Rep. Clyburn talks about his future in party leadership, what Biden has done for Black voters.
Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the highest-ranking African American in the House, spoke recently with the Los Angeles Times about the Democrats’ plan before the midterm elections, the Jan. 6 hearings, his future in the party’s leadership and when he’ll know when it’s time for him to leave office.
As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) wraps up her final months in leadership, many in the Democratic Party are anxious about who will take the helm in 2023, and whether they will retain the majority. Some progressives have been eager to see older party stalwarts like Clyburn move aside to usher in the next generation.
Clyburn spoke as he is set to receive the NAACP’s highest honor this week, the Spingarn Medal, when it holds its annual convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Past recipients include Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey and John Lewis.
“Some African Americans see this as the highest award to be bestowed in the Black community,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in an interview.
Clyburn, who at age 12 was elected president of his NAACP youth council, said the award “means the world to me.” “I have received a lot of recognitions in my not-so-short life,” he said. “But none, quite frankly, none measure up to this one.”
Below are excerpts from the interview, edited for clarity and length.
LAT: You’re turning 82 this month. Is there anything you can think of that you’d like to achieve but haven’t yet before your career in politics is done, whether that’s becoming the top Democrat in the House or potentially taking on a role in the White House or grooming someone to succeed you in your South Carolina district?
CLYBURN: Oh, yeah, no question about that. One of the things we have to keep in mind is that our progress in this nation has never moved on a linear plane. Unfortunately, most people seem to feel that when you get something accomplished on Monday, you move to the next thing on Tuesday and that moves on ad infinitum. That’s not the way this country operates. It has never operated that way.
So it’s not a question of whether or not there are additional things to do. The question is whether or not we can preserve what has already been done. How do you best do that? Do you do that by throwing out all of the knowledgeable leadership? Do you do that by saying: “Well, you’ve reached a certain age. What we need to do is start a youth movement.” That is antithetical to the Bible. I’m a Christian. Christianity teaches that ... the old know the way, the young are strong enough to get us there. We must be careful that we do not have an imbalance between knowledge and strength.
You’re 81. Speaker Pelosi’s 82. [House Majority] Leader [Steny] Hoyer’s 83, [Senate Minority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell’s 80. Donald Trump is 76. From the standpoint of an experienced leader and a close ally of the president, who is now 79, would you step down if you felt you were too old to do the job?
I have three daughters, the oldest of whom I spoke with about 45 minutes ago. The middle daughter called me this morning. My youngest daughter, I talked with last night. I talk to them daily. In fact, they were the forces behind my endorsement of [President] Biden. It was those three young ladies with whom I talked.
We were talking about the challenge we had going into the [2020 presidential] election. My late wife had passed. Just before she passed, she said to me that if we wanted to win this election, we’d better nominate Joe Biden. She passed away in September, and here we were approaching the primary elections in January. In South Carolina, it was February. And Joe Biden was losing. He had lost up in Iowa. He had lost in New Hampshire. He lost in Nevada. And now it was South Carolina, and I’m sitting there thinking about what my wife had said to me and whether or not I should continue in my support of Joe Biden. And I sat down with those three daughters. And I said to them: “You all are talking with people that I don’t talk to. You all are interacting with people in places that I don’t visit at this particular juncture in my life. What should I do?”
They said to me: “You need to stick with what Mama said. But here’s what you need to add to your rhetoric.”
And they are the ones that said to me, “If you can convince Joe Biden to endorse publicly an African American woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States, we think that that is what will help turn this campaign around.” And that’s what I did, in counsel with them. They knew what should be done.
You know President Biden well. Do you think, if he feels that a year from now that he may not have the energy to serve another term, that he would consider announcing that he won’t seek reelection to the presidency?
Well, I’m not going to say what Joe Biden would do, but I know what I would do. I would do what I’ve already said to those daughters of mine: If you detect at any point that I do not have the capacity or I’m not exhibiting what is necessary to continue in this position, please let me know. Because if I determine that I do not have it, I will tell you.
So you’re watching. You’re listening. You talk to people that I don’t [typically] talk to. You just share with me what you’re gleaning from the people you interact with. My daughters are in two different generations. My oldest is 11 years older than my youngest. And so they, too, operate in different circles. And so if it were me, I would keep counsel with those with whom I have trust, and I would respond to them. They said to me back when all of this discussion first started: “Don’t you hesitate, and we won’t hesitate. So you stay in the fight until we have the talk. And we’ll let you know if we think you’ve reached that point.” And they will.
Black voters turned out to put President Biden in office, but as we’ve seen over the past year and a half, he hasn’t been able to deliver on criminal justice reform, student debt relief or voting rights. Roe vs. Wade is no longer the law of the land, and Americans are struggling with inflation, as the Fed continues to raise interest rates. What’s your response to their concerns?
Well this may surprise you. I did five events [Sunday], starting at 7:30 a.m. in Virginia. Last weekend, I was in Arizona. This coming weekend, I’ll be in Ohio. Everywhere I go, here’s what I hear from people: Why don’t y’all spend time talking about all the things you’ve gotten done rather than let the conversation stay on what you have not done? It’s been a year and a half since Joe Biden has gotten to be president. He’s got two and a half years left in this presidency. Why is everybody judging his administration on a four-year program and only a year and a half has expired?
I said to them, “Do you think it was any benefit for Joe Biden to wipe out $1.6 billion in debt for the HBCUs in this country?” Over 100 HBCUs in this country. We wiped — Joe Biden, in his [American] Rescue Plan, took all that debt off the books because of COVID-19, they did not have students ... They did not know that. And so one of them got up and said: “Why won’t y’all tell us that? We didn’t know that.”
I can go down from the American Rescue Act. I can go to the bipartisan infrastructure bill. I can go to the omnibus appropriations bill and look at what we have done in the African American community. The glass is more than half full, and we keep talking about the glass being half empty. Let’s talk about what we’ve done, and the fact that we’ve got two and a half years left to do some more. The president signed the first major piece of gun legislation that has been signed in 30 years.
Everybody was dissatisfied with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That’s why we kept fighting so we could get the Voting Rights Act of ’65. And we kept fighting so we could get the fair housing law of ’68. We kept fighting so we could get the Civil Rights Act of ’64 to apply to the public sector in 1972.
So you do not consider the first step as being the final step. So the president signed a bill, and the parents, the doctors, the siblings and one grandson of those people who got killed up in Buffalo, those people who got killed in Uvalde, these people are supporting this. Who are we to sit back and say, “This ain’t enough”? No, it’s not enough, but are we supposed to sit down and argue about not being enough or do we chalk that up to the first step and do what is necessary to get to step two and step three? That’s what this is all about.
I’m the vote counter in the House. We ain’t lost one yet. We passed every single bill that the Black community said they wanted passed. Every one, including the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It passed the House. Everything has passed the House. It’s stuck in the Senate, where the Senate is 50-50. So the Senate is stalemated. We’ve got to go to the polls in November and get two or three other senators elected who will do what needs to be done. So you can sit back and talk about how old Joe Biden is or how old Jim Clyburn is. You better get to the polls and figure what we can do to get these laws passed.
So we have done things, and we will do things between now and then. So we passed the omnibus bill. Signed the gun bill [Monday]. We are going to sign a student loan bill. I don’t know what it’s going to be, but we are going to do something about student loans because the pause on payments will expire Aug. 31, and then come Sept. 1, we are going to have in place something to deal with student debt going forward. So we aren’t stopping here. We are going to pass a new appropriations bill. We’re going to also have another reconciliation bill coming forward, and we are going to fix things in this bill. We’re going to do something about putting a ceiling on pharmaceutical costs, the cost of pharmaceuticals. We have already passed a bill in the House to put a ceiling of $35 a month on insulin.
[Biden’s] also going to sign a bill soon to extend the Affordable Care Act to more people and hopefully cover — I’m trying to get him to cover all of those people in those 12 states that did not expand Medicaid. So we could do a lot of things between now and November to turn this around, and we will.
How do you think the House Jan. 6 hearings are playing out with the American people?
I have been watching them religiously. I think that Bennie Thompson, an African American from the little town of Bolton, Miss., grad of Tougaloo College, got a master’s degree from Jackson State — both HBCUs — will go down in the history of this country as having led the select committee that put this country back on course in its pursuit of a more perfect union. That is kind of interesting, for someone to grow up in the cotton fields of Mississippi not being able to achieve the fullness of the greatness of this country, he’s going to be the one to save this country from its march toward autocracy. I think they are being very successful. I have not talked to a single person in my travels yet that did not feel that this committee was doing a good job. And I think it is going to accomplish its purpose.
There’s been a lot of speculation about what Speaker Pelosi will do after the midterms. [She has vowed to step down as speaker.] Does whether Democrats are in the majority or minority have any impact or bearing on your decision making about your continued service in the House?
Democratic voters in the 6th Congressional District will determine whether or not I serve in the House. What that service [in House leadership] is will be dependent upon my caucus members, some of whom are here already, others of whom will be coming in November. And it will be after the November election when my service in this House will be determined. But Democrats in South Carolina have already determined with 88% of the vote that they want me to be here.
Would you mind going back to the minority and continuing to serve in that capacity?
I never want to go back to the minority, [but] no, I don’t mind going back to the minority. I plan on staying in the majority. And what role I play will depend upon this caucus and its sentiments after the November elections.
To that point, are you having conversations about that now?
Oh, I’m not going to lie to you about that. Sure, I’m having that conversation now. Many of my colleagues have been talking to me about that. We know what we need here on the House floor. And we will make the determination going forward based on what our numbers are and what role or what positions we have. And then we can decide what members will play the best roles. And so that’s a decision that’s going to be made by them, and they do not wish to be stampeded by people who are looking for headlines. We’re trying to make headway.
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