National Politics

Comparing Susan Smith to sexual harassment accusers puts SC’s Clyburn on defensive

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat
U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat tglantz@thestate.com

There was a great deal of public outcry Wednesday after U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn made a comment about sexual harassment that many found disturbing.

While many were upset by the Columbia Democrat’s comment, “Who elected them?” It was a different comment, a comparison Clyburn allegedly made behind closed doors, that many found upsetting. Especially in his home state.

A writer for The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic tweeted that Clyburn invoked the name of Susan Smith, South Carolina’s infamous child murderer.

susan smith- DOCphoto
Susan Smith photographed in August 2016. South Carolina Department of Corrections

Robert Draper tweeted that Clyburn reportedly mentioned Smith in his defense of colleague Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who is currently being investigated for sexual harassment by the U.S. House Ethics Committee.

“James Clyburn compared Conyers’ accusers to the child murderer Susan Smith, who initially claimed a black man had abducted her kids. Clyburn said, these are all white women who’ve made these charges against Conyers,” Draper posted on Twitter.

When asked if that comment was true, Draper said he verified it through two sources, adding “Clyburn has used the Susan Smith parallel more than once, to members & staffers.”

While Clyburn has seemingly backtracked from “Who elected them?” comment, saying something very different about the standard elected officials should be held to on the floor of Congress, he’s not budging about using Smith as a comparison.

“This is inaccurate in many regards,” Clyburn wrote on Twitter, retweeting Draper’s post.

The assistant Democratic leader and the third-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House went on to say Draper’s tweet was taken out of context.

“That discussion had nothing to (do) with Conyers.”

The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said there was an ulterior motive to people using the Smith comparison to attack Clyburn. Although it contradicts Clyburn’s tweet that the Smith statement had nothing to do with Conyers, it still rallied to his defense and his use of the of the comparison.

Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) was walking in the Capitol hallway with Clyburn when the Columbia Democrat said “Who elected them?” Richmond defended Clyburn with a two-part tweet.

He started by disputing Draper’s post, writing “This is not accurate. @Clyburn used the Smith example to illustrate the dangers of convicting people before getting all the facts.”

This could be in reference to a possible rush to judgment about Conyers and the sexual harassment allegations leveled against him.

Richmond explained as much, urging caution in the face of allegations without conducting a proper investigation.

“Although Smith killed her kids, she blamed an innocent person & a lot of people believed that innocent person was guilty. If the police hadn’t investigated, the wrong person would have gone to jail.”

Richmond went on to say Clyburn is being attacked for using Smith as a comparison for the most political of motives – other people want his high-ranking position in the House, or possibly even his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“This mischaracterization of what @clyburn said is nothing more than members changing the story because they want his leadership position,” Richmond wrote, which was tweeted by the Congressional Black Caucus’s official Twitter feed.

The 77-year-old Clyburn has held South Carolina’s 6th District congressional seat for 25 years. He’s faced challenges before, but there are rumors that several younger Democrats could challenge him in the next campaign.

Aware of the whispers, on Monday Clyburn said he will seek re-election next year.

“My health is good. I feel fine,” Clyburn said, adding, “I don’t think I’ve detected any angst with the voting public about my service.”

First elected to the U.S. House in 1992, Clyburn knows there is a line of potential successors ready to run when he leaves office.

Those possible successors include former S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison, who worked with Clyburn in the House; Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin; and former state Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, who now works as an attorney in Columbia and also worked for Clyburn.

That doesn’t even take into consideration any Republicans who could try to run to represent the 6th District.

While any of those politicians, or others could press Clyburn in 2018, he did his best Wednesday to diffuse a potential crisis which he caused for himself.

In the afternoon, Clyburn suggested elected officials should be held to a different standard than other public figures in regard to sexual harassment allegations.

He was asked about Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer who were removed from their jobs because of sexual harassment allegations, to which Clyburn replied, “Who elected them?”

But after 5 p.m., Clyburn posted his official statement regarding a House Resolution that read very differently than the flippant response to reporters in the halls of the Capitol.

“As elected officials, we ought to be held to a higher standard,” Clyburn said in his statement. “Congress must review and improve the current administrative procedure for victims to come forward. All harassment and discrimination allegations must be taken seriously.”

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