As speaker, Jim Clyburn says he would ‘transform’ Democratic Party

US Rep Jim Clyburn
US Rep Jim Clyburn AP

As speaker of the House, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn says he would be a “transitional” leader but not “custodial.”

The South Carolina Democrat says he would work to “transform” the Democratic Caucus to make the party more appealing “to young African Americans who still feel ... take(n) for granted.”

“I would manage not just resources but expectations,” the Columbia lawmaker said, “manage dreams and aspirations.”

Surrounded by allies and supporters at the Congressional Black Caucus Institute’s annual policy forum in Tunica, Miss., last weekend, Clyburn spoke more frankly and openly than he had before about how he would approach the top job in the House’s leadership.

Clyburn also made clear he was ready for the challenge — and ready to make history as the first African-American speaker — rather than demure that the decision was not up to him.

“I’m very much up for it,” Clyburn said in an interview with McClatchy during a break from conference activities.

“Trump asked the question (about himself), ‘What do I have to lose?’ ” Clyburn added, alluding to President Donald Trump’s pitch to black voters during the 2016 campaign. “What do I have to lose?”

The third-ranking House Democrat, most senior African-American in Congress and 25-year veteran lawmaker, Clyburn repeated he has no intention of challenging Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi of California for the top job if she wants it, assuming Democrats retake control of the House in the November elections.

However, Clyburn signaled he was prepared to offer himself up as a successor should Pelosi not have the support to win back the post she held between 2007 and 2011 — a distinct possibility as many Democrats clamor for new leadership.

‘Not loved, beloved’

Lawmakers, lobbyists and operatives in Tunica over the weekend erupted in laughter and applause at a luncheon when U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., instructed attendees to “remember (Clyburn’s) name, folks: You’ll hear it a lot over the next 88 days. That’s a statement for the future.”

“Among a lot of us, Jim Clyburn is beloved. Not loved, beloved,” Thompson, a Black Caucus member, told McClatchy. “What that means is, you respect him. You respect his knowledge of history, his constant engagement on how the rules of Congress operate and (how) he can maneuver. He’s comfortable with conservative members of the (Democratic) caucus. He’s comfortable with liberals and the progressive wing. And so whatever he decides, a number of people want to be on his team.”

In sketching out his possible speakership, Clyburn used the word “transitional” several times. It was a nod to those who have said the 78-year-old lawmaker should not plan for a long-term tenure if he becomes speaker but serve as a “bridge” between the current leadership slate and the next generation of leaders — and specifically groom that next generation for near-future ascension.

But Clyburn bristled at the suggestion he would be a custodian, a symbolic figurehead without lasting influence.

“I think our party needs to be transformed and that’s what I’m talking about,” Clyburn said. “Custodial? Lord, no.”

He said Democrats must be smarter about how they sell themselves to voters. Others have made this point as well, but Clyburn put an emphasis on winning over African-Americans.

Clyburn recounted a conversation he had had recently with a congressional candidate who thought he could appeal to black voters by simply running on an anti-Trump platform.

“I said (to him), ‘Wait a minute. So you think you’re gonna conduct your campaign trying to be attractive to black voters and leave it up to an anti-Trump feeling for black people to vote? You don’t feel an obligation to reach out to that community and let them know what’s in it for them if you were to get elected?’ ” Clyburn recalled saying to the candidate.

“We can’t just go around being Republican-lite,” he continued. “We have to be out there putting forth an alternative for our constituents because that is what it’s going to take for them to really rally around us. And we aren’t satisfied that enough attention is being paid to that.”

The first black speaker?

For Clyburn to become speaker, he will need more than just a Democratic majority and an erosion of Pelosi’s base.

He will need Democrats to agree to promote a current member of House leadership, even for a “transitional” period. Pelosi, like Clyburn, is 78 years old. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, is 79. Many Democrats argue younger, newer members should replace all three.

Clyburn also would have to survive a contest against Hoyer, who has been laying the groundwork to be speaker for years — though his spokeswoman, Katie Grant, would say only that Hoyer currently is “focused on taking back the House and ensuring we have a Democratic majority in 2019.”

When Democrats were thrust back into the House’s minority in 2010, Clyburn and Hoyer were poised to compete for minority whip, one of only two minority party leadership positions at the time. When it became clear Clyburn could not beat Hoyer, the Columbia Democrat agreed to take on a newly created position of assistant Democratic leader in the House rather than force colleagues to vote on who should be the whip.

A leadership race between Clyburn and Hoyer could be ugly and divisive.

Clyburn and Hoyer both are well-liked by their colleagues. They both are steady fundraisers for congressional candidates and incumbents, and travel the country to campaign for fellow Democrats. Each man has a reputation of mentoring younger members.

“If we were all smart and strategic that race will never occur,” U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., a former Black Caucus chairman and a senior member of Hoyer’s whip team, said on Capitol Hill in July. “Nobody wants that to happen.”

But the stakes are higher now than they were eight years ago, and it’s less likely Clyburn would back away from the chance to be the first black speaker.

‘There’s a pathway’

The historic nature of a Clyburn speakership could bolster his support, too.

The Black Caucus is pushing particularly hard for Clyburn to prepare to run for the post if Pelosi bows out, and there’s every indication it would vote as a 40-plus-member bloc.

“I’m not anti-Steny. I’m pro-Jim,” current Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, said in Tunica. “I think Jim brings a unique ability to ignite our base and to do some things that I don’t think Steny can do as well.”

Black Caucus Democrats currently account for 45 of the 193 Democrats in the House of Representatives. However, the number of black Democrats could grow after the midterms.

“You cannot get to 218 (votes) to be speaker without the Black Caucus,” Richmond said. “If we hold, you cannot get the speakership without us. I’m just doing math right now, you can’t get there without the Black Caucus.”

“There’s a pathway” to the speakership, Clyburn said. “There’s no question about that.”

Emma Dumain: 202-383-6126, @Emma_Dumain

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas

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