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Bakari Sellers accuses SC’s top Democrat of breaking pledge to stay out of 2020

What the Jim Clyburn endorsement means and mends

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. Jamie Self explained what it meant for the Clinton campaign.
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U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. Jamie Self explained what it meant for the Clinton campaign.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn has promised not to make an endorsement in the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, but one fellow South Carolinian thinks the state party kingmaker already has.

“I’m just going to say it: Jim Clyburn is tacitly endorsing Joe Biden,” Bakari Sellers, a former S.C. state representative and 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor, told McClatchy on Monday. “Anybody who attempts to say that his thumb is not on the scales is just not paying attention.”

Currently a CNN political commentator and attorney in Columbia, Sellers pointed to Clyburn’s frequent positive remarks about the former vice president as evidence of favoritism — plus Clyburn’s recent defense of Biden’s role in drafting the controversial “crime bill” in 1994 during his time as chairman of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I was disappointed to see Jim Clyburn jump on a grenade for Joe Biden” on the crime bill, Sellers said.

Sellers has his reasons for taking issue with Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat and highest-ranking black member of Congress who rarely attracts public criticism from fellow S.C. Democrats.

For one thing, Sellers is supporting U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., for president. For another, the 34-year-old Sellers has made it no secret he wants to run for Clyburn’s seat in the near future — though he said he has ruled out launching a primary challenge against the 78-year-old incumbent who was first elected in 1992.

Yet Sellers is making a bold claim that, if true, would carry major repercussions for the state Democratic Party. South Carolina has only been able to maintain its “first in the South” presidential primary status in large part due to an understanding that Clyburn, for decades the most influential Democrat in the state, would not get involved on behalf of a candidate early enough on in the nominating process to affect the outcome.

In 2008, while Clyburn did not formally endorse then-candidate Barack Obama until several months after the S.C. Democratic primary, he acknowledged discomfort with some of the racially-charged rhetoric in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, causing President Bill Clinton to accuse Clyburn of helping ensure an Obama primary victory.

In 2016, Clyburn endorsed Hillary Clinton for president within a couple weeks of the S.C. primary. Sanders was performing well in other early primary states at that time, but Clinton’s victory in the Palmetto State primary was never in serious doubt.

On Friday, Clyburn will play host to 22 of the 24 declared presidential candidates at his “World Famous Fish Fry,” which is intended to be a neutral space for Democratic contenders to address South Carolina voters on an even playing field.

Clyburn has said repeatedly he will not choose a favorite in the state’s 2020 primary, saying he has close relationships with “about 12” of the candidates, including Biden. In a recent interview with McClatchy, Clyburn emphasized that he had co-sponsored legislation with at least three of the contenders: U.S. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Still, Clyburn has not shied away from answering openly and honestly the question of why Biden is performing well in the polls with South Carolina voters, the majority of whom are African American.

“I said way back, ‘if Joe Biden gets in this race, everybody else would be running for second place,’” Clyburn said last week. “I said that because I’ve known Joe Biden for a long time. I know how the black community feels about him ... a lot of black people see him as the best candidate to defeat Trump, but they also see him as the candidate who has a record that they feel good about.”

Last month for the first time publicly, Clyburn defended Biden’s work on the 1994 “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” telling CNN’s Chris Cuomo, “Let’s not be too unkind to people who’ve found common ground on things.”

But Clyburn was also indirectly defending himself — he voted for the very same bill.

The 1994 legislation has become a lightning rod in the Democratic presidential primary, with progressives seeking to undercut Biden by pointing to his involvement in legislation that critics say led to mass incarceration of black men in the United States.

Clyburn told McClatchy the crime bill is being “misrepresented and misinterpreted.”

“I’ve asked groups ... ‘how many of you believe mandatory minimums came into being because of the 1994 crime bill?’ I’ve had everybody in the room raise their hands,’” Clyburn said. “That came into being in 1986. (Bill) Clinton did not become president until 1992.

“When we did the crime bill, what we did was, we removed mandatory minimums for first time offenders,” he continued. “We put into place an assault weapons ban. We put into place 100,000 cops on the street. We put into place $3 billion in prevention programs. And the Violence Against Women Act was in the 1994 crime bill.”

On Monday, Sellers told McClatchy he disagreed with Clyburn’s argument.

“Even though the intent in 1994 might have been a notable one, the execution and the result thereof was atrocious,” said Sellers, adding that Clyburn is “not taking any responsibility for that, and attempting to cast the same light on Joe Biden.”

Clyburn, who has said racial barriers kept him from entering elected office until he was 52 years old, has indicated he has no plans to retire and will seek reelection in 2020.

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Emma Dumain works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she reports on South Carolina politics for The State, The Herald, The Sun News, The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She was previously the Washington correspondent for the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier. Dumain also covered Congress for Roll Call and Congressional Quarterly.
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