Jeffries or Clyburn? A fight could be brewing to lead House Democrats

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. speaks in park in Berryville, Va., Monday, July 24, 2017, as Congressional Democrats unveiled their new agenda.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y. speaks in park in Berryville, Va., Monday, July 24, 2017, as Congressional Democrats unveiled their new agenda. AP

The Congressional Black Caucus is bracing for a fight over who should lead House Democrats.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries is actively exploring a bid to join the senior ranks of House Democratic leadership in the next Congress, maybe as the first black speaker.

But Thursday, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, Congressional Black Caucus chairman sent colleagues a letter giving special attention to Rep. Jim Clyburn, the most senior African-American member of Congress — and no one else.

Jeffries of New York is 48, a third-term congressman and a co-chairman of the House Democratic messaging committee. He helped raise $1.4 million this election cycle by the end of September, according to an internal document obtained by McClatchy, and is widely mentioned as a future party leader.

Clyburn of South Carolina is 78, a 13-term lawmaker and the assistant House Democratic leader who has raised millions of dollars to the party. He has great loyalty among colleagues and, in the words of Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, is not just loved, but “beloved” within the Black Caucus.

But Clyburn is reeling from an embarrassing fumble back home earlier this week, when he agreed to appear at a campaign event with Archie Parnell, a Democratic congressional candidate who once beat his ex-wife — then backed out amid political pressure.

Clyburn has suggested in interviews he struggles with how to reconcile his Christian faith — specifically his belief in redemption and second chances — with the gravity of Parnell’s 1973 incident.

Ultimately, said sources familiar with the situation, Clyburn and his team made a decision that the congressman could not do anything that could be misconstrued as not treating domestic violence seriously. He tweeted once and for all Wednesday night he does not endorse Parnell and blamed “misrepresentation” about the event he had originally said he would attend.

Clyburn did not explain further, and Thursday his staff declined to elaborate.

Congressional observers say this confusion won’t be fatal to Clyburn’s chances to ascend the leadership ranks.

However, a perception of a lapse in judgment, or that he doesn’t have a strong team, might have exposed a weakness Jeffries or other ambitious House Democrats could exploit — especially at a time when there’s a desire in some circles of the party for someone new at the top of the leadership slate.

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Clyburn, along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, have all served in leadership for over a decade.

While Jeffries has not declared his intent to run for any specific leadership position, he has been speaking to colleagues about his interests. For Democrats who want both diversity and youth in their leadership, Jeffries could offer just that.

The midterm elections will determine what comes next. If Democrats win big Tuesday, Pelosi, 78, could stay on as speaker.

Clyburn said in an interview with Politico on Thursday evening that if Pelosi and Hoyer ran for speaker and majority leader, he would run for whip, the No. 3 slot. Clyburn had previously suggested he could challenge Hoyer for the second spot.

Thursday, though, Clyburn did not rule out another scenario. If Pelosi cannot get the votes to continue, Clyburn confirmed he could run against Hoyer, or anyone else, for speaker.

Hoyer’s chances for any leadership job could be complicated. The Congressional Black Caucus wants one of its own members to hold at last one of the top two leadership positions if Democrats win back the House.

Richmond told McClatchy in October this should be the case, and formalized his stance in a letter to all House Democrats on Thursday.

He did not explicitly endorse Clyburn to run for speaker. However, he has said in the past that Clyburn, with whom he is close, would be his top choice if Pelosi stepped aside. He used Clyburn in his letter as an example of a Black Caucus member who has made substantial contributions to the Democratic Party.

“We successfully developed a strategic plan for the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) led by Assistant Leader Jim Clyburn,” Richmond said. “Our plan was tested in the 2017 South Carolina special election where the African-American vote outperformed the 2016 presidential election and perfected it in Alabama where the (Black Caucus)and African-American turnout delivered a victory to Senator Doug Jones.”

Richmond was alluding to the 2017 special election in South Carolina’s 5th District between Parnell and now-Republican incumbent Rep. Ralph Norman, before domestic abuse revelations were publicized. Parnell lost to Norman by three percentage points. The two face each other again on Tuesday night.

With rumblings that Jeffries was looking to present himself as a younger alternative to Clyburn within the caucus, Richmond appeared to be making it clear that a consensus pick among members of the group had already emerged.

In his letter, Richmond spoke of “serving alongside our country’s most historic and trailblazing civil rights leaders,” a clear nod to Clyburn, who fought for civil rights in the segregated South.

Clyburn’s civil rights background will be one of his selling points to colleagues.

“(Clyburn’s) father was not allowed to graduate from high school because he was black … and Clyburn rises to the very top of the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, who just recently became acquainted with Clyburn’s history. “That is the story of America.”