in that economic development,” said Taj Clayton, one of the congresswoman’s opponents.

One of Ms. Johnson’s challengers, Texas state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, worked for Ms. Johnson when she was a state senator before Ms. Johnson fired her. Mrs. Caraway, 56, is married to a Dallas city council member and is well-known for defeating incumbents in two previous races. She spends much of every day walking the district to talk to voters.

“Twenty years is a long time to be in one elected office. Now’s the time. It’s time for new leadership,” Mrs. Caraway said.

Ms. Johnson, 76, who has won 100 percent of the vote in every primary since her first election victory in 1992, has held relatively few campaign events, has been dismissive of her opponents and refused to debate them, and declined requests to be interviewed. Ms. Johnson’s campaign says she remains focused on the district by holding weekend events and working hard in Washington during the week.

“The way she has always approached it is, ‘I’ll run on my record, so the best thing I can do is continue to extend my record,’ ” spokesman Eddie Reeves said.

Ms. Johnson is a former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has at least two other members in tough re-election fights — Mr. Conyers and New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, 81, who has been a political mainstay in Harlem since 1971.

Mr. Rangel, convicted on House ethics charges in 2010, faces two black Democrats in his bid for a 22nd term — local district leader Joyce Johnson and former Democratic National Committee official Clyde Williams, as well as Hispanic state Sen. Adriano Espaillat.

Hispanics make up more than half the population in the redrawn district. The primary is June 26.