Black lawmakers are hearing growing calls for Rep. John Conyers to resign and wondering why Sen. Al Franken isn’t getting the same treatment.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been privately airing concerns about a double standard within Democrats’ ranks since sexual harassment allegations against Conyers, the longest serving House member and a founder of the CBC, first surfaced last week. Their concerns were thrust into the open Thursday when Conyers’ lawyer hinted that Conyers was being treated differently than Franken because of race.
“Nancy Pelosi is going to have to explain what is the discernible difference between Al Franken and John Conyers,” Arnold Reed, Conyers' attorney, told reporters after the House Minority Leader said Conyers should resign.
Members of the CBC did not attack Pelosi personally on Thursday. And Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest ranking African-American lawmaker and a member of Pelosi’s leadership team, joined her in calling for Conyers' resignation.
But the close-knit group of 49 black lawmakers is agonizing over how to address the Conyers scandal and say questions about a racial undertone are impossible to avoid as Democrats debate how to respond to sexual harassment by colleagues.
“I think the chorus of people that are calling for John to resign is noticeably larger than everyone else,” CBC Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said in an interview.
Members of the CBC were furious when Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) became the first Democrat to call on Conyers (D-Mich.) to resign shortly after the allegations surfaced last week. At the weekly CBC meeting this week, several members angrily discussed what Rice did and said they’d be watching for others who followed suit — and wouldn’t forget.
The response to Pelosi and Clyburn has been much more muted and speaks to the evolution CBC members have undergone in their thinking on the issue in just the last 24 hours, as the accusations against Conyers show no signs of abating.
“There’s no one in the room that doesn’t think he needs to resign. But people thought that Rice openly calling for him to resign, CBC members did not like that,” said a source with knowledge of the meeting. “Things change in a day.”
Pelosi met with Richmond and Clyburn on Wednesday before the CBC meeting to discuss next steps. The trio had been working in recent days to privately pressure Conyers to resign, hoping to avoid having to publicly call for him to step down.
But Conyers dug in, flying back to Detroit Tuesday night after meeting with leaders of the CBC, a sign to Democratic aides that he had no plans to go willingly. At the CBC meeting Wednesday, members were visibly upset, some even crying, about the situation.
“Somebody who you trust, somebody who you love that does something wrong. That’s not easy,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.). “No one believes someone should get away with bad acts but it’s hard and it’s emotional, especially with someone like John Conyers, who has made America better.”
Some members were upset that Rice and two other House Democrats, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), were publicly pressuring Conyers to give up his seat while most Democrats weren’t calling on Franken to do the same.
Both Conyers and Franken face multiple sexual assault allegations. Four former staffers have accused Conyers of harassing them — three saying he made repeated unwanted sexual advances while another said he verbally abused her over several years. Six women have accused Franken of groping them.
While Rice has said she also thinks Franken should step down, no Senate Democrats have called for Franken’s resignation, despite two new accusers who came forward Thursday. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, is the highest-ranking Democrat to say Franken should step down.
Meanwhile, a deluge of Democrats said Conyers should resign Thursday after Pelosi and Clyburn went public.
A spokesman for Pelosi did not respond to a request for comment. But a Democratic aide noted that aside from Crowley, no other members of House Democratic leadership have said Franken should step down.
Pelosi has tread cautiously since the first allegations against Conyers were reported by BuzzFeed last week. The CBC holds significant sway within the Democratic Caucus and since the group tends to vote as a bloc, it can make the aspirations of Democratic members looking to climb the ranks into leadership — or to remain there.
Other House Democrats not within the CBC have panned Pelosi’s approach to the Conyers scandal, saying she should have called for him to resign much sooner. Lawmakers in that camp were particularly incensed by Pelosi’s interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, when she said Conyers was an “icon” who has done “a great deal to protect women.”
“There’s a lot of people who feel like she has handled the situation horribly and is only looking out for herself,” said one lawmaker who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
But Pelosi defended her response. At a private Democratic caucus meeting Wednesday the minority leader said she didn’t understand why NBC's "Today" show host Savannah Guthrie was lauded for giving an emotional response to the firing of her co-host Matt Lauer over sexual harassment allegations, while she was heavily criticized for calling Conyers an icon.
Privately, Democratic leaders have thought for days that Conyers needed to go. But Pelosi has been cautious, wanting to give the CBC space to respond before publicly trying to force Conyers out. On Wednesday it became clear to leaders that the Conyers controversy was not going away, and more forceful steps had to be taken.
In addition to conversations with Richmond and Clyburn, Pelosi dialed multiple CBC members late into the night Wednesday to share her thinking.
Pelosi, through members of the CBC, relayed to Conyers that she was going to publicly call for his resignation during her weekly Thursday press conference unless he did so himself before then.
Conyers was hospitalized Wednesday after complaining of chest pains and dizziness. His lawyer said he had not decided whether to resign and wouldn’t be pressured into doing so.
So Pelosi did what she had talked to CBC members about the night before, using her weekly press conference to announce that she thought it was time for Conyers to go. Clyburn quickly followed suit.
"I pray for Congressman Conyers and his family and wish them well," Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. "However, Congressman Conyers should resign."
Reed, Conyers lawyer, quickly panned Pelosi, saying she was only trying to save face after being criticized for her "Meet the Press" performance.
“For her to use this as an opportunity for a rebound situation when she did absolutely terrible and got creamed on 'Meet the Press,' it’s shameful,” Reed told reporters. “Let me be clear, she is not going to decide his fate.”
But CBC members, notably, did not follow suit.
“They did what they had to do,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a CBC member who has been counseling Conyers since last week, said of Pelosi and Clyburn. “I agree that they had to do what they did.”
As for the Conyers-Franken contrast, “If [Pelosi] chooses to give a response in regards to Mr. Franken, she can do that,” Meeks said. “But I can’t say that Nancy Pelosi’s motivations [were] based upon race. I don’t believe that.” (Politico)