- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn has come a long way since his childhood in the deeply segregated South, but Congress’ highest-ranking black member draws almost daily on the lessons he learned growing up in South Carolina.

Now in his ninth term, the low-key Mr. Clyburn serves under the high-profile team of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer as the House Democrats’ chief vote counter. He said the job requires him to tap into his background as he solicits support from disparate wings of the party.

“I think I’m the only one in the leadership that’s got the kind of background and experience that I’ve got, coming from a red state as I come from, I understand how to get along with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, I understand how to get along with members of the Blue Dogs,” Mr. Clyburn said.

The 68-year-old Democrat credits his early interest in politics to a set of household rules enforced by his father, a minister, and his mother, a beautician.

“The way my parents had things set up, they never told us we had to read the Bible, they just said, every morning you got to do a Bible verse. They never told us to read the newspaper, but it was delivered there every day and every evening you have to share some current event,” Mr. Clyburn recalled.

Indeed, a lot was happening around the country, as well as South Carolina, when he was growing up. The Clyburns lived in Sumter, just 20 miles from Summerton, the scene of the first of five court cases that would later be folded into the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in which the U.S. Supreme Court said racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

At the age of 12, Mr. Clyburn — whose family knew the Rev. Joseph DeLaine, a lead organizer in the Briggs v. Elliott case — was elected president of the local youth chapter of the NAACP.

Active in marches and protests, he was one of several hundred college students arrested for civil disobedience in Orangeburg, where he met his future wife, who was also a participant in the 1960 demonstration.

“It’s that kind of state,” Mr. Clyburn said. “It was all about the sit-ins, it was always a part of me.”

He had been considering the seminary but when it came time to decide on his career, Mr. Clyburn opted not to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I was really concerned that he would be very disappointed in me, but my dad surprised me by saying to me on that day that he thought the world would much rather see a sermon than to hear one and that, I think, sort of crystallized things for me. It’s been my mantra from that day to this,” he said.

It was only a matter of time before Mr. Clyburn ran for public office. But his 1970 bid for state delegate was the beginning of a series of near misses in which his dream was complicated by state voting laws designed to keep black candidates out of office. In that race, for a vote to count, a voter had to vote for candidates for all of the Charleston-area’s 11 districts.

“The effect of that is that if one or two black people run, black folks could not go and vote for one or two of those black people,” Mr. Clyburn said. “Your vote was always neutralized.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Clyburn won the primary and was told on election night that he was the winner of the general election as well. But the next morning, he was informed that the vote counters forgot to carry a one and that he was actually the loser. His low-key reaction in the press — “I said, ‘Well, I just didn’t get enough votes’” — won the favor of the state’s new governor, who offered him a job on his personal staff.

Gov. John West appointed Mr. Clyburn as the Human Affairs Commissioner after several years on his personal staff, a post he would hold for 18 years under two Democrats and two Republicans. But his thirst for public office was still there, and he made another unsuccessful run in 1978, this time for secretary of state. He says he mulled trying again in 1982 but after the man who beat him assured Mr. Clyburn he would support him in 1986 if he opted not to run that year, he agreed.

“Except that in 1986, he never remembered having that conversation,” Mr. Clyburn said of the man, John Campbell, the former mayor of Columbia. He lost yet again, despite receiving 48 percent of the vote against an incumbent.

Finally, in 1992, Mr. Clyburn got his wish. He was elected to represent the state’s 6th Congressional District, a seat once held by John C. Calhoun, winning 56 percent in a five-person race.

“I had lost enough to learn how to do it,” he said with a chuckle.

As the whip, Mr. Clyburn relies on a network of 31” senior whips,” including three members of the eight different Democratic caucuses.

“You’ve really got to know people, to know who they are and know something about how to appeal to them,” he says. “So if I’ve got 41 African-Americans and I’ve got 51 Blue Dogs, if any of those groups walk away from me I don’t get the bill passed.”

In particular, as the House has pushed through a $787 billion stimulus plan, the $410 billion omnibus bill and now President Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget, Mr. Clyburn said there has rarely been a night that he has not sat down with members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dogs to see what has to be done to get their support.

“Jim Clyburn is a fair-minded pragmatist that understands the needs of urban, suburban and rural Americans,” said Rep. Lincoln Davis, a Blue Dog from Tennessee. “His success is not only historic, but also a testament to his leadership and his lifelong dedication to service.”

Mr. Clyburn rejects the idea that there has not been any bipartisanship so far in this session of Congress — despite no Republican votes on either Mr. Obama’s budget or the stimulus bill.

“I don’t care what [the president] did, they aren’t going to vote for it, it’s not in the cards,” he says. “So I don’t understand people talking about why can’t you get bipartisanship. If you can get the Congressional Black Caucus and the Blue Dogs, the Hispanic Caucus, you can’t be more bipartisan than that.”

Recently, Mr. Clyburn earned headlines for a dust-up with his state’s governor, Republican Mark Sanford, who is rejecting a portion of the state’s funding from the stimulus bill, saying it’s fiscally irresponsible.

The lawmaker has blasted Mr. Sanford and other GOP governors for their reticence in accepting stimulus money, an act he likened at one point to a “slap in the face of African-Americans,” citing high unemployment rates, including more than 10 percent in his native South Carolina.

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