Speculation grows SC’s Clyburn may run for U.S. House speaker

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., publicly urged colleague John Conyers to resign Thursday amidst sexual misconduct allegations.
Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., publicly urged colleague John Conyers to resign Thursday amidst sexual misconduct allegations. Associated Press

A whisper campaign is underway to promote U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of Columbia as the next speaker of the House of Representatives.

Allies of the S.C. Democratic lawmaker, currently assistant House Democratic leader, say the conversations are still in the early stages. They add, however, there are real and active efforts to pitch the idea of Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American lawmaker in Congress, as a so-called “bridge speaker” should Democrats retake the House’s majority in November and members decide to replace their current leader, California Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

For years, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland quietly has sold himself as a Pelosi successor. He has told members he would step in for one or two terms as speaker as a “bridge” between the old guard and a new generation of leaders, promising to groom younger members and facilitate a transition of power.

But in the past few weeks, Clyburn’s name has been put forward as an alternative choice to Hoyer by lawmakers who either are bound by loyalty to Clyburn or think the election of the first black speaker would make for good optics — or both.

“You’d be making history,” said U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, a supporter of the nascent Clyburn-for-speaker movement. “Now, you’d have a Southern Democrat who has a career of talking to people in the South about a progressive Democratic agenda. ... And when you’re looking at a lot of congressional districts that we are trying to win, a high African-American turnout in these districts could make the difference. So he brings all of that.”

Pelosi is 78, Hoyer is 79 and Clyburn will turn 78 later this month. The trio have been the top three Democratic House leaders for more than a decade. Their long leadership tenure, many argue, has left few rank-and-file members with the institutional knowledge and fundraising prowess to succeed them.

In an interview with McClatchy, Clyburn acknowledged he had been approached about the idea of running for speaker. He said he didn’t foresee a scenario where he would run against Hoyer, who has support from more moderate House Democrats. But, he added, “Who knows?”

Clyburn was whip when Hoyer was Democratic majority leader the last time Democrats held the House majority under then-Speaker Pelosi. When Democrats lost the House’s majority in 2010, Hoyer and Clyburn were poised to compete for one of only two minority party leadership positions. However, it became clear Clyburn could not beat Hoyer, and Clyburn took on a newly created position as assistant leader.

It’s not yet clear whether the numbers would look any different this time around. But a senior Democratic aide familiar with discussions regarding Clyburn’s standing in a future leadership election told McClatchy, “Mr. Clyburn could serve in any position in leadership.”

Ultimately, Clyburn said he always has followed “the will of the Congressional Black Caucus,” a 48-member-strong organization of which 45 are House Democrats.

Former Black Caucus chairman Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., said every two years the caucus reaffirms its commitment to seeing Clyburn serve in a leadership capacity, and he doubts that will change.

“One way or the other, Jim Clyburn is necessarily a part of any Democratic leadership team,” Cleaver said.

Clyburn said he felt insulated from calls by younger House Democrats for all three of the senior House Democrats to step down, explaining he would have been elected to Congress earlier in his life had it not been for the racial barriers in South Carolina he had to overcome.

“I’m not in the same generation as Steny Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi,” said Clyburn, elected in 1992, of his white colleagues. “If you can only think of the world in terms of chronology, then you would do it that way. But if you can think of this world in terms of who we are and where we are, then you wouldn’t be putting me in the same generation as the two of them.”

Clyburn also said he thought his colleagues have, and should continue to, reward members who have put in the time and worked their way through the ranks.

“I didn’t try to parachute my way into leadership. I didn’t come here cussing everybody out. I didn’t call for a generational change,” Clyburn said. “I methodically worked my way up, and I think something needs to be said for working your way up.”

No one involved in discussions about Clyburn’s future would say who, or how many House members, are involved in those talks, underscoring the sensitivity of the conversations.

Since House Democratic Caucus chairman Joe Crowley of New York unexpectedly lost his primary last month, Democrats have been positioning themselves to take on various new leadership roles. But that jockeying is seen as being in poor form, given a pervading sentiment that the party should focus all energies on winning back control of the House in November.

Any scenario where Clyburn and Hoyer vie for speaker also assumes Pelosi does not have the support to take that role herself. Pelosi has said she plans to run for speaker if Democrats retake the House. But it’s not certain whether she will be able to withstand clamors for change.