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.
Since winning election in 1992 in a district designed to have a black majority-it was the only district in the state President Bush did not carry in 2000 or 2004-Clyburn has shot up the Democratic ranks. He was unanimously elected chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and took charge of the party's faith working group in the House. He was also elected chairman of the Democratic caucus. Just before Election Day in November, Clyburn began campaigning for the whip post. "I don't know if I saw myself as successful or not," he demurs, "but I darn sure was pursuing it." North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a frequent dinner companion, decamped to South Carolina for days to telephone members and try to win their support for Clyburn, starting a month before the Democrats had even won the House. Clyburn was somewhat reluctant at first, Butterfield says. "He thought it'd be in poor taste before the election." In the end, though, it all worked out.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer are the public faces of the House Democrats, but it's Clyburn who handles the nuts and bolts of holding the party together on votes. So far that hasn't been too difficult, considering that the Democrats' 100-hours legislative push was an assortment of popular, poll-tested issues.
Challenges. But now, as Congress takes up legislation on climate change, immigration, healthcare, and the budget, things could get tougher. "We can't afford to lose 15 members"-Democrats have that many more than the obligatory 218 votes for a majority-"on any one vote," he says. But some believe if anyone can hold Democrats together, it's Clyburn. Butterfield, for one, praises Clyburn's style of chatting one on one with colleagues rather than holding large events. Clyburn, who has a moderate-to-liberal voting record, also regularly tries to reach out to business interests and more conservative Democrats. (He's writing a book tentatively titled I Too Am a Southerner in part about working as a black with white politicians.) He's planning on running his whip operation differently from those in the past: He wants to have members on the same page before a bill actually comes up for a vote instead of trying to then get them onboard when a vote is imminent. Clyburn has seven major coalitions to manage, from the liberal black caucus to the moderate Blue Dogs. "I think a lot of my job will be to get our members to understand that we can't bite off more than we can chew," he says.
Clyburn will also be at the heart of the Democratic presidential fight. His endorsement carries a lot of weight in South Carolina. "Clyburn does not have a machine," says Jack Bass, professor at the College of Charleston, but he does have the "Jim Clyburn Network"-a group of civic and religious organizations with regional influence. Yet his endorsement hasn't been a silver bullet. In 2004, he initially backed former Rep. Dick Gephardt, who dropped out before the South Carolina primary, and then backed Sen. John Kerry, who was soundly beaten there by Sen. John Edwards.
Still, Clyburn's receiving a constant flow of presidential suitors. He says he is staying out of the endorsement sweepstakes-"at least at this point, anyway"-but admits that "I'm crazy about Bill Richardson," the New Mexico governor. "I have a closer personal relationship with [him] than any other of the candidates." Still, he won't commit. "I'm not going to tell you. I'm not going to tell my wife." Jim Clyburn is still, after all, managing people.
Born: July 21, 1940
Family: Married, wife, Emily. Three children
Education: South Carolina State College, B.A. 1962; attended University of South Carolina Law School, 1972-74
Public service: South Carolina Commission of Farmworkers executive director, 1968-71; South Carolina Human Affairs commissioner, 1974-82; U.S. representative, 1993-present
This story appears in the March 5, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.