Rep. Jim Clyburn’s friends want him well-positioned to be a top House leader next year, so they’re sending him a strong, tough message: Get off the sidelines and be aggressive.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have been telling the South Carolina Democrat he must be more of a self-promoter if he wants a shot at being House speaker or majority leader.
They say he needs to go out and sell the anti-poverty proposal he’s been pushing behind-the-scenes for years — and in turn sell himself.
“The advice I gave him is, ‘demonstrate your ability to lead,’” said Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, a caucus member and Clyburn’s close friend.
In a recent interview in his Capitol office, Clyburn, the third ranking House Democrat and most senior African-American in Congress, said he’d heard variations of this theme just hours earlier on a phone call with caucus colleagues.
“‘This is a vision of yours. You got to talk about it. You gotta tout it. You gotta go on the road and get people to understand,’” Clyburn said he was told about his anti-poverty plan. “They said, ‘I want a list of every place you’ve been during this campaign. I want a list. And I want a list of every dollar you’ve given.’ Which I sent them.”
The stakes are high for Clyburn’s party. There is a very real chance Democrats could win control of the House in November.
“The need from the base, the need from the party and the need to take back the majority rest on how loud he can be,” said current Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana.
The stakes are also high for Clyburn. If current House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California doesn’t have the support to take back the speaker’s gavel she lost after the 2010 election, Clyburn has a shot at taking it for himself.
If Pelosi stays put, there’s new chatter the Black Caucus could empower Clyburn to challenge current Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland for the majority leader slot. There are currently 45 House Democrats in the caucus, and that number is expected to grow in the next Congress.
“We are going to advocate for having an African-American in one of the top two positions” of Democratic leadership, Richmond said, adding Clyburn would be his preferred candidate.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, also a caucus member, was more explicit.
“We want to get through this election and make sure (Clyburn) is well positioned to be in number one or number two.
Asked whether that would mean running against Hoyer for either speaker or majority leader, Fudge, who described Clyburn as a “southern gentleman,” replied, “we’re not running against a person, we are running for a position.”
Many Democrats had assumed that if Pelosi remained speaker, Hoyer would be majority leader and Clyburn would retain the role of whip, a position he held the last time Democrats were in the majority. The whip is the third highest-ranking position in the majority, responsible for making sure party members vote a certain way on key pieces of legislation.
Clyburn’s allies know he works hard and gets results. He first introduced the “10-20-30” anti-poverty plan in 2009, which, when applied to certain federal programs, would require that 10 percent of funding go to “persistent poverty” counties, defined as places where 20 percent of the population has lived under the poverty line for 30 years or more.
That year, Clyburn got the 10-20-30 formula applied to a handful of programs in President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package. In subsequent years, he’s worked with Republicans, including outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, to apply the framework to other items in GOP spending bills. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton endorsed 10-20-30 during her 2016 campaign.
Clyburn has a reputation for being generous with his time on the campaign trail — and with his wallet. This year so far he has contributed money to at least 90 Congressional candidates, the majority of whom are non-incumbents. Thompson, Richmond and Fudge all said they want more people to know about Clyburn’s travel schedule, which they appear to have memorized.
Against this backdrop are some grumblings about what Clyburn actually does in his role as Assistant House Democratic Leader, a position Pelosi created for him to avoid an ugly fight in 2010 between Clyburn and Hoyer for the Democratic whip position — the second-ranking job in the minority.
And as younger Democrats push to replace a stagnant, aging leadership slate — Pelosi is 78 and Hoyer is 79— Clyburn, 78, could become a casualty.
Asked if he was familiar with what some people say behind his back, Clyburn said simply, “yes.”
Asked if he was bothered by it, Clyburn replied, “no.”
But Clyburn also conceded he “probably” has been operating more under the radar than he should have been. He doesn’t regularly speak on the House floor during legislative debates. He doesn’t issue press releases or statements on the issues of the day. He rarely appears on national talk or news shows.
“Some of my friends have told me that’s a mistake in this environment,” he added.
Now, he is traveling around the country campaigning for Congressional candidates, armed with new legislation that would apply the 10-20-30 plan to every qualified federal program. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, a potential 2020 presidential candidate, has sponsored a similar version in the Senate, and the two will appear together at an event later this week in Orangeburg, South Carolina, which could benefit from the 10-20-30 formula.
Clyburn said the timing of the bill’s introduction, just weeks before the midterm elections, was “no coincidence at all.”
“Let’s be proactive and tell people this is what you can expect from us, and this is what we’ll do if we get the opportunity,” Clyburn said of his motivation behind introducing the bill at this time.
Ahead of the midterms, Clyburn has been campaigning for Democratic Congressional candidates in districts around the country, talking about how to address poverty and the 10-20-30 program specifically. His travels include stops in Virginia, Washington State, California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.
Taking the 10-20-30 show on the road is also, of course, a way for Clyburn to show fellow Democrats what they might expect from him as a member of leadership, whether he remains in the number 3 spot or moves higher.
“I think if he’s out there trying to help get people elected, he should kind of give a sense of what’s out here, what’s under consideration,” Thompson said.