In 2018 Detroit city council president Brenda Jones won a special election to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of longtime Representative John Conyers Jr. Conyers’s decision to leave the House in December 2017 set off a complicated electoral process in which Jones won the special election for the 115th Congress (2017–2019) but lost the general election for the 116th Congress (2019–2021) on the same day. Jones’s term on Capitol Hill lasted only six weeks.
Brenda Jones was born on October 24, 1959. Her family moved to Detroit, Michigan, when she was a child, and she graduated from Cass Technical High School. She then earned a bachelor’s degree and a graduate certificate from Wayne State University.1 Before her political career she worked with and served as president of one of the Detroit-area labor unions.2
Jones won her first public office in 2005 as a member of the Detroit city council. She served in city government for more than a decade, and in 2014 the city council elected Jones as its first president; she was re-elected city council president in January 2018. The Detroit Free Press credited her with running “the city’s most professional, least controversial council in recent history.”3
At the time of Jones’s re-election as council president in 2018, many saw her as one of the most likely candidates to replace John Conyers, who had resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives the previous December amid accusations that he had sexually harassed staff and used taxpayer money to settle harassment claims.4 The Detroit district had an African-American majority and was a safe Democratic seat; Conyers had held the seat since 1965. When Conyers stepped down, Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder announced that the special election to fill the vacancy would be held on November 6, 2018, the same day as the general election, which, he said, would save the expense of holding a separate election. This meant that the vacancy would last more than 10 months. In March 2018, a judge upheld Snyder’s decision by dismissing a lawsuit to hold the special election earlier in the year. In the meantime, the primary elections for both the special election to fill Conyers’s seat in the 115th Congress and the general election for the full term in the 116th Congress were scheduled for August.5
Jones announced her candidacy for both the special and general elections in late January 2018, gaining early endorsements from Michigan Representative Brenda L. Lawrence and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. “It is my intention to honor and carry on, to the best of my ability, the legacy of John Conyers,” Jones said. “It is absolutely vital that the progress he made fighting for our human and civil rights is never forgotten.”6 In a crowded primary on August 7, 2018, Jones won the Democratic nomination for the special election to fill Conyers’s remaining term in the 115th Congress with 38 percent of the vote. Jones, however, narrowly lost the Democratic primary for the general election to the 116th Congress. Rashida Tlaib won with 31 percent of the vote, and Jones came in second with 30 percent.7
Because the district was heavily Democratic, winning the primary election was tantamount to winning the general election. In the immediate aftermath of the primary, Jones faced the prospect of having to resign as city council president to serve out Conyers’s remaining weeks in Congress. Article I, section 6 of the Constitution prevents Members of Congress from holding two elected offices simultaneously. But legal officials in Detroit saw no reason for Jones to resign before taking Conyers’s seat and announced that “under Michigan Law, it is permissible (under certain circumstances) for Council President Jones to hold both offices.” Detroit’s general counsel made it clear that the issue would also need to be evaluated from the federal side, and Jones immediately requested an opinion from the House Ethics Committee.8
On November 6, 2018, Brenda Jones formally won the special election to the 115th Congress with 87 percent of the vote. She also waged a last-minute write-in campaign for the general election but fell well short, taking less than 1 percent of the vote.9 In late November, Jones received informal guidance from the House Ethics Committee that she would not have to resign from the city council if she received no salary from Detroit and the council stayed in recess during her Washington service. The House agreed by unanimous consent to seat Jones without requiring her to resign from the Detroit city council. On November 29, 2018, Jones was sworn in to the 115th Congress. “I am ready to roll up my sleeves in this lame-duck session and do what you expect me to do,” Jones said.10
Despite her short term in the House, Jones introduced two pieces of legislation on December 20, 2018. Her first bill, the Minimum Wage Fairness Act of 2018, penalized states that lowered their minimum-wage requirements. Her second bill, the SHELTER Act of 2018, sought to end certain federal tax breaks and to use the resulting revenue to fund affordable housing programs.11 With few days remaining in the Congress, the House took up neither bill.12 Jones served as president of the Detroit city council until 2021.13
1“Brenda Jones,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, https://bioguide.congress.gov.
2City of Detroit, “City Council President: Brenda Jones,” accessed 25 June 2019, https://detroitmi.gov/government/city-council/city-council-president.
3“These Council Hopefuls Should Be in General Election,” 30 July 2017, Detroit Free Press: A16.
4Katrease Stafford, “After 7 Votes, Detroit Council Re-Elects Jones as Its President,” 3 January 2018, Detroit Free Press: A1; David Weigel, “Michigan Democrats Elect Detroit City Council President to Fill out Final Weeks of John Conyers’s Term,” 8 August 2018, PowerPost (blog), Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2018/08/08/michigan-democrats-elect-detroit-city-council-president-to-fill-out-final-weeks-of-john-conyerss-term; “Rashida Tlaib the Right Fit for 13th District,” 29 July 2018, Detroit Free Press: A2.
5Isabella Grullón Paz, “Rashida Tlaib Won a Primary This Week. She Also Lost a Primary This Week,” 9 August 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/us/politics/rashida-tlaib-brenda-jones.html.
6“Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones to Run for Michigan’s 13th Congressional District,” 31 January 2018, Michigan Chronicle: A1; Rochelle Riley, “Duggan Backs Jones to Replace Conyers,” 6 February 2018, Detroit Free Press: A5.
7Michigan secretary of state, “2018 Michigan Election Results,” 7 August 2018, https://mielections.us/election/results/2018PRI_CENR.html#06013000.
8Weigel, “Michigan Democrats Elect Detroit City Council President to Fill out Final Weeks of John Conyers’s Term;” Cannon’s Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States, vol. 6, chapter CLVII, section 65 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1935): 75–79; Kat Stafford and Todd Spangler, “Bizarre Twist from Election,” 9 August 2018, Detroit Free Press: A8; Kat Stafford, “City: Jones Can Serve in Both Local, Federal Office,” 14 August 2018, Detroit Free Press: A9; Kat Stafford and Todd Spangler, “Jones Launches Surprising Write-in Effort,” 30 October 2018, Detroit Free Press: A5.
9Stafford and Spangler, “Jones Launches Surprising Write-in Effort”; Fiona Kelliher and Kathleen Gray, “Jones Write-in Push Cites Voter Concern,” 31 October 2018, Battle Creek Enquirer (MI): A4; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present."
10Congressional Record, House, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (6 December 2018): E1601; Katherine Tully-McManus, “Brenda Jones Sworn into the House for Remainder of Lame Duck,” 29 November 2018, Roll Call: n.p.
11Minimum Wage Fairness Act of 2018, H.R. 7374, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (2018); SHELTER Act of 2018, H.R. 7375, 115th Cong., 2nd sess. (2018); Melissa Nann Burke, “The 5-Week Congresswoman: Brenda Jones Exiting House,” 2 January 2019, Detroit News, https://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/politics/2019/01/01/brenda-jones-serves-three-weeks-congress/2421947002/.
12Burke, “The 5-Week Congresswoman.”
13“City Council President: Brenda Jones.”