Hidden Power on the Hill
By about 1:30 p.m. one recent day, Rep. Jim Clyburn was hunched in the back seat of an SUV parked outside the Capitol and talking on a BlackBerry about the impact of the president's budget on rural districts. He had already done a radio interview about Iraq and the 2008 presidential race, led a meeting with 100 or so Democratic members or their staff, spoken against the president's Iraq plan, given a press conference on Hurricane Katrina, and delivered a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers. He took a quick break in his office for salted cashews and diet soda. It's been busy "every day since being in the majority," he said. And then it was off to a PBS interview.
A headline grabber? Not exactly. Busy? Absolutely. Clyburn is at the center of the Democrats' most pressing concerns on Capitol Hill. As the majority whip, the No. 3 Democratic position in the House of Representatives, he's in charge of keeping the party together on votes and reaching out to the Democrats' famously broad set of interest groups. And for presidential candidates, his endorsement could swing the South Carolina primary. For the next year or two, Jim Clyburn is going to be a very popular-and powerful-man.
Lessons. A 15-year veteran of the House and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress (the first black congressman from his state since 1897), Clyburn, 66, talks in the deep baritone of a minister's son. He traces his political success to lessons learned in a fundamentalist home in Sumter, S.C. His father went to divinity school but made only $10 a week from the Church of God and instead supported his family as a contractor; his mother graduated from college when he was 13 and then just hung the diploma in her beauty shop.
He was always interested in politics. In a speech prior to his election as whip, Clyburn recalled how at age 12 he mentioned his plans-to go to college and work in Washington, D.C.-in his mother's store. One client told him not to bother, since he was black. His mother thought otherwise. "You just hold fast," she said. And he did. As a student at South Carolina State College in 1960, he organized the state's first sit-in at an Orangeburg drugstore with six friends; later, he would join a civil rights group led by future Rep. John Lewis, now Clyburn's right-hand man. Clyburn was a community organizer, a teacher, an employment counselor, and a failed candidate for state representative before beginning a 20-year career in state government, most prominently as human affairs commissioner. Much of the work boiled down to managing competing interests and racial groups. "That's my long suit," he says. "I've been managing people since I was 24 years old."
Clyburn believes his current job is best handled without constantly putting his face before the cameras, though he'll sit for interviews when asked. Yes, he admits, he's been on MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews, but he prefers "playing hardball with baseballs." And when he latches onto an issue, he'll make his voice heard. Right now, his passions are turning the rural areas around South Carolina's Interstate 95 corridor into a center for biofuels and improving the state's health and education programs. He's also focused on smoothing assistance for Katrina victims, and he strongly supports sending earmark dollars-federal money for specific projects-back to the district.