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Roll Call

James Clyburn Looks to Ascend in Leadership

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo

The upcoming Democratic leadership elections pose risks for the Congressional Black Caucus, as questions surround Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn’s future and how the group would fare in a leadership shake-up. 

It’s a top CBC agenda item for when Congress returns, said the group’s chairman, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), even if campaigning and uncertainty about which positions will be open have thwarted its members from deciding on a concrete strategy.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s future looms large over the CBC. The Californian’s absence would prompt Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) to run for leader, leaving the Whip slot vacant. Would Clyburn run for it?

Publicly, the South Carolinian has taken an aggressive posture, telling Roll Call in May he intended to run “at least” for Whip. Clyburn indicated that his comments were premised on Democrats retaking the House, adding “I’m not making any plans to challenge anybody. I hope nobody’s making plans to challenge me.”

Privately, Democrats harbor doubts. 

Clyburn is said to be heavily weighing family considerations. And some Democrats question whether his last tenure as Whip was a success. 

Clyburn as Whip “was a frustrating experience for a lot of Members, and at various points other members of the leadership team had to step in to meet the duties of the whip operation,” a senior Democratic aide said.

Other Democrats are anxious to run for Whip, including Rep. Diana DeGette (Colo.), a Hoyer ally with a liberal pedigree, though DeGette would not challenge Clyburn for the spot.

A second Democratic aide said the CBC is interested in preventing non-CBC Members from jumping Clyburn in seniority. 

Meanwhile, shortly after Rep. Norm Dicks (Wash.) announced he was retiring, Clyburn floated a trial balloon of him taking Dicks’ spot as the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Democratic sources said. 

Two Democratic women with seniority on the spending panel, Reps. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) and Nita Lowey (N.Y.), are fighting for the top Democratic slot, and committee insiders said Clyburn’s ascension there was a long shot.

But the discussion of other roles for Clyburn shows uncertainty in his future on the leadership team. 

For example, nearly two years after it was created, Clyburn’s “Assistant Leader” position continues to cause confusion among Members and aides about his exact responsibilities and where he ranks in the hierarchy of the leadership team. 

“We still don’t know how to really classify the Clyburn position,” Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said in a recent interview. 

But others said Clyburn is all but certain to remain in leadership and would definitely run for Whip if it were open. 

Clyburn spokesman Patrick Devlin said, “Right now, Mr. Clyburn is traveling all over the country to support Democratic Members and candidates and the President so we can end the Do-Nothing Republican Congress and get back to work on behalf of all the American people, and he looks forward to continuing to serve in Leadership in the next Congress.”

CBC Chairman Cleaver said he had talked to Clyburn about his intentions but couldn’t reveal what Clyburn said. 

“Obviously, we all are interested in Jim Clyburn continuing in a leadership role if he so chooses,” Cleaver said. “There may be some additional CBC members to seek leadership roles. At this point, it is accurate to say that we have not put into play a strategy to secure more leadership slots. We will meet on the first Wednesday when we return, and it’s safe to say that that will be high up on our agenda.”

Of course, the top of the leadership team could remain stable if Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn stay on. Since Pelosi pushed back the date of the leadership elections, driving rampant speculation about her future, that discussion has died down considerably, with many Democrats expressing a belief that she will stay on after all. 

The CBC still has a stake in the campaign for Caucus vice chairman, where Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) is the frontrunner against Reps. Jared Polis (Colo.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.), the latter of whom is a CBC member. 

While Cleaver said the “overwhelming majority” of the CBC’s 43 members would back Lee, race might not be a driving factor in the race. 

First, because of Lee’s “late entry, some CBC members had made commitments to other candidates,” Cleaver said, declining to answer whom he himself was backing.

Second, Crowley declined to challenge Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.) for Caucus vice chairman in 2009, nominating him for the post in part to increase the diversity of the leadership team. 

Third, Crowley supported CBC Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) through Rangel’s painful ethics scandals, which could garner him loyalty from CBC members.

Butterfield, co-chairman of Lee’s bid for Caucus vice chairman, focused instead on the position of women in the leadership team in a recent interview with Roll Call. 

“I don’t want an all-male leadership team. I mean, if we were to have, let’s say, Pelosi’s gone, if we had Steny Hoyer and [James Clyburn] and Xavier Becerra and Joe Crowley, that would be an all-male team. And that’s not a good idea. I think our Democratic Caucus is more diverse than that,” Butterfield said.

There are other options to add CBC Members to the leadership ranks beyond the top elected positions, including on the Steering and Policy Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leadership team. 

Reps. Cedric Richmond (La.), Karen Bass (Calif.) and Terri Sewell (Ala.) were named as promising CBC members who could represent the group in leadership in years to come.

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