As Democratic congressional leaders weighed the fate of their longest-serving member on Wednesday, women in and around the party expressed disgust that he had not yet been forced out of office.
Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) stands accused by at least three women of misconduct and, in some cases, sexual harassment. To date, two members of Congress, both Democratic women, have publicly called for his resignation.
On Wednesday, one of them, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) ripped into her party's leadership, namely House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), for what she portrayed as kid-glove treatment of the embattled congressman.
“I think that [Pelosi’s] comments on Sunday set women back and—quite frankly, our party back—decades,” said Rice, in reference to Pelosi’s refusal to call for Conyers’ dismissal during an appearance on Meet the Press.
But as the day progressed, and as Conyers, through his lawyer, let it be known that he had no intention of resigning, Rice and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) remained the only two to call for an ouster. Progressives and Democrats outside Congress were left dismayed at the lack of swift action throughout the party.
“We believe women,” Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of UltraViolet, a women’s advocacy group told The Daily Beast. “Conyers' record as a champion and leader in the civil rights movement make these revelations particularly painful, but harassment has no place in any workplace or anywhere in our society—and certainly not in Congress. Harassers and abusers must be held accountable and we agree with Rep. Kathleen Rice and Rep. Pramila Jayapal: Rep. Conyers should resign.”
Operatives who have tried to organize women voters and candidates in the wake of Donald Trump’s elections, echoed a similar sentiment, arguing that the party risked its political future if it did not tidy up its own matters first.
“You can’t call on Roy Moore to step down from the Senate race, you can’t say that Donald Trump should resign from the presidency as long as you’re circling the wagon for people like John Conyers,” Lis Smith, a Democratic campaign communications specialist, told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
“The way that Democratic leadership has handled this has been a complete embarrassment,” Smith added.
Karen Finney, former senior advisor for Hillary for America, stopped short of explicit criticism of Democratic leadership but said that allegations against Conyers are just a reminder that people need to be condemned and face consequences no matter their political affiliation.
“We should all be able to say regardless of what party you’re in or what party the member of Congress is in, that sexual harassment is inappropriate and there should be consequences,” Finney told The Daily Beast.
The mounting frustrations over Conyers' continued presence in the House, exemplify the immense challenge that Democratic officials have had in managing the fallout of allegations against both him and, to a lesser degree, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Careful not to offend a prime bloc of supporters—namely, the Congressional Black Caucus—Pelosi has expressed her dismay but not called for Conyers ouster. In her Meet the Press appearance she referred to him as an “icon.”
Behind the scenes, her office has paved the way for Conyers to leave his perch as chair of the Judiciary Committee (which he did). But her Meet the Press comments were widely panned.
On Tuesday, Pelosi sent a letter to the House Ethics Committee, which has opened an investigation into Conyers’ conduct, urging them to continue their work “expeditiously.” The same day, members of the Congressional Black Caucus were reportedly trying to find a way to get the senior Democrat to resign.
The chair of the caucus, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA) met with Conyers on Tuesday for what he described as a “very candid conversation.” But Richmond said he was leaving the resignation decision in Conyers’ hands.
“Any decision to resign from office before the ethics investigation is complete is John’s decision to make,” Richmond said in a statement.
By Wednesday morning there had been no further movement on the matter. But the criticism grew louder after Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), seemed dismissive of calls for Conyers’ resignation in a brief video captured by NBC News.
When the reporter mentioned that sexual assault and harassment had brought down a slew of powerful men this year, including Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and most recently Matt Lauer, Clyburn quipped: “Who elected them?” before getting into the elevator.
The refusal of Conyers to budge fed a growing concern among Democratic women that the party risked losing some of its moral standing as the issue of sexual harassment moved into the political realm. Already, they fear, Democrats have lost some of their standing when condemning figures like Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and President Donald Trump.
“This is a watershed moment where, finally, the country seems to be waking up and realizing we need to have a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment,” Jayapal said in a statement on Tuesday calling for Conyers’ resignation. “We cannot pick and choose. Democrats cannot lambast Trump and Moore, and then turn a blind eye to our own who face credible charges against them.”
Conyers has taken some steps in the wake of the revelations of his settlements, including stepping down from his position as the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee last weekend as pressure mounted for Democrats to handle the blossoming crisis.
But he remains in office even as allegations against him have ballooned. On Tuesday, another woman came forward with a story of his inappropriate behavior to The Detroit News, which was the third allegation against Conyers this month. The woman, Deanna Maher, worked for Conyers from 1997 to 2005 and detailed three instances of his advances and misconduct in the late 90s.
“Conyers coerced a female employee to engage in sexual relations,” Winnie Wong, co-founder of People for Bernie and a co-author of the Women’s March Unity Principles said in an email to The Daily Beast. “She rebuffed him. Was subsequently fired, then later silenced by OUR taxpayer money when she filed a complaint. There is testimony. There are receipts. This is a gross abuse of power. He should RESIGN immediately. AND APOLOGIZE.”