Commentary: Conyers Feeling the Pain of Failing to Make First Things First

After 50 years in Congress, the Michigan representative is having challenges to get on the ballot for re-election.

Posted: 05/06/2014 04:18 PM EDT

One of the most important rules in politics is that it’s critical to cover your home base, to make sure that the basics are covered.

That is a lesson that has surely occurred to Congressman John Conyers, the veteran member of the House of Representatives, from Detroit, who has served in Washington for nearly 50 years.

The Michigan Democrat is facing a significant electoral challenge, perhaps the most challenging one since he was elected in 1964. Conyers has been informed that he may well lack the required number of signatures on his nominating petitions to get a spot on the ballot for the August 5 primary.

Initially, it seemed that Conyers had more than enough signatures, having turned in about 2,000 signatures in his petitions. However, after a challenge from another candidate seeking to topple the long-term congressman, the Wayne County clerk disqualified more than 800 signatures. Then, more than 300 more signatures were said to have been collected by people who were not registered to vote. That left Conyers with fewer than the required 1,000 signatures.

The 84-year-old Conyers is an elder statesman of African-American politics, an elected official who has played prominent roles in everything from opposition to the war in Vietnam and the establishment of the Congressional Black Caucus to the investigation into the misdeeds of President Richard Nixon. He has played a prominent role in making Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday and in pushing for national health care.

But, alas, none of these achievements and causes will get a candidate on the ballot. It takes the manpower of dedicated volunteers who will ensure that every t is crossed to make sure a candidate’s name is on the ballot. Conyers’s years in office should have offered enough experience that he and his aides should have made sure he had a group of foot soldiers who would gather more than 5,000 signatures.

A rule of thumb for most politicians is to make sure they have so many signatures five to 10 times the required number that any candidate would find it futile to challenge those petitions.

It seems unlikely that Conyers will not make it on the ballot, given his stature and history in Michigan. But the political world is an unpredictable. He may well have to run as a write-in candidate (a strategy that worked quite well for Detroit's mayor, Mike Duggan).

Still, it would be a shame for a man with Conyers’s role in the progressive politics over the last half century to have to deal with such a mundane issue at this stage in his career. In the meantime, it offers an important lesson to candidates everywhere, one that should be heeded at all costs.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan

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