Speeches: Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Tuesday 8/15/00

Conyers [referring to Arianna's introduction of him:] Why did you mention Henry Hyde? [laughter] Okay. I accept the nomination. [laughter] I asked the previous speaker [Al Franken/Stuart Smalley] for a few jokes to bring out here to warm up my act, but . . . [unintelligible] Why is it that a guy can be an ultra-conservative all his life and do one damn decent thing, and everybody says, "oh, isn't it wonderful? He did that one thing, remember?" And then . . . well. I started out as a lawyer who didn't like law practice. The people that I represented, I didn't feel particularly happy about it, but they could afford me. And the ones I wanted to represent couldn't afford me. So then I became a workmen's comp referee. And I got tired of listening to those lawyers talking about that stuff all the time. I mean, it was really boring as a judge to sit there when you know what everybody's gonna say.
And then a decision in the Supreme Court called Baker v. Carr came down. And it said, "all you states with Republican stage legislatures have to re-district every ten years ­ decennially ­ or we're gonna do it for you." And Michigan was one of those states. And so I figured out that if they followed the Supreme Court, it would mean that a district in which an African-American in Detroit, which is where all the people were pouring into at that time, would be able to run and win. The senior wonks in the Democratic Party said that's impossible. And they confronted me and said, "name one state in the union that has two black congressmen." And at that time, there weren't any. So they said, "so there."
And I said, "no, I think I'm right." And of course when they found out I was right, my state Representative ran, my state Senator ran, black guys that were Republicans ran as Democrats . .when it was all over, I won by 128 votes, after a re-count. The re-count (that my opponent called) gave me more votes. So I got up to 128. [laughter, applause]

So, what is the point of this story? Every vote counts. I spend a great deal of my time trying to convince young people, and people disaffected with the political system, that every vote actually can count. You've got congressmen elected by one vote, two votes. Presidents that probably shouldn't have been elected at all, who got in on a bad vote count. But we're trying to bring this democracy thing . . . and the one person who motivated me to do all this was Martin Luther King, Jr. [applause]. I met a lot of people, but he's the one who really reached me. Because he had the courage to do what the civil rights movement at that time didn't want to do: go down in the South and start the new civil rights struggle. They said, "you'll get us all killed." They had to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

And so I watched these brave . . . and they were all young people, King was 26 when Rosa Parks sent for him for the Montgomery bus boycott. And she [Parks] came up to Detroit after she got out, and everybody was afraid of her, they thought she was a revolutionary, a person who could bring down the whole bus system in Alabama. You must be very dangerous. And she could not get a job! She worked in my campaign, and I said, "boy, when I win this seat, that's the first person that I'm gonna ask to work with me." And she was with me for nineteen years. Nineteen years! [applause]

I ran on the program of Jobs, Justice and Peace. And it became a civil rights mantra. Where all of this comes down right now is that, we have a terrible thing going on. Civil rights as you know has been expanded into human rights. It's bigger than just your civil rights, your legal rights. It's, everybody is a human being. If you're in a wheelchair, your human rights are what count. Whether you're trying to break a drug habit . . . it's how we treat you as a human being [applause] rather than . . . can you imagine a country that locks up a person as a prisoner, mandatory minimum sentence of five years, and this is a poor devil just trying to break the drug habit! And so I've instituted a number of policies that I'd like to mention to you.

The first is that . . .I am so proud in California, before I tell you mine, Proposition 36 on the ballot here is critical. Absolutely critical. We should be doing it in every state. [applause] Divert non-violent drug offenders out of the prison system! [applause] It costs us $40,000 [per year] to lock up anybody. $40,000. The prison industry is a booming industry. And then they're privatizing it on top of that.
And I've got a Republican colleague named Bill McCollum [?], wants to be a Senator, who says, "we'll give you federal money if you raise your sentencing rates to the levels that we want. If you bring them higher, we'll give you federal money." [boos] Then we should allow judges to reduce existing long sentences for non-violent drug offenders. [applause]

Now, I would close with advising General [Barry] McCaffrey to resign [wild applause] except they'd appoint another jerk just like him, that I would have to ask to resign, too. So we've got to take this fight, of understanding this, with all the families, now millions of them, that have someone that's being locked up. It's the worst part of the criminal justice system, these mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes-and-you're out, all of these things that add time and time right on top of it. And so I'm proud to come here to tell you that there are members in Congress working hard with me. Barney Frank, Jerry Nadler in New York, Mel Watt in North Carolina. Most of the Democrats on the committee are working with us.

All you have to do is try to get somebody that'll do it harder and better, and also you ­ and especially in a member's district ­ let them know that they need to do so some more. [applause.] I close on this important point. I introduced a bill that would restore the rights of people who have been to prison, have a federal felony, paid their dues, went to jail, got on probation and parole, they should have the right to vote in elections when they come out! [applause, cheers.] And don't forget Adam Schiff, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, running for Congress in Pasadena. I've been campaigning for him, a Democrat, and I'm not even going to mention who he's running against, because it's outrageous. Outrageous. And we've got to get him into the Congress. We need six more seats, and then you can really jump on Democrats and demand that they pass all the bills that you want, instead of just a few of them.

Thank you very much, I'm flattered to be here.

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