Politics & Government

Memorials help keep S. Carolina's Clyburn in public eye

WASHINGTON -- If you live in Columbia or Orangeburg or Sumter and you can't remember who represents you in Congress, have no fear:

Reminders are all around you.

In the state capital, you can play a round at the James E. Clyburn Golf Center - admiring the life-size bronze statue of Clyburn as you enter -- or cross the James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass over S.C. 277 northeast of town.

With the price of gas so high, consider catching a bus at the James E. Clyburn Intermodal Transportation Center in Sumter.

Sign up at the James E. Clyburn Community Empowerment Center in Orangeburg to learn some high-tech skills or to freshen up your resume.

When it comes to compiling "living memorials" -- places, events and philanthropic funds that carry his name -- House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn has few peers in Congress, past or present.

Clyburn will likely never catch Sen. Robert Byrd, the loquacious West Virginian who boasts of his prowess in bringing federal largesse to his poor state. It's home to 36 things named after Byrd, plus a towering bronze of him in the Capitol Rotunda.

But in less than 16 years in Washington, Clyburn has been honored by 14 such memorials along the breadth and length of his 6th Congressional District.

That figure exceeds the 13 namesakes for retired Sen. Fritz Hollings, who served 39 years in the Senate.

And Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat, is closing in on legendary Sen. Strom Thurmond: Seventeen memorials mark his 47-year Senate career and earlier service as governor, legislator and judge before his 2003 death at 100.

Clyburn Kingdom, as it might be called, goes beyond mere vanity or ambition.

In a Deep South state whose residents fight bitterly over where to fly the Confederate flag, political symbolism runs deep.

"All those buildings around Columbia have got somebody's name on them," Clyburn said Wednesday in an interview. "With one exception, they're all white people."

The exception is the Matthew J. Perry Jr. Courthouse on Richland Street in downtown Columbia.

Soon after his 1992 election, when Clyburn became the first African-American congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, he introduced a bill to name the future courthouse after Perry, a prominent civil rights lawyer and the state's first black federal judge.

Thurmond, who had run for president in 1948 as a segregationist, blocked Clyburn's legislation. He wanted the new courthouse to carry his own name, even though the Strom Thurmond Federal Building already honored him two blocks away on Assembly Street. It took Clyburn years to prevail.

Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland historian who runs the African-American Leadership Center, noted that Clyburn's House majority whip post already makes him a historic political figure as one of the most powerful blacks ever to serve in Congress.

The Clyburn memorials, Walters said, reverse the past in small but significant ways.

"The politics of memory is extremely powerful as a resource in racial reconciliation," Walters said. "When someone walks into a building or drives to an airport named after an American-American, it helps to democratize the country racially."

Beyond race, the number of Clyburn memorials shows his political power as a Democratic kingmaker in South Carolina. And it sheds lights on the army of fiercely loyal foot soldiers he has built during his 34-year career in Congress and as the state's human affairs commissioner.

SC Sen. John Courson, a white Columbia Republican, ran two of Thurmond's political campaigns. He led successful efforts to build the Strom Thurmond Monument on the Statehouse grounds and to commission and hang an oil portrait of Thurmond in the SC Senate chamber.

Courson, a senior executive with Kennan Suggs Insurance in Columbia, co-sponsored the 2003 resolution that authorized naming the SC 277 overpass for Clyburn.

"I did it gladly," Courson said. "Jim Clyburn is a longtime personal friend and someone who I have tremendous respect for."

While Clyburn's current House leadership post elevates his importance, other key black lawmakers with similar congressional tenures have fewer memorials than him.

Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and former civil rights leader who came to Washington two years before Clyburn, has seven memorials.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat with 22 more years in office than Clyburn, has four.

Rep. Mel Watt, a Charlotte, N.C., Democrat, came to Washington the same year as Clyburn, and both men have headed the influential Congressional Black Caucus.

There are no places, events or funds named after Watt, and he wants to keep it that way.

Watt said he sees nothing wrong with living monuments to other lawmakers, but wouldn't feel comfortable with having something named after him.

"I don't need that kind of approval, and certainly my ego doesn't require it," Watt said. "It's already difficult enough for us to get past the presumption that we're being favored and pampered and treated in ways that are different than other people."

Critics outside Congress say the Clyburn memorials are permanent political ads that keep his name in front of his constituents.

"Every one of those facilities is a taxpayer-funded advertisement for the congressman's re-election," said Tom Schatz, head of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington group that tracks federal spending.

Schatz and other critics say the memorials are often re-election tools free of campaign-finance laws.

In Clyburn's case, for instance, Pres Rahe, a senior executive with Washington Group International, a giant engineering and construction firm based in Boise, Idaho, traveled to SC State University in August 2004.

In a campus ceremony, Rahe presented a $10,000 check from his company to the James E. Clyburn Endowment Fund, which the congressman established to provide scholarships to SC State students.

Before its purchase last year by another company, Washington Group International was a top campaign contributor to Clyburn, giving him a total of $39,447.

Those funds were restricted and regulated by campaign finance laws, but the company faced no such limits in contributing to Clyburn's scholarship endowment.

Other skeptics view the memorials as crass payoffs for bringing home millions of dollars in federal funds.

"To have things named after themselves is credit-claiming gone amok," said Sarah Binder, a senior government fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Indeed, Clyburn's own Web site boasts that he "has established and secured funding for the James E. Clyburn Transportation, Research and Conference Center at South Carolina State University," his alma mater.

That $70 million center, now under construction, will take up almost a half million square feet. It will house the Emily E. Clyburn (the congressman's wife) Archives and History Library for the university's major collections -- including the personal papers of Jim Clyburn.

The 2003 General Assembly resolution putting Clyburn's name on the SC 277 overpass said the honor was "for his enormous efforts in obtaining the funds from the United States Congress necessary to build this overpass."

Many other lawmakers have steered federal money back home to projects bearing their names or boosting their legacies.

In 2005, Hollings divided a nearly $14 million earmark among separate appropriations bills for three different agencies, presumably to help hide the earmark and to mask its total cost.

The money went for expansion of Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina, including a new wing for modern political collections. The featured collection is Hollings' voluminous papers.

Clyburn bristles at the notion that he gets funding for projects back home in exchange for them being named after him.

"There's absolutely no quid quo pro in any of this," Clyburn said. "If I got $10.5 million for the Hollings Oncology Center (in Charleston) as I did last year, what's the quid pro quo there? I've had something to do with getting money for the Thurmond Wellness Center (in Columbia). I've never heard any objections to that."

Clyburn said he was unaware that so many things back home bear his name. He said he's had only one conversation with folks who wanted to name something after him.

Local leaders in Parkers Ferry, a hamlet west of Charlotte, wanted to name a community center for Clyburn.

"When I demurred, they felt a bit insulted by it and thought that I didn't want my name identified with their community," Clyburn said. "I assured them that was not the case."

The Wiltown Community Center was renamed the Clyburn Community Center in 2002. He and his aides hold constituent meetings there.

Clyburn said he has never initiated any of the efforts to attach his name to a project. Yet the Lake Marion bridge he's been trying for years to get built has been called "the Clyburn Connector" in his appropriations requests.

A Jan. 24, 2002 press release from Clyburn carried the headline, "Clyburn Connector More Than a Bridge." The project also goes by that name in SCDOT lists of the state's transportation needs.

For Citizens Against Government Waste, the James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass is worthy only of mockery and inclusion in its annual "Pig Book" of Washington pork.

Come to Columbia, though, and the perspective is quite different.

SC Sen. Kay Patterson lives a half block from the overpass. It was built, he said, because people had died trying to cross the I-77 spur that bifurcated a black community when it was built in the 1990s.

To add insult to injury, Patterson said, state transportation officials wanted to name the new expressway after former Columbia Mayor Lester Bates.

Thanks in large measure to efforts by Patterson and Clyburn, the spur is now called the Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman Freeway, in honor of the first black SC senator after Reconstruction.

And children now cross the James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass each day on their way home from school.

"He's the one that got the funds for it, he's our congressman and it's in Chocolate City," Patterson said. "It's time for us to name things in our cities after some of us."

McClatchy Newspapers reporters Lisa Zagaroli and Queenie Wong contributed.