Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina on Tuesday accused detractors of using racially-charged “dog whistles” to undermine his bid for the No. 3 slot in House Democratic leadership.
Clyburn, the current assistant Democratic leader and highest ranking black lawmaker in Congress, told McClatchy race was being injected into the competition for House majority whip.
He didn’t offer names.
“I don’t know where it’s all coming from,” Clyburn said in an interview with McClatchy. “But someone came to me over the weekend and told me that (they heard), when I was whip before, I was a figurehead.”
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Suggestions that, as the only black member of the leadership team, he was a token and not an effective leader, were tantamount to “the little dog whistles that have been floating around this side for a long time,” Clyburn said.
“What do you mean, I was a figurehead? Nothing could be further from the truth,” he added.
Clyburn came of age in the segregated South, was frequently jailed for fighting for civil rights and didn’t win his first election until 1992, at the age of 52.
The majority whip will be the third-ranking position in the House Democratic leadership when the party takes control of the chamber next year. The whip is charged with rounding up votes on the House floor — and occasionally pressuring wavering colleagues to vote the way leadership desires.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, is challenging Clyburn for the job. Clyburn, who was the whip the last time Democrats held the majority, from 2007 to 2011, said as of Tuesday afternoon he had not spoken to DeGette since she declared her candidacy and did not blame her as the source of the “rhetoric that I don’t think is complimentary to the (Democratic) caucus.”
DeGette’s spokesman, Matt Inzeo, said the congresswoman “categorically and respectfully rejected” the notion that she or her supporters were using racially-motivated talking points to undermine Clyburn.
Inzeo also denied DeGette, who has been a chief deputy whip for 14 years, was downplaying Clyburn’s accomplishments to make her own case for a promotion.
But implicit in DeGette’s message to colleagues is the suggestion that she can do the job better than Clyburn.
“The pitch she’s making is pretty direct,” Inzeo said. “It’s going to be a fairly narrow majority ... and particularly given the larger political dynamics with the Senate or the White House, it’s going to be really important to have a whip who does that job and delivers the vote.”
Democrats have won 227 seats in the next Congress. Republicans have won 198 with 10 elections still undecided.
DeGette’s entry into the whip race surprised many House Democrats who had expected Clyburn to run unopposed. But DeGette is reportedly telling colleges she decided to seek the whip post based on an understanding Clyburn wasn’t interested in his old job.
According to a source familiar with DeGette’s deliberations and discussions with members, Clyburn’s close allies told the congresswoman that he was actually eying the chance to be the first black speaker.
For the past several months, Clyburn’s most trusted allies have been floating the idea that the 78-year-old lawmaker could become speaker if Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also 78, did not have the support.
Publicly and privately, fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus were urging Clyburn to be more self-promotional. They said he needed to let people know how much money he was raising for the party and how aggressively he was traveling to support congressional candidates.
Supporters warned Clyburn that his low-key style — his “southern gentleman” demeanor, in the words of Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio — might not be able to survive the aggressive chest-thumping of a leadership race.
During the campaign season, there was even chatter that Clyburn should consider competing against 79-year-old Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the current House minority whip, for majority leader, ensuring a black lawmaker would hold one of the top two leadership slots.
Hoyer on Tuesday afternoon released the names of 155 Democrats who had committed to supporting him for majority leader.
Yet days before the midterm elections, Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, said in a letter that he and other members only believed an African-American should be in one of the top two positions in House Democratic leadership if there was a vacancy in the leadership’s top three slots.
Shortly thereafter, Clyburn said definitively he would run for whip unless Pelosi and Hoyer were no longer running for speaker and leader.
On Tuesday, Clyburn said he was still hearing from members who wanted him to be ready if there was suddenly a scramble for a House speaker.
As for whether Pelosi has the votes, Clyburn replied, “I don’t know if she’s got them, but I think she will have them.”