Rep. Jim Clyburn has been blasted this week for not being more critical of Rep. John Conyers, accused by several former female aides of sexual harassment.
A potentially strong challenger floated the idea of running against the veteran Democrat from South Carolina. Critics wondered why he would compare Conyers’ plight to that of Susan Smith, a white woman from the Palmetto State who murdered her children but initially blamed a black man.
Clyburn’s statement Thursday that Conyers should resign may mitigate complaints.
During an interview in his Capitol office, Clyburn told reporters that Conyers — a Michigan lawmaker and fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus — did House Democrats a favor by voluntarily vacating his slot as top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee as ethics investigations were underway, instead of being forced.
“I am hopeful that he will do the same thing for his constituents,” said Clyburn when discussing a possible resignation from the House, “because this is at the point where he needs to do for his constituents what he did for his colleagues.”
Making his announcement shortly after House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also called on Conyers to step aside, Clyburn made clear he believed the allegations against his colleague were “credible.”
But Clyburn didn’t indicate he made this move as an act of self-preservation.
At 77, the Assistant House Minority Leader and highest-ranking black lawmaker in Congress is well aware of general unrest from younger Democrats in Washington who want to move up in party leadership — and those back home who want to take over the congressional seat Clyburn has held for 25 years.
Clyburn, however, has no plans to retire.
His strength comes largely from his own confidence — “I’m the hardest person to intimidate” — and from his colleagues in the CBC who are fiercely protective of one of their own.
After reports that Clyburn had, in a closed-door meeting of House Democrats, compared Conyers’s accusers to Smith, CBC chairman Cedric Richmond tweeted from the group’s official account that the quote was taken out of context.
“(Clyburn) used the Smith example to illustrate the dangers of convicting people before getting all the facts,” Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat, wrote on Wednesday night. “This mischaracterization of what (he) said is nothing more than members changing the story because they want his leadership position.”
Clyburn agreed Thursday that some ambitious younger members outside the CBC were attempting to draw a “generational wedge” in sensationalizing his own statement at a full House Democratic Caucus gathering.
Younger Democrats have also been publicly slamming Pelosi for calling Conyers an “icon” earlier this week and not emphatically siding with his accusers.
“So much of what is driving this Conyers thing is internal to our Democratic Caucus,” Clyburn explained. “I think that means, simply, there are people who are angling for this, people who will look for any excuse to give Nancy Pelosi hell.”
In South Carolina, Bakari Sellers — a former Clyburn intern who served four terms as a state representative and is now a regular commentator on CNN — said this week he would someday run for Clyburn’s seat.
His announcement coincided with Clyburn issuing a more subdued, initial statement on the Conyers allegations, which Sellers called insufficient.
Sellers’ comments were viewed as a trial balloon, a test of whether Clyburn could be nudged at all to leave office. If this was the intention, it didn’t work. Asked about Sellers, Clyburn just smiled and recalled the Greek myth about Icarus, who despite being warned not to fly too close to the sun with his wings of feathers and wax did so anyway and tumbled to his death.
“You have to be very careful,” said Clyburn. “Don’t get too close to the sunlight.”
Clyburn said efforts to undermine him on and off Capitol Hill were “bothersome, but it’s not the end of the world.”
He said he was mostly emotionally exhausted by the mess over what to do about Conyers, which has become one of the more painful chapters in a watershed moment where elected officials, along with celebrities and celebrated journalists, are being accused of gross sexual misconduct.
Clyburn said he has struggled to make clear it was important to get the facts before jumping to conclusions, which he tried to illustrate with the Smith example.
He noted that as the South Carolina human affairs commissioner, his job was to help resolve discrimination cases, and he saw and experienced first-hand how ugly things could get for everyone involved, not just the accusers and the accused.
He said of course he believed elected officials should be held to a higher standard than civilians, pointing out he led the charge in 2009 to censure fellow South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican, after he shouted “You lie” at President Barack Obama during an address to Congress on the House floor.
For the CBC, Clyburn said the ordeal has been “torturous” as members have struggled to do the right thing for one of their colleagues and also for the good of the institution.
Clyburn also asked why people in the private sector could express remorse about allegations against their friends and colleagues but he somehow could not say kind words about Conyers without being called insensitive. The two have served together in the House for two and a half decades, but their friendship actually goes back almost 50 years, when Conyers came to South Carolina to help unseat John McMillan, a long-serving conservative Democrat Congressman from the Sixth District.
“The only thing that bothers me about this stuff is, as long as I known John Conyers, when I see someone who has given so much, I don’t know why people think I can’t have these kinds of feelings for John Conyers,” he said. “Something’s wrong with it. Why? Why?”