To ascend to one of the top two House Democratic leadership slots next year, Rep. Jim Clyburn needs to attract lawmakers like Rep. Ro Khanna.
Khanna — an Indian-American freshman Democrat from California and proudly liberal — didn’t know much about the South Carolina Democrat until mid-October, when the two men toured Historically Black Colleges and Universities around Clyburn’s district.
Now Khanna’s backing Clyburn for Speaker or Majority Leader if Democrats win control of the House, assuming Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, can’t win the top job herself.
At 78 and the highest-ranking black lawmaker on Capitol Hill, Clyburn would be the first African-American to hold one of the top two congressional leadership positions.
“It would be something so good for this country to see — that, at this time in particular in our nation, despite all this divisiveness and setbacks on race, there is still a forward march of progress,” Khanna said. “(Clyburn’s) father was not allowed to graduate from high school because he was black … and Clyburn rises to the very top of the House of Representatives. That is the story of America.”
Khanna’s excitement about Clyburn illustrates the opening Clyburn has to climb the ranks: By appealing to other, up-and-coming House Democrats who want to make history with the first black speaker.
But Khanna’s journey also highlights the challenges Clyburn faces in building his base. After a 24-year congressional career as a savvy insider, rather than a self-promoting media personality, not every House Democrat knows what he does and why he might deserve a promotion.
That’s why, without even knowing if Democrats will win a House majority on Election Day, Clyburn has to make his case.
He and his allies will need to talk directly to the Khannas of the House Democratic Caucus — members who might chafe at the optics of taking down the first woman speaker and replacing her with current number two Steny Hoyer of Maryland, a white man who is also eying the speakership.
As identity politics have overtaken the Democratic Party, members could be asked to confront whether the highest levels of elected leadership should reflect the party’s diversity.
There’s a constituency for such an argument. After the midterms, the Democratic Caucus could be more diverse than it has ever been.
The Congressional Black Caucus alone is currently made up of 45 of the 193 House Democrats, and after the election, that number could grow to the low to mid 50s.
Twenty-six House Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are expected to return in the next Congress and that contingent could pick up additional members. Fourteen House Democrats now identify as Asian-American, Asian-Pacific American, or South Asian-American.
Two Native Americans and a record number of women are poised to win their elections as Democrats, too.
And southerners who want regional diversity in their leadership — and believe the Democratic Party needs to do a better job making inroads with southern voters — could also be swayed towards Clyburn.
“We’ve got to reach after seats in the South and nobody understands the issues that confront people in the south better than Jim Clyburn,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Georgia, a member of the Black Caucus and the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.
That could also be a consideration for Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Yarmuth, who is white, told McClatchy he would, like Khanna, support Pelosi for speaker. But if Pelosi doesn’t have the votes, Yarmuth suggested he could end up supporting Clyburn specifically for speaker or majority leader.
“Jim Clyburn has the wisdom, stature and judgment to excel as speaker, majority leader, majority whip or any other role,” Yarmuth said.
The biggest roadblock for Clyburn, presently the third-ranking House Democrat and assistant minority leader, is 79-year-old Hoyer, currently the minority whip. If Pelosi steps down, Hoyer is expected to run to become speaker. If 78-year-old Pelosi stays, Hoyer will seek to retain his current rank.
Hoyer will tout that he has mentored younger members by choosing junior colleagues for his whip team. He has racked up countless I.O.U.’s from lawmakers over the years for whom he has done favors, large and small. In this election cycle he has traveled to 131 districts in 25 states, campaigned for 141 candidates and contributed $10.1 million to their campaigns.
Hoyer also has relationships within the Black Caucus and supporters think some of its members would vote for him, though the majority would back Clyburn.
Aware that plenty of members, such as Khanna, are only just learning about Clyburn now, the task for Clyburn’s allies is to ramp up their efforts to convince all Democrats that Clyburn works just as hard as Hoyer.
In the last 10 days, Clyburn has sent out three separate campaign emails.
In an Oct. 16 message, Clyburn attached a spreadsheet listing the 144 candidates who have received his donations and how much. It lists whether Clyburn has traveled or plans to travel to their districts and if he has recorded robo-calls for their races.
“I have never been much of a self-promoter, preferring instead to let my deeds speak for me,” Clyburn wrote in an Oct. 23 email to supporters. “Lately, however, I have been reading that some of my friends and supporters would like for me to bit more boastful.”
In that same memo, Clyburn noted he has paid $700,000 in dues to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, raised over $5 million for the party and contributed more than $900,000 to House Democrats and candidates.
On Oct. 24, Clyburn released a one-page flier titled “Jim Clyburn — Building Democratic Majorities in 2018 and Beyond.” It noted that he has campaigned in more than 70 districts and includes a visual representation of everywhere on the United States map where Clyburn has either traveled or spent money — 36 states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands.
His surrogates argue Clyburn can go into districts where Pelosi is too politically toxic, or black communities where Hoyer can’t relate as well to voters. Clyburn told McClatchy in a recent interview that his anti-poverty plan resonates with a base that needs energizing.
“We have not done enough” to talk about poverty, Clyburn said. “This is all about talking the talk rather than walking the walk. I am trying to show (Democrats) a pathway for us to walk the walk.”
Many House Democrats insist their party won’t want to kick off its new majority with an ugly leadership fight, and predict Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn will all just pick up the titles they held the last time they were in power from 2007-2011: Speaker, Leader and Whip.
But Black Caucus members are pushing hard for one of their own to be in one of the top two leadership positions, aware that the majority whip often gets left out of the highest-level negotiations.
“I don’t know why people just assume (Clyburn) should be No. 3,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, a former Black Caucus chairwoman. “The days of going to the back of the bus are over.”