’I’m not a softy by any means,’ Clyburn says as he prepares to help lead Democrats

US Rep Jim Clyburn
US Rep Jim Clyburn AP

Rep. Jim Clyburn will have two big challenges next year.

He’ll be responsible for making sure 235 ideologically diverse House Democrats can unite behind an ambitious legislative agenda that proves the party has earned its return to the majority.

But his toughest task could be proving himself.

“My biggest challenge … is getting people to understand that being a gentleman is not being weak,” said the subdued South Carolina Democrat, who has battled perceptions over the years that he’s not prepared to work hard.

“When you got the responsibility of trying to carry an agenda, especially in the climate that we’re in, I think my challenge is getting people to understand I’m not a softy by any means,” Clyburn added.

The No. 3 House Democrat and highest ranking African American on Capitol Hill, Clyburn will be the House Majority Whip in the next Congress, which begins Thursday.

The job involves overseeing a team of colleagues tasked with making sure fellow members are prepared to vote for Democratic-authored bills on the House floor. If they’re not, the team will try to understand what the skeptics need to get to yes.

Clyburn was also majority whip from 2007 to 2011, the last time Democrats ran the House. This time, the stakes are higher for him, both politically and personally.

Democrats will have control of the House in a presidential election year, when they hope to provide a model for the country by illustrating what it would mean to return one of their own to the White House. Clyburn will play a major part in shaping, explaining and driving that message.

If the current partial government shutdown continues into the new year, which appears likely, Clyburn’s first item of business will be to help keep Democrats united as President Donald Trump blames them for not agreeing to fully fund a border wall they oppose.

Meanwhile, Clyburn is preparing to resume the whip job against a backdrop of his peers telling him he needs to do more to make sure people take him seriously.

Leading up to the midterms, when no one was sure whether California Democrat Nancy Pelosi would have the support to reclaim the speaker’s gavel, allies were pushing for Clyburn to prepare himself to run as her successor.

They cautioned that Clyburn had not been doing enough to promote himself to colleagues and that his modesty and understated style could hurt his chances for a promotion.

After the election, when Clyburn announced he would run for whip, he was stung by a challenge from Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, and the rumblings among his opposition that he had not earned his title when Democrats last had the majority. The whispers said that Pelosi and others ran his operation for him.

“I know Nancy Pelosi … gets all the credit for passing the Affordable Care Act (in 2010),” Clyburn said, “but I played a significant role in helping shape the Affordable Care Act and getting people to understand its relevance to the way we’ve done what people call ‘groundbreaking legislation’ before.”

DeGette ultimately withdrew from the contest and Clyburn won by acclamation, but Clyburn said the criticism against him during her candidacy amounted to racially charged “dog whistles.”

Now, not wishing to leave room for doubt about his capabilities and accomplishments, Clyburn said he would likely be putting out more press releases and statements than he has in his current role as Assistant House Democratic Leader.

In assembling his whip team, Clyburn will try to demonstrate he’s been listening to the demands of ambitious younger and more junior members who want a chance to rise in the ranks. The current House Democratic leadership structure has been static for over a decade, with Pelosi at the top, Clyburn in the No. 3 position and incoming Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland in the middle.

Clyburn announced in early December he would invite six of the current chief deputy whips back to join his team. Two would be designated senior chief deputy whips.

But Clyburn replaced four veteran chief deputy whips with new ones.

One member who was not reappointed after 14 years serving in this capacity is DeGette. Clyburn wouldn’t explain his rationale for excluding her but said pointedly the word “retribution” would not accurately describe the decision.

He has created a new role, that of “assistant to the majority whip,” for his protégé, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, the outgoing chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus who would not have had a leadership role in the next Congress otherwise.

One of Clyburn’s chief deputy whips, Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, told McClatchy that he was currently advising Clyburn on selecting additional members to serve as senior or assistant whips who represent the diversity of the House Democratic Caucus.

“We have to take into consideration demographics, we have to make sure it’s gender balanced and racially balanced and balanced on ideology — we can’t have all progressives or all (moderates) out there,” Butterfield said. “And we’re not discriminating against freshmen. Freshmen will be eligible to be assistant whips.”

For the first time, the whip team under Clyburn’s leadership will produce a detailed manual with the resume of every House Democrat and a profile of the district he or she represents. Each entry will include pertinent demographic data, including the margins by which Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton carried that district in 2016.

Different chief deputy whips will be given specific responsibilities. Butterfield will, for instance, be responsible for communicating with members.

Richmond will focus on members from rural districts and freshmen. He anticipated this constituency of 63 new House Democrats might be the most challenging contingent to corral.

“I think the new members are very strong-willed and I think will be a challenge, not because they’re new but because they have not lived in the minority like we have,” he said.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Florida, another chief deputy whip and a former party chairwoman, will work closely with members considered most vulnerable in 2020.

In another nod to the sensitivity of the current political climate, Clyburn will be formalizing a practice of letting members know the political risks inherent in voting for certain bills so they can make a choice about whether supporting it could hurt their chances for reelection.

“We want to be able to say to (members), ‘Now, there’s something in the bill we want you to understand before you commit to it, because it may adversely affect your district,’” Clyburn explained. “We don’t want to ask people to vote just based on the title of the bill ... and that could mean that’s a vote you can’t get.”

Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where her reporting on South Carolina politics appears in The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.