Rep. John Conyers, the most senior member of Congress, announced his immediate retirement Tuesday after multiple claims of sexual harassment, making him the first lawmaker to leave his seat in wake of such allegations this year.
“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now. This too shall pass,” Mr. Conyers, Michigan Democrat, said Tuesday morning on Detroit radio station WPZR-FM.
He and his family denied he was resigning due to the sexual-misconduct scandal, attributing his decision to health reasons. The 88-year-old lawmaker was recently hospitalized for stress-related problems and returned home to Detroit one week after reports of a sexual harassment settlement to a former staffer became public.
The Michigan Democrat, with more than 50 years’ service, was the first black lawmaker to be dean of the House, as the chamber’s most senior member. He was endorsed by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1964 race, pioneered the bill to create a national holiday in honor of King, and was a leader in voting-rights and civil-rights legislation.
But his legacy was tarnished in recent weeks when he became part of the face of sexual harassment problems on Capitol Hill, amid a national debate over the treatment of women in the workplace.
While denying the allegations of bad behavior, he paid out tens of thousands of dollars from his taxpayer-funded office account to settle one harassment claim. More allegations from other women forced him to step down from his role as ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Although Mr. Conyers said his retirement was immediate and endorsed his son, John Conyers III, to take his seat, the governor or House speaker must receive a letter of resignation so that a special election can be held, according to Michigan state law.
A New York Times report earlier in the day said Mr. Conyers’s nephew, Ian Conyers, would also likely make a run for the seat.
Despite the controversy surrounding Mr. Conyers’ exit, Democrats likely will safely hold the 13th Congressional District — located in part of Detroit and the surrounding suburbs — since it’s been in their party’s control since 1949.
How Democrats, and Congress overall, deal with sexual harassment allegations will likely prove to be the bigger challenge. Mr. Conyers is just one of several lawmakers to face sexual harassment claims in recent weeks.
Rep. Ruben Kihuen, Nevada Democrat, was accused this week of making unwanted advances toward a former campaign staffer last year. Another report last week found Rep. Blake Farenthold, Texas Republican, used a Treasury Department fund to pay off a 2014 sexual harassment claim. Multiple women alleged in recent weeks that Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, touched them inappropriately as well.
Mr. Franken is currently under a Senate ethics review and Mr. Farenthold has vowed to pay the money back, but Democratic leaders have called on Mr. Kihuen to step down. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other members of the Democratic leadership were highly criticized for initially defending Mr. Conyers before eventually calling on him to step down in recent days.
Another tough situation for Congress is Roy Moore. The Republican Senate candidate in Alabama has been accused of pursuing sexual relationships with teenage girls — one as young as 14-years-old — as an adult man working in the district attorney’s office. If he wins the Dec. 12 special election, congressional leaders will have to decide if he too will face an ethics review, or a possible expulsion from the Senate.
Even President Trump faced harassment claims from several different women during the 2016 presidential campaign, which have resurfaced in the current moment.
The #MeToo movement — women coming forward with stories of harassment — began with a bombshell report from The New York Times earlier this year detailing explicit stories of sexual misconduct, and even assault, by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The report triggered several women coming forward with stories of similar acts in their own workplaces with far-reaching consequences across entertainment, media and politics.
Big-name stars like CBS News anchorman Charlie Rose and longtime NBC News “Today” host Matt Lauer, have been terminated due to accusations of inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Actors Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. have seen their projects or their involvement in them torpedoed.
So far politicians, aside from Mr. Conyers, have managed to hold their positions, despite the claims of harassment, causing Congress to reassess how such incidents are handled.
Several lawmakers are working on bills to make reporting situations easier and hold politicians more accountable. Others are making moves to prevent taxpayers from footing the bill for any potential settlements.