DETROIT (AP) — Besieged by allegations of sexual harassment, Democratic Rep. John Conyers resigned from Congress on Tuesday, bringing an abrupt end to the civil rights leader’s nearly 53-year career on Capitol Hill.
The 88-year-old liberal from Detroit becomes the highest-ranking figure in Washington to be brought down by the sexual misconduct allegations that have toppled powerful men in Hollywood, the media and politics in recent weeks.
Conyers announced what he referred to as his “retirement” on a Detroit radio talk show, calling in from the hospital where he was taken last week after complaining of light-headedness. He endorsed his son John Conyers III to succeed him.
“My legacy can’t be compromised or diminished in any way by what we’re going through now,” said the congressman, who has denied any wrongdoing. “This, too, shall pass. My legacy will continue through my children.”
Conyers, who was first elected in 1964 and went on to become a founding member in 1971 of the Congressional Black Caucus, easily won re-election last year to his 27th term in the heavily Democratic district. Until Tuesday, he was the longest-serving current member of Congress.
But amid a drumbeat of allegations he groped or sexual harassed women who worked for him, he faced growing calls to resign from colleagues in the House, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
As the furor grew in recent weeks, he stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and the Ethics Committee began looking into the allegations.
Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York said he was saddened by the resignation of his “friend and mentor” but added: “There can be no tolerance for behavior that subjects women to the kind of conduct that has been alleged.”
Michigan state Sen. Ian Conyers, a grandson of Conyers’ brother, told The New York Times he plans to run for the seat.
On Monday, yet another allegation was lodged against Conyers, when a woman who said she worked for the congressman for more than a decade said he slid his hand up her skirt and rubbed her thighs while she was sitting next to him in the front row of a church.
“I was startled and sprang to my feet and exclaimed, ‘He just ran his hand up my thigh!’ Other staffers witnessed the event,” Elisa Grubbs said in an affidavit.
Grubbs, who said she worked for Conyers in various roles from around 2001 to 2013, is the cousin of another accuser, Marion Brown, who reached a settlement with Conyers over sexual harassment allegations but broke the confidentiality agreement to speak publicly last week.
Grubbs also said she repeatedly saw Conyers touching and stroking the legs and buttocks of Brown and other female staffers. Such behavior “was a regular part of life while working in the office of Rep. Conyers,” she said.
She said that one time, when she was at Conyers’ home, he came out of the bathroom naked when he knew she was in the room.
“This is about much more than one congressman,” Grubbs’ attorney, Lisa Bloom, said in an email after Conyers announced his resignation. “Systemic change is urgently needed so no other women have to endure the retaliation, secrecy and delays my client Marion Brown and others experienced.”
Deanna Maher, who ran a Michigan office for Conyers from 1997 to 2005, has also accused him of sexual misconduct. And a former scheduler complained of sexual harassment and retaliation.
Conyers said in a statement read Tuesday on the floor of the House by Texas Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee that he was resigning “to preserve my legacy and good name.”
Conyers also complained that he was not being afforded due process to defend himself, and cited his health problems as another factor in his decision.
He added that he hopes his retirement will be viewed in the “larger perspective” of his more than 50 years as a lawmaker.
Conyers regularly won elections with more than 80 percent of the vote.
He co-sponsored a 1972 resolution recommending President Richard Nixon’s impeachment for his conduct of the Vietnam War and regularly introduced a bill from 1989 onward to study the harm caused by slavery and the possibility of reparations to the descendants of slaves.
After a 15-year struggle, Conyers succeeded in winning passage of legislation declaring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. The federal holiday was first celebrated in 1986.
Also, his district office in Detroit employed civil rights legend Rosa Parks from 1965 until her retirement in 1988.
In 2000, he was presented a Lifetime Achievement Award during the Detroit NAACP’s annual dinner and in 2005 Conyers was among 11 people inducted to the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.