Steny Hoyer backs Jim Clyburn amidst accusations of “dog whistle” rhetoric

A day after Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina accused detractors of using racially-motivated “dog whistle” tactics to undermine his bid to be House majority whip, the House’s No. 2 Democrat came to his defense.

Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland told McClatchy he had not heard derogatory rhetoric from fellow House Democrats suggesting Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, was “either lazy or ineffective” as whip the last time Democrats were in the majority, from 2007 to 2011.

“But if people are saying that,” Hoyer said in an interview Wednesday afternoon, “they’re wrong.”

Hoyer’s comments are significant because Clyburn is locked in a tense race with Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, for the whip job.

Though Clyburn is currently favored to win the contest, DeGette’s challenge has Clyburn’s allies unnerved. Of the three members of House Democratic leadership running to take back the positions they held the last time their party had the majority, from 2007 to 2011, Clyburn is the only one with a challenger.

Hoyer, who endorsed Clyburn Wednesday and expressed confidence about his prospects for victory, made it clear he did not think DeGette was behind the concerning rhetoric.

DeGette told reporters on Wednesday morning she was not going to discuss “he said, she said.”

She said, “I decided that what I really want to talk about is why I would be a great whip,” sand emphasized she has been exploring a bid for this position for the past year.

“So that’s what I’m gonna talk about,” DeGette said.

Clyburn said Tuesday he had heard some opponents were describing him, the only black lawmaker in leadership, as a “figurehead,” a characterization he called a “dog whistle.”

Hoyer explained he felt compelled to vouch publicly for Clyburn after hearing that Clyburn had been the subject of the disparaging remarks.

“I’m sure there are people who say derogatory things about all of us,” Hoyer said. “And I think Jim was sensitive to that. I understand his sensitivity. I think it was appropriate.”

Hoyer recalled, “We had a very effective team when we were in the majority,” and “we never lost a vote.”

The whip, the third-ranking House Democrat next year, rounds up votes and often pressures colleagues into taking tough votes.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-North Carolina, who is acting as the chief advocate for Clyburn’s whip bid, said he was confident Clyburn would top DeGette, who has been a chief deputy whip under both Clyburn and Hoyer over the past 14 years.

“We are very close” to securing the votes, Butterfield said. “You can count on one hand the number of members who have expressed unwillingness to publicly endorse Mr. Clyburn.”

The Congressional Black Caucus, which includes Butterfield and Clyburn, Wednesday unanimously endorsed Clyburn for the job, according to a source familiar with deliberations.

Hoyer is running unopposed for majority leader. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, is currently unopposed in her quest to be speaker — though Pelosi could have trouble getting the votes to win.

If DeGette wins and Pelosi and Hoyer retain the top jobs, no black lawmaker will have one of the top three leadership positions — an unacceptable outcome for members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Some have been calling for one of their members to have one of the top two leadership positions.

“It would be a very, very sad day for this caucus, that we have the most diverse caucus in history and we have no diversity in our leadership,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, of House Democrats.

“I think we would have a real tough time keeping our majority in 2020 if we do something like that,” Fudge, a former Black Caucus chairwoman and close Clyburn ally, added.

Until several weeks ago, some members, including Fudge, were suggesting that Clyburn should be prepared to run for speaker if Pelosi stumbled, or even run against Hoyer for majority leader.

DeGette has been telling supporters she was under the impression Clyburn didn’t want to run for whip as she went about making plans to launch her own campaign.

“What she’s told me is, she believed Jim was not going to run for whip., so I think she felt there was a clear path for her to run for whip,” Hoyer said. “There were a lot of people who talked about (Clyburn) running for either speaker or majority leader.”

Brian Murphy of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.