Every power player in Washington, D.C., has a different metric for what makes a day a success. For one Missouri Democrat, it comes down to whether he was able to do his job without stepping on people.
“I want to say, ‘I did nothing today to intentionally hurt anybody.’ I want to be able to say that every night,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II said in a recent interview. “If I live that way, people will probably like me." People do like Cleaver, a Methodist minister who attributes much of his political success over the years to having practiced what he’s preached when it comes to treating others with civility.
He’s served as mayor of Kansas City, as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and as the top Democrat on a Financial Services subcommittee — and members, aides and operatives have started throwing out his name as someone who could step up in House Democratic leadership if and when there’s an opening.
The six-term lawmaker insists he didn’t come to Washington for that. “I told somebody recently, ‘You know, I am a really good lieutenant. You know, I’m loyal. I follow through.’”
Though his efforts to curb aggressive policing tactics in the wake of last summer’s Ferguson, Mo., shooting have raised his national profile, Cleaver told CQ Roll Call he couldn’t see himself launching a leadership campaign unsolicited. But he wasn't sure what he'd say if his colleagues asked him to run for an available slot. "I have no idea," he said. "I'm trying to be purely, 100 percent honest. I have no idea."
It’s a scenario that could come to pass sooner rather than later, particularly if the CBC decides it wants to field a candidate for an open position, but especially in the event the only black lawmaker currently in leadership — 74-year-old Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C. — decides to retire.
Stakeholders agree Cleaver, 70, would be a competitive candidate — despite the ongoing grumblings in the caucus that party leadership could use an injection of youth.
Ultimately, the question of whether he tries to move up depends on Cleaver.
In many ways, he's a natural fit. He travels in election years to campaign for Frontline program incumbents and candidates in tight races. He’s a senior whip, a reliable party-line voter and a willing team player.
He is beloved by peers, who look forward to installments of his “Dear Colleague” series laced with personal anecdotes and metaphor-laden fables teaching lessons on congressional civility. He has an outstanding invitation to kick off each weekly whip meeting with introductory remarks, which Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., calls “the best five minutes of the week.”
In the bitter contest for Energy and Commerce ranking member last fall, the reach of Cleaver’s influence was on full display. It’s widely thought his endorsement of Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. helped the New Jersey lawmaker prevail, by just 10 votes, over Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California.
Cleaver didn’t downplay the idea he helped tip the balance in Pallone’s favor, and he acknowledged there was a reason his New Jersey colleague asked him to deliver the final nominating speech before members voted.
“Frank knew it had to be good. I think he hoped it would be good,” Cleaver explained, “but he also knew I wouldn’t attack anybody. I wouldn’t make any reference to any other human being, and I didn’t.”
He wasn’t always so sensitive. Cleaver was raised in public housing, where he said boys had to literally fight to survive; later, his football teammates named him a captain as a reward for being violent and aggressive on the field.
But a trusted coach took the hard-nosed young Cleaver aside and explained that a leader knows the difference between playing hard and intentionally brutalizing opponents. It was a lesson that stuck. He remained captain — and to this day, he swears he never got into another fight.
His time in seminary was also transformative. “I have, with great intentionality, a demeanor that I hope is welcoming for people to not be afraid to talk to me or, you know, ask me a question," he said. "I think my religious training, my religious background, dictates that I present myself in that fashion. Having a mean minister standing in the well of the House is somehow not tasty.”
As a member of the rank and file, Cleaver has the luxury of defining who he is and what kind of lawmaker he wants to be. If he joined leadership, he knows there’d be a change.
“I had somebody tell me this one time, ‘Look, they may want you to get in leadership, but remember, if you go to leadership, you’re going to have to walk the plank,’” he recalled being told once. “‘You’re gonna have to stick to the script, even if you think another script should be written.’ I think he was absolutely right. So if the time comes, I’ll have to factor all that in.
“I think mine is a pretty good script,” Cleaver shrugged with a laugh.
In Cleaver’s script, he's compared the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was closely negotiated between both parties, to a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich ." He called Congress a “fact-free” environment in an interview with a Capitol Hill newspaper, and recalled the time a colleague said, “None of this is real.”
“People were down on the floor, we were sitting in the chamber, and he said, ‘This is not real, do you understand? This is not real,’” according to Cleaver’s recollection of the conversation. “‘People introduce legislation. They know it’s going nowhere and they talk like it’s gonna be approved next week.’ He said, ‘People go to the floor as if delivering these speeches is gonna change somebody’s mind.’ He said [it] ‘never does.’”
He's even criticized his colleagues’ grandstanding, how they call everyone “my friend” when they don’t mean it: “It makes me want to throw up, because they’re not serious.”
There doesn’t appear to be a deep drive in Cleaver to replicate the leadership experiences of his past.
“When I left the [Kansas City] mayor’s office, my staff was crying. … I drove out of the basement garage with my wife in the front seat, and I was just — I was just as happy as I could be,” he said. “I could look back and say, ‘Well, I didn’t have anything laying on the table, so I don’t regret my time.’ When the time was up, it was really up.”
Cleaver said he was basically cajoled into running for CBC chairman in the 112th Congress by then-Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., who called him at home during the Christmas break and instructed him to write a letter saying he wanted to be considered for the job.
He might have been trying to appear dispassionate about the experience, but it was hard not to detect a glimmer of nostalgia as he described the jobs tour he orchestrated during his chairmanship.
“We started out in Cleveland, and I remember I was on the airplane, and I was talking to the staff and saying, ‘Uh, what’s the turnout like?’ and they said, ‘Uh, oh, it’s gonna be OK,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness,’ because when someone says it’s gonna be alright, you know, we got a problem,” Cleaver recalled. “And we got there, and there were 5,000 people standing in the hot sun for hours. And we went to Miami and I think the number was like 7,000. And in Atlanta we had like 8,000 and Los Angeles, slightly above 10,000 people.
“That was good for us,” Cleaver said, nodding as if agreeing with himself. “I thought it was a good two years. We had a good two years.”
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