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Clyburn Remains Rooted as a Rising Power in Congress

When U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) gathers in August with hundreds of supporters and well-wishers in South Carolina for his annual Rudolph Canzater Memorial Golf Classic, the highlight of the event will not be golf.

The focus of the two-day gathering in Santee, S.C., is a dinner at which Clyburn honors the more than 100 winners of a $1,000 Canzater Scholarship to college students from his congressional district. The money raised for the needs-based Canzater Scholarship (named for a late close friend and Clyburn campaign volunteer who had a passion for education and helping young people) helps determine whether a disadvantaged student will get to go to college this fall.

“It’s a weekend about more than golf,” says Clyburn, a nine-term Democratic congressman for the 6th Congressional District in South Carolina. In an interview, he recently reflected on the impact of the tournament, first held nearly 25 years ago as the Palmetto Issues Conference Classic, with 12 participants who raised enough to offer four $500 scholarships.

Now, “it’s a big economic engine for the whole area,” Clyburn says, and it includes a free health fair for residents of his district, one of the poorest and least healthy in the nation. Created in 1992 under the federal Voting Rights Act to ensure Black voter strength in this once majority-Black state and other mostly Southern states, the district also includes a largely rural, 200-mile stretch along Interstate 95 that’s widely known as the “Corridor of Shame” because of historically high rates of poverty, lack of employment opportunities and substandard schools.

The $1,000 scholarships, often matched by the students’ selected schools, can be used to attend any college in the country, although many attend schools in Clyburn’s congressional district—home to most of South Carolina’s HBCUs. Each Canzater recipient also gets a new Dell laptop and a Microsoft software package, according to the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation, organizer of the golf tournament and administrator of the scholarship program.

“What he’s doing is simply giving back and helping,” says Dr. Henry Tisdale, president of Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C. Clyburn has been “a real advocate for the people of South Carolina. He has helped us understand the availability of resources and how to get resources.”

Elected to Congress in 1992 after a nearly 20-year stint as an appointed state official, Clyburn worked his way through the Democratic Party ranks to become House majority whip in November 2006. In the third-highest position in the U.S. House of Representatives behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland, it is Clyburn’s job to line up votes—through arm-twisting, deal-cutting and brokering—in support of legislation proposed by the president.

As whip, Clyburn is a core member of a leadership team that determines how legislation proceeds through the House, if at all.

Along the way—through committee, Congressional Black Caucus and House leadership assignments—Clyburn has learned how to keep federal funds flowing to his state and get more federal funds for citizens and institutions historically left out of the sharing of federal tax revenues. The golf classic that pre-dates Clyburn’s election to Congress has had an increasing ripple effect over time as it has grown in participants and financial value. Beyond that signature event, the fruits of Clyburn’s labors in Washington for his home state are evident in myriad ways.

Instrumental Support

Clyburn has fought for the historically marginalized since his college days. When he was a student at South Carolina State College in the late 1950s, his political activism compelled classmates to refer to him jokingly as “senator.” Clyburn and his eventual wife, Emily England, organized and participated in student sit-ins, boycotts and mass marches against businesses and local government agencies to protest the segregation laws that consumed the South.

Today, their fight is for equitable funding. The Clyburns have raised more than $1.5 million for an archives and history endowment at their alma mater. With Clyburn’s help, South Carolina State also established and funded a nuclear engineering degree program in 2002. It is the only program of its kind offered by an HBCU.

With significant amounts of federal help, South Carolina State is also constructing a new academic building—the approximately $80 million James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center—that will house its transportation studies department, transit research center and the James and Emily Clyburn Archives (Clyburn says he will donate his official papers to the school).

“He’s a champion of higher education and HBCUs,” says South Carolina State President George E. Cooper. Cooper says Clyburn’s increasing clout in Washington has come as state appropriations have shrunk. Its base budget allocation went from $16.52 million to $23.9 million in 2007-08, according to the South Carolina Budget and Control Board.

“We (South Carolina State) have benefited a lot from his work,” says Cooper, who credits Clyburn for helping the school raise the funds to host its first presidential debate, getting $700,000 in federal funds to renovate its administration building, getting the school included among eight HBCUs designated a Transportation Research Institution, and, along with his wife, supporting the school’s scholarship gala, which also helps the endowment. 

Dozens of historic buildings on many HBCU campuses in South Carolina and across the nation have been restored through funds that Clyburn, a history buff, has earmarked in various pieces of legislation. He has seen to it that more federal funds for research go to HBCUs, particularly for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. Traditionally, nearly all of those millions of dollars have gone almost exclusively to the nation’s larger, historically White research institutions.

This past spring, for example, Clyburn used the long-established, controversial congressional “earmark” to get $9 million over three years to a first-time research consortium of nine HBCUs (including all those in his congressional district) to expand its work with the federal government’s Savannah River Site on environmental remediation programs. The Savannah River Site, a massive Department of Energy nuclear and weapons waste storage facility, is a major employer in South Carolina that has long had major relationships with larger schools in the state, such as with Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.

Participants in the new consortium include South Carolina State, Claflin, Benedict College and Allen University in Columbia, Denmark Technical College and Voorhees College in Denmark, Morris College in Sumter, Clinton Junior College in Rock Hill, and Paine College in Augusta, Ga. While characterized as a consortium since the programs will be under the auspices of the Department of Energy, each school will be working independently on its respective programs.

Clyburn has “helped connect us more nationally with national labs” like Savannah River, says Claflin’s Tisdale. Claflin gets nearly $1 million in the first year of the program. “All this support has been instrumental in Claflin going through a phenomenal change in the past 10 years,” helping the school get funds to expand its STEM programs.

South Carolina State’s Cooper echoes Tisdale’s sentiments. He characterizes the new funds—more than $1 million a year in his school’s case—as “a significant expansion” of the school’s relationship with the Savannah River Site that will enhance its ability to do research and train and develop students for the hundreds of jobs opening in the field in the future. It also gives his school and others in the consortium more chances to showcase their work and network with the numerous contractors at Savannah River who may be potential employers of graduates. “It’s the spin-off” of opportunities the new dollars create, says Cooper. “It allows us to create potential partnerships, to network.”   

As a key member of the congressional team that pushed President Barack Obama’s health care reform bill through the House of Representatives by a 220-to-207 margin in March, Clyburn was instrumental in helping ensure the health care bill included multibillion-dollar higher education legislation championed by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. The legislation ensures more than $2 billion over 10 years for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and preserves and boosts funding for Pell Grants for needy students. 

“We had to work very hard to maintain education as part of the reconciliation bill,” says Clyburn. “It’s a big deal for all minorities.”

That’s further proof that Clyburn is well-positioned to champion in Washington the overall higher education needs of minorities as well as minority-serving institutions. “Clyburn is the ideal person to communicate with the White House about HBCUs. He is highly regarded by (Obama administration officials) not only because of his position as majority whip but also because he brings a perspective that coincides with their educational agenda,” says Benedict College President David Swinton, noting that Clyburn has a keen understanding of the links between education and economic development. “No one is expecting the president to be out front saying three cheers for the HBCUs. His team is in a learning mode and is willing to be educated about the critical role that these schools will play in the initiative” to have the U.S. have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

He took on these issues at a very early stage” in his congressional career, says Dr. N. Joyce Payne, founder of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and former director of the Office for the Advancement of Public Black Colleges, a unit of the Association of Public Land-grant Universities. “We (the nation) didn’t produce great universities because of their hard work,” she adds in illuminating the significance of Clyburn’s efforts to get HBCUs a larger share of the federal pie for higher education. “It was because of federal support.”

“He’s demanding,” Payne adds. “He recognizes you’ve got to be competitive in this market.”

ardly a school has been overlooked by Clyburn in his efforts to help his district. While taking care of the state’s HBCUs, he also has sustained the historically strong federal support for traditionally White schools such as the University of South Carolina and Clemson.

“He’s been very supportive,” says Kathy Sams, spokeswoman for Clemson, the largest of the state’s two federal land-grant colleges. The school has relied on Clyburn for years, as it did his predecessors, to help it secure millions of dollars annually in federal funds for its educational programs.

Over the years, colleges at South Carolina and elsewhere have honored Clyburn for his service with an array of accolades, from naming lectures and buildings after him to awarding him more than two dozen honorary doctorate degrees.

Morris College, the small, private liberal arts school in Clyburn’s hometown of Sumter, has awarded the congressman an honorary doctorate degree and posthumously conferred an honorary degree on his father, Enos Clyburn, who studied there as a student. The most recent high honors were the awards in May of two honorary doctorates. One was presented by Meharry Medical College, the historically Black medical school based in Nashville, Tenn., and the other was awarded by Clemson.

The Negotiator

On a larger scale, observers say, Clyburn has worked quietly and meticulously over the years to advance the standing of the Black and poor of all races in South Carolina, frequently running against the tide of the state’s conservative political winds that detest federal funding for social programs.

“He has emerged as the leading person behind the scenes on those issues,” says Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan organization that is a leading public watchdog of Congress. “He’s very effective, plays his cards close to the vest and doesn’t rush to the microphone.”

In addition to Clyburn being the first and only Black elected official to represent South Carolina in Congress since 1897, his state government is controlled by conservative Republicans. No other racial minorities hold statewide elective office (Clyburn ran for a seat in the state Legislature and twice for secretary of state and lost those bids). Beyond his seat, only one other of the state’s six congressional seats is held by a Democrat, Rep. John Spratt. Republicans hold both U.S. Senate seats.

Despite the strong headwinds, Clyburn has learned to use his intimate knowledge of South Carolina and acquired knowledge of politics to secure extra federal funds for efforts that otherwise would not have seen the light of day, observers say.

“It’s not that he’s changing South Carolina politics,” says Dr. Todd Shaw, associate professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. “He’s masterfully navigating the contours of state politics. If change is possible in South Carolina, that means it’s possible in the United States.” 

By no means does Clyburn get rosy reviews for his work in Congress at every stop. Today’s criticisms mimic the rhetoric he received for years from familiar corners in Republican-run South Carolina.  

“Every single vote that came up in the last session of Congress, (Clyburn) got it wrong,” says David Keating, executive director of the Club for Growth, an activist group that advocates limited government and free trade. It follows lawmakers’ actions on fiscal and free-trade issues and compiles scorecards on lawmakers’ voting records on issues it opposes. On more than 20 issues—ranging from economic stimulus bills to health care reform—the group gave Clyburn an overall rating of 4 percent based on his votes in the last session of Congress. That’s “a failing grade” on economic issues, says Keating.

The Club for Growth, which opposed federal help for failing big companies and Obama’s economic stimulus bill, agrees with other fiscal and government conservatives who feel Clyburn is among the most liberal lawmakers on issues opposed by  conservatives.

Many familiar with Clyburn say his college activism and roughly 25 years of experience in public service in South Carolina have enabled him to navigate the political thicket that is Washington and to rise to the top echelons of national government.

Before winning his seat in Congress, Clyburn was a history teacher in Charleston’s public schools, an employment counselor, director of two youth community development programs and director of a migrant farm workers program before going to work in the cabinets of four governors for nearly two decades as state human affairs commissioner. In that capacity, he dealt with a wide range of issues from fair housing to employment opportunity.

His civic-minded parents (his father was a minister and his mother owned and operated a Sumter beauty shop) taught him early in life the value of humility. His repeated arrests in college for protesting racial segregation taught him humiliation. Three unsuccessful bids for state office taught him how to never quit. Working as a state human affairs commissioner (under two Democratic and two Republican governors) sharpened his skills as a relationship broker and negotiator.

“He is persistent and has learned over the years to deflect criticism if he believes he is doing the right thing,” says the Rev. Nelson Rivers, vice president of stakeholder relations at the NAACP, who has known Clyburn for more than 30 years. “He can accept the slugs and arrows, even from his friends.” As House majority whip, Clyburn has received plenty of both.

“He’s in a position that nationally has a lot of influence, and he’s been quite effective at his job,” says Dr. David Bositis, political analyst for the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “He certainly has the president’s ear and he’s very wired into what’s going on in the House. The speaker is not going to do anything without involving the whip.”

Adds noted political scientist Dr. Ronald Walters, a former top Capitol Hill staffer: “He’s part of the nexus that brings along the programs of the Congressional Black Caucus to the leadership of Congress and the White House. He’s just a hell of a politician. He doesn’t bite his tongue.”

For example, Walters says, Clyburn diplomatically challenged former President Bill Clinton to cool his racially tinged anti-Obama rhetoric in South Carolina during the 2008 Democratic presidential campaign. Clinton relented, although Clyburn remained neutral during the primary campaign season. In the general election season, however, Clyburn campaigned for Obama, who won only the 6th district in South Carolina.

Keeping the more than 200 Democratic lawmakers in line for one purpose is no easy task, says Clyburn. The lawmakers come from all parts of the country with differing needs and agendas. No one knows precisely what a majority whip does to get dissidents to fall in line. The only peek into the operations of the majority whip was during the tenure of Texas Republican Rep. Tom DeLay. He publicly jaw-boned and arm-twisted his party dissidents with a style that eventually caused him to fall from favor and lose his power. 

Clyburn attributes his success in office to his professional staff, the legislative team of fellow lawmakers that make up the majority whip’s army and the advice his late father instilled in him that “there ain’t no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

The majority whip team includes Clyburn’s nine chief deputy whips and a senior chief deputy whip, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who as a student in Nashville became another 1960s college legend of the civil rights movement. Clyburn says he turns to Lewis, once a divinity school student, to make the moral case for various pieces of legislation. Lewis and the chief deputies serve as Clyburn’s eyes and ears to where Democratic lawmakers stand on various issues the leadership wants to bring to the House floor.

The majority whip team meets with Clyburn weekly in between phone calls, giving him a sense of who stands where and what various members want in order to get on board. He also relies on regional whips (members from such well-organized caucuses in the House as the Women’s Working Group, Blue Dogs, The Progressives and so on) and caucuses regularly with what he calls the Tri-Caucus, representatives of the Black, Hispanic and Pacific Islander caucuses. Clyburn also credits Pelosi and Hoyer for their insights. Both have served as Democratic whips and have some firsthand appreciation for the nuances of the job, he says.

“We’re a neat team,” says Clyburn. “(Pelosi’s) much more progressive than Steny or me.” Pelosi and Hoyer can help interpret what a lawmaker’s “leaning” for or against a particular bill may really mean, Clyburn says, since they have had to interpret the signals themselves when they held the post. 

When talking of his future, Clyburn is reflective and very much the pragmatist in an  arena where political power is fleeting.

On the personal side, he notes that this is a special year for him and the rest of the House leadership team. He turned 70 years old this month. Pelosi and Hoyer recently turned 70. On the professional side, political climates do change, he explains candidly.

“You’ve got to be real about these things,” says Clyburn, who is working on finishing up his memoirs and readying for his ninth bid for re-election to Congress.  “I think you’ve got to go with the law of averages. You’ve gotta know there’s going to be fresh leadership in the Democratic caucus in the not-too-distant future.”

Clyburn adds that many younger Democrats in Congress have been working their way through the ranks hoping, as he once was doing, to eventually take on a party leadership role. “It’s just the law of averages,” he says, adding that, if he were to ever leave the House leadership,  he would probably leave Congress.

For now, he says, looking toward his birthday and annual scholarship golf classic, “I’m just trying to help Barack Obama become the best president the country has ever had.”  

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