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Congressman John Conyers - The People's Advocate Shares Some of His Vision

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We have every reason to be outraged and disgusted with our corrupt, bought-off government and some of the people who make their living -- on our dime -- running it into the ground. The petty squabbles and abject failures of leadership in Washington are too numerous to count, and it is very hard to view anything that comes from Capitol Hill -- policy, rhetoric, solicitations for money -- without a heaping dose of cynicism and frustration.

That said, we should also acknowledge that there are still some exemplary public servants out there who spend their political careers on the right side of issues, for their constituents and all Americans. These rare birds -- particularly those in Congress -- deserve our support and respect for actually writing and co-sponsoring significant, meaningful bills that affect our lives, unlike so many of their unproductive colleagues. At a time when "incumbent" has become a dirty word and many view D.C. as a private club for crooks and scoundrels with lifetime memberships, we must not lose sight of the real enemies within our government, and the fact that some of them only showed up a few years ago.

I felt that it would be worthwhile to contact one of the iconic Progressive legislators in the House -- someone with whom I have had a friendship for 10 years -- to find out what he thinks about the current state of our politics. He is Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI).

But first, some background information is warranted to fully appreciate the scope of this true advocate for the downtrodden and otherwise forgotten members of our society. This lifelong public servant began his journey when he graduated from law school in his hometown of Detroit in 1958 (his public service actually began in 1948 with service in the National Guard, the U.S. Army and the Army Reserve). He then went on to work as counsel to three local labor unions and provided legal services to civil rights leaders in Detroit. He became a board member on both the ACLU and the NAACP, working in the South during the civil rights movement helping to register voters.

Mr. Conyers' career in Congress began in 1965, winning his seat by a razor thin 44-vote margin. In that election, a new resident of Detroit named Rosa Parks volunteered for his campaign and approached Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about this dynamic young candidate. Dr. King would go on to publicly endorse Mr. Conyers for office, one of the very rare political endorsements Dr. King made. Not long after that, Dr. King presented an award to Conyers for his leadership from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference -- the first of many awards Mr. Conyers would receive in his illustrious career.

Mr. Conyers hired Ms. Parks as an aide, and she worked for him in his D.C. office for several years. His first year in Congress coincided with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he worked to pass the historic bill, his first major battle as a member of Congress. Ever since those early days, Rep. Conyers' efforts and interests have been about jobs, justice and peace, and those motivations have led him to focus on reforming our healthcare system, eventually spawning the Single Payer movement, which is where we connected.

I was an early recruit to his bold health reform ideas when I saw him host a teach-in about the merits of Single Payer and building a movement at St. Phillip's Church in New York. He arrived with his own four-piece jazz combo to set the mood for the event. How could you not be impressed with this man and his unique way of reaching out? We have kept in touch ever since, and I consider him a close friend. The result of his work (and that of so many others) is an invigorated and growing interest in Single Payer nationwide, due, in part, to the Affordable Care Act and the current debate in the Supreme Court over it's constitutionality. Of course, with Single Payer, the issue of a mandate would be irrelevant, as all Americans would automatically be covered in an Improved Medicare For All program that would provide better healthcare at lower costs.

Mr. Conyers' fan base among Single Payer advocates rivals that of a rock star, and he has no doubt that as a result of this community's hard work, America will have a Single Payer system. He's definitely made a believer out of me. With the beginning of each new Congress, Mr. Conyers reintroduces his Single Payer bill, H.R. 676. If only there were a House full of Conyers, we would have a much better world.

In 1975, Mr. Conyers was a member of the House Judiciary Committee that launched hearings on Watergate, a tumultuous, defining period in our history. In 1994, Mr. Conyers was the lead sponsor of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violence_Against_Women_Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton and reauthorized in 2001. Providing funding for federal, local and state programs to combat domestic violence and sexual assault, it was recently under siege by GOP members in the Senate until April 26th, when it was passed overwhelmingly by 68 to 31, with all of the "nays" coming from GOP men, including Marco Rubio, who may be on the ticket with Mitt Romney as V.P. The bill, which had always been reauthorized on a bipartisan basis before the invasion of the Tea Party loons, has now moved on to the House, where the "debate" will be even more contentious as the House's GOP "leadership" works to come up with their own version that will pass. There will be attempts to remove protections for LGBT Americans, Native Americans and undocumented immigrants, according to Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Chair of the DNC. This Act has helped to reduce violence against women by 53 percent since it was first enacted, saving thousands of lives, which speaks to its enormous success. Why there should be a debate at all over its renewal is absurd.

Mr. Conyers was also the lead author of the End Racial Profiling Act, introduced in 2011, which was co-sponsored in the Senate by Ben Cardin (D-MD). Conyers also introduced the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 1999 and reintroduced it again in 2009 as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It was finally passed towards the end of that year.

So respected by his colleagues, Mr. Conyers was chosen more recently to sit on the Conference committee of the landmark Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform And Consumer Protection Act of 2011. During those fierce negotiations, Mr. Conyers fought to ensure that the bill protected consumers while maintaining anti-trust powers of the Justice Department. He is also the founder of the Out of Afghanistan Caucus and co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, and, last but certainly not least, Mr. Conyers also gave us Martin Luther King Day, a day of national respect and recognition of a great American who makes us all reflect on who and what we are -- at least one day a year.

These are just some of the highlights from a distinguished career that will hopefully continue as he seeks to return to Congress in 2013. His name will always be connected to some of our most significant legislation, a shining example of what every member of Congress should emulate. How does your Representative stack up?

To gain a more personal perspective on this man, I asked Mr. Conyers some questions about his work and vision for creating a better America:

Pearl Korn: As a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus -- which is the largest caucus, with 76 members -- how can they become a more relevant force with more political capital? And how can they build on their innovative People's Budget?

Mr. Conyers: As a founding member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, I am always looking for ways to expand the influence of Progressives within the Democratic Caucus and the Congress as a whole. In recent months, the CPC has raised important issues that would otherwise receive little attention on the Hill. For instance, the CPC recently pressed New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, through his role as a co-chair of the President's Residential Mortgage Backed Security (RMBS) working group, to move forward with cases against the financial institutions that brought about the collapse of the housing market. Progressives also played a leading role in ensuring that the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform legislation included billions of dollars for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP), which provides tangible assistance for homeowners and neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest by the foreclosure crisis. Progressives have also played a leading role in pressing for an end to the war in Afghanistan.

It is critical that Progressives continue to push the envelope on the issues that matter to 99 percent of Americans. As we consider the fate of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy later this year, Progressives will ensure that any discussion of tax policy involves Progressive priorities like a Wall Street speculation tax and the Buffett Rule.

PK: How can the Democratic Party unite to help pass an amendment overturning the Citizens United decision? The public would embrace the party and support it. There is support currently in the House by a few dozen members with additional support from almost two dozen senators, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is also calling for a Constitutional amendment. Our president has also said he supports such an amendment. Shouldn't public funding of campaigns be included in any such efforts by members of Congress? The president should join in and take this towering issue to the campaign trail, for this would help to restore control of Congress and the White House to the Democratic Party in November. Is this a strategy you could support?

Mr. Conyers: Citizens United has weakened the integrity of our elections by opening the floodgates on unlimited campaign spending by super PACs. This new spending highlights the corrosive influence of corporate money in our democratic process. As members of Congress, we need to remember that we are here to protect the rights of the American people and to restore the American people's faith in honest and fair elections. I have pledged to work with my colleagues to amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United and I am encouraged that President Obama supports such an effort. We are dedicating ourselves to protecting the rights of our fellow Americans, and hope that our Republican colleagues will join us.

PK: How can we end voter disenfranchisement, inequality and disparities targeting minority communities?

Mr. Conyers: These laws -- whether directly or indirectly -- target vulnerable voting populations, such as young, elderly, minority and poor voters. While voter identification is not a new concept, the forms of identification now required by some states result in disproportionate consequences, largely along racial lines. For example: In Texas, a citizen may not use a student ID as a proper form of identification to vote, however, a concealed carry gun license is a proper form of identification.

Congress needs to enact prohibitions against practices that intimidate voters with misinformation designed to abridge their right to vote. That is why I re-introduced the Caging Prohibition Act and the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Act that would prevent challenges to registration to vote and prohibit intimidating practices.

I also believe that our women and men in uniform deserve full access to the ballot. If our service members and overseas voters protect our freedoms abroad, then Congress must work to protect their right to vote back home. Absent uniformed service voters and overseas voters have faced discrimination in their ability to vote in general elections. Thus, we need to review proposals to strengthen the Military Overseas Voter Empowerment Act so that military and overseas voters receive absentee ballots within the laws timeframe.

In addition, we need to declare that every citizen -- even a citizen that has been convicted of a criminal offense -- should not be denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense. That is why I introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, an Act that creates a right to vote for all persons with felony convictions who are not incarcerated at the time of the election. The Act would establish a uniform national standard for voting by ex-offenders in federal elections.

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I would like to thank Congressman Conyers for taking the time to answer these questions, and I would like to thank him for the tremendously important work he does for our country.

- with Jonathan Stone