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'Detroit Free Press' Editorial Board Says Rep. John Conyers 'Must Go'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next guest says there's no question about what Michigan Democratic Congressman John Conyers should do as he faces sexual harassment charges.

STEPHEN HENDERSON: John Conyers Jr. must go - after 53 years in Congress, after a stellar career of fighting for equality, after contributing so much to southeast Michigan and to the nation.

SHAPIRO: That's from an editorial today in The Detroit Free Press. Stephen Henderson is editorial page editor and joins us from member station WDET in Detroit. Hi there.

HENDERSON: Hey.

SHAPIRO: This editorial says the conclusion was reached with an incredible amount of disappointment. It comes a few days after we learned about a $27,000 settlement that Conyers' office paid out to a former employee who said he made repeated sexual advances. That payout was taxpayer funded. Explain what brought you to this conclusion that he needs to resign.

HENDERSON: It really is about the way he handled these allegations. He took a staffer who had been fired who claimed that she was fired because she pushed back against his advances, and he rehired her for a no-show job with which he paid her through public funds outside the process of adjudication that exists in the Congress right now. I think for us, even more than the allegations themselves, that interruption of the normal process that you go through to settle these things was just stunning. And as we said in the editorial, we saw that as a really bright line public betrayal. And so throughout the day as we talked about it and thought about it, we came to the conclusion that there wasn't a way to repair what got broken here, that what he did is not really excusable and that the best course for him and for the people he represents is to resign.

SHAPIRO: So, Stephen Henderson, how do you reconcile the legacy of the first black member of the House Judiciary Committee, a man who helped pass the Voting Rights Act, introduced the first bill for a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? How do you square all of those accomplishments with the awful behavior that you've described?

HENDERSON: Well, I mean - and that was the toughest part. I'm a native Detroiter. I've known of John Conyers my entire life. I've known him. I have deep abiding respect for him and for his legacy. I mean, as we say in the editorial, he is a hero, and that's not any sort of hyperbole. This is someone who did things, who has said things across a long period of time that make him a stalwart voice of justice and equality. And so the idea that we might ask that he would leave was sort of harrowing at first, right? But I think we're in a time right now, especially when the level of scrutiny on behavior like this is quite high and when the need for the people who've been accused of these things to be transparent and to respect the bond - especially when they're elected officials like he is - respect the bond between them and the people they represent. And he really smashed through all of those bonds he's supposed to have with us, the people that he represents. I couldn't think of a way to justify the idea that that person would represent us in the Congress.

SHAPIRO: Your paper did not endorse his re-election in 2016. What kind of support does he have in the district?

HENDERSON: He has incredible support in the district. He has withstood every challenge, of course, for 53 years and some of them quite formidable. I think Detroiters in particular in his district feel a very strong kinship to him, not just because he's been in the seat for as long as he has but also because he represents so many of the causes that Detroiters I think would like to identify with.

SHAPIRO: And has that changed in the last few days as these allegations have come out?

HENDERSON: You know, I think it has. I've heard from some people who live in that district who say they think finally this might be it. But I've also heard from some people who are looking for a reason to defend because they want to defend that legacy. I think it will be a rough patch ahead for those of us who live here and live in that district to try to determine what the way forward is. The people I'm hearing from today, I think all of them have reflected a real deep wounding almost as if it's a personal betrayal. And that's people who think he should resign and people who think he shouldn't.

SHAPIRO: Stephen Henderson is editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press. Thank you for speaking with us today.

HENDERSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.