By Debbie Siegelbaum - 09/08/11 09:15 AM EDT
Rep. John Conyers Jr. wants President Obama to back his reelection bid as the Michigan Democrat faces what could be his most competitive race in decades.
Conyers, the second-longest-serving current House member behind fellow Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell, was the first Congressional Black Caucus member to endorse Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Backing from Obama could serve the 82-year-old lawmaker well as he seeks his 25th term in office in the wake of Republican-led redistricting efforts.
A redistricting law approved by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in August moved pro-Conyers areas of West Detroit and Highland Park out of his 14th district, adding hundreds of thousands of new constituents from such affluent neighborhoods as Grosse Pointe.
The Republican-crafted plan left Conyers with just 20 percent of his previous constituents. Amid the shake-up, several fellow Democrats announced their interest in running in the 14th district in the 2012 cycle. Among them were Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence, state Rep. Tim Melton and attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998.
On Aug. 21, Conyers’s Michigan colleague Rep. Hansen Clarke (D) announced he would run in the newly drawn 14th district rather than the 13th he currently represents. Conyers now plans to run in Clarke’s old district.
Asked if Conyers was in support of the move, Clarke spokeswoman Kim Bowman said, “I cannot speak for Conyers, but I’m sure he is.
“I’m sure my boss and Conyers have discussed this,” she said, adding that the newly drawn 13th district, including areas west of Detroit, was now “more Conyers’s turf.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) will likely run against Clarke in the 14th district.
Conyers’s office declined to comment on the district switch.
He faces a tougher fight than he is used to, said John Chamberlin, professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
“Conyers has been around a long time, but hasn’t had to fight very hard. He might get a run for his money,” Chamberlin said.
Conyers hasn’t had a serious primary opponent since 1994, and his winning percentage in an election has never dipped below 82 percent. But all that could change next year. Late last month, state Sen. Bert Johnson (D) announced he plans to seek the 13th district House seat, pitting him against Conyers.
“I’m sure [Conyers would] be happy to have the president endorse him,” Chamberlin said. But “I can’t imagine Obama would get too mixed up in this. He’s got so many fights, this doesn’t seem like a high-stakes one.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Obama has previously gotten involved in House primary races. In 2008, then-Sen. Obama backed Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), drawing heat from some African Americans for endorsing a white candidate over a black state senator in Barrow’s primary. CBC members in tough primaries subsequently pressed Obama to back them.
Obama and Conyers have a complicated relationship. Even though Conyers supported Obama over then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the 2008 presidential primaries, he has been a vocal critic of the president on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and during the debt-limit discussions.
In July, Conyers called on the public to protest in front of the White House over Obama’s willingness to cut entitlement programs.
“We’ve got to march on him,” Conyers said at a news conference this summer. “We want him to know from this day forward … that we’ve had it. We want him to come out on our side and advocate, not to watch and wait to see what [lawmakers] are doing in the House and Senate. We’re suffering.”
Earlier in his presidency, Obama called Conyers to ask why he was “demeaning” him.
“I think Conyers is sort of, in my sense, dug in where he’s always been on the left-right continuum,” Chamberlin said. “And Obama has drifted to the middle.”
Meanwhile, Conyers is “focused, as always, on helping working families struggling during hard economic times,” his office said. During the August recess, he and Clarke hosted a job fair as part of a CBC initiative.
Chamberlin said Conyers will have to step it up to hold onto his House seat next year.
“Conyers will have to campaign harder than he has in a while,” he said. But the big question remains, “Is he ready to do that?”