Democrats Vying For Conyers' Seat Talk Sex Assault, Immigration At Forum

Detroit — Three of the contenders vying to replace resigned U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. in the 13th Congressional District came together on Saturday to share views on healthcare, sexual assault and justice reforms in a forum on the city's west side.

Westland Mayor Bill Wild, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and state Sen. Coleman A. Young II faced a crowd with strong representation from union members at Detroit's New Providence Baptist Church sponsored by the progressive People's Candidate forum for the Democratic primary.

All three told attendees they support raising the minimum wage, a prescription drug cost overhaul, immigration reform and a repeal of the state's right-to-work law. 

The candidates faced tough questioning on racial profiling and immigration from district resident Xochitl Oroczo, an undocumented 25-year-old teacher who came to the U.S. from Mexico at age two.

"You guys need to spend some genuine time in the communities you want to represent," said Oroczo, who raised the issue of alleged discrimination against immigrants by border patrol agents and asked the candidates about policies they would champion to protect civil rights.

"A lot of the district that you are representing is living through this," said Oroczo, who accused the group of having "a complete disconnect."

Wild, after the forum, said some of the critical comments show that "residents don't trust the government" and believe the candidates "don't have a handle of what they are going through."

Earlier Saturday, he stressed to the crowd that the district, which is the second poorest in the country, has been "left behind" and "needs help."

Jones, Detroit City Council's longest-serving member who has previously held union leadership positions, said she's earned a reputation as being a "voice for the people."

Jones, who does not reside in the district, has racked up prominent endorsements from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, pastors and numerous union groups.

"I've been down to the community. I have talked to the community. I know what they are going through," said Jones, adding she'll be able to reach across the aisle to help bring reforms.

For his part, Young highlighted efforts in the state Legislature to aid in low-income residents with heating and food assistance, condemned discrimination and invoked his father, the late Coleman A. Young, Detroit’s first African-American mayor.

“In the words of my father, the Hon. Coleman A. Young, ‘I bring home the bacon,’” he said. “I have done it as your state senator. And I will continue to do it as your Congressman.”

Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, stepped down in December amid allegations that he sexually harassed staffers. He had been in the U.S. House for 53 years.

The candidates on Saturday also addressed sexual assault and the role of government in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

"There’s no place for sexual harassment anywhere in our society," Wild said. "With the #MeToo movement we have this window of opportunity to really close the gap on that. It's something that's long overdue."

The crowded race to represent the district also includes the former congressman's great nephew, State Sen. Ian Conyers, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Shanelle Jackson.

Ian Conyers and Tlaib were invited to Saturday's forum but could not attend. 

Meanwhile, candidate John Conyers III was tossed from the primary ballot by Wayne County Clerk Cathy Garrett in the race to replace his father. Conyers III is appealing to the Michigan Court of Appeals after a Wayne County Circuit judge rejected his request to be put on the ballot.

Garrett's staff found Conyers III submitted less than the 1,000 valid petition signatures required to secure a spot on the Aug. 7 ballot.

The ballot decision is a win for Ian Conyers of Detroit, whose attorney challenged Conyers III’s petition signatures and prompted the review by Garrett’s office. For now, the 29-year-old state lawmaker is the only Conyers on the ballot.

The district covers parts of Detroit and Dearborn Heights, as well as several surrounding communities, including Westland and Redford Township.

The winner of the primary takes the seat because no Republican is running in the race.