The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. James E. Clyburn under the spotlight after a week fraught with controversy

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) leaves a House Democratic Caucus meeting last month. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — As Democrats descend on Columbia this week to try to improve their political fortunes, Rep. James E. Clyburn will assume the same role he has played here for nearly three decades: the master of ceremonies who makes introductions and connections amid all the politicking.

But as the renowned fish fry that bears his name approaches, Clyburn (D-S.C.) finds himself in the midst of frictions within a sharply divided party. As a member of House Democrats’ establishment wing, he has been caught in the feud over whether to open impeachment hearings against President Trump, at one point facing pressure to walk back comments about the inevitability of such a move after they conflicted with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s posture. On Thursday he had to apologize to Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her second in command, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), for comments in the Wall Street Journal that accused them of “tokenism” in staffing.

On the presidential front, he has faced criticism about his defense of former vice president Joe Biden and a 1994 crime bill that many say led to mass incarceration of black people. On Wednesday, he defended Biden’s comments during a New York fundraiser about working with segregationists, even as other key African Americans in the party condemned Biden’s remarks.

‘We got things done’: Biden recalls ‘civility’ with segregationist senators

On the eve of a Friday event that will bring 22 Democratic presidential contenders and thousands of other Democrats to the state capital, supporters call Clyburn a kingmaker with deep influence in rural and urban parts of an early-primary state — one where more than 60 percent of Democratic voters are African American. The only people who are dismissive of Clyburn’s blessing, supporters say, are people who sought it and did not receive it.

But others have openly wondered whether a Clyburn nod of approval is still needed to succeed in South Carolina. The party’s rapid shift to the left and toward younger voters has brought new challenges to the 78-year-old’s standing, much as it has introduced a new generation of candidates and activists into the presidential contest.

Gloria Tinubu, who ran as a Democrat for South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District in 2012, said Clyburn endorsed her opponent “right before the primary, and I was able to defeat him [with] 73 percent.”

Tinubu, who lost the general election that year, said there is an upswell of Democrats balking against the traditional way of doing things — which she said Clyburn represents.

“Look what it’s gotten us,” she said. “We are one of the poorest states. We have the ‘Corridor of Shame,’ an area that was named that because of the poor conditions that our public schools are in. A third of them are in [Clyburn’s] congressional district. So South Carolina has not done well.”

Detractors and strategists point to another obvious example of a candidate who won the state’s primary without Clyburn’s stamp of approval: Barack Obama. Clyburn endorsed Obama near the end of the 2008 primaries, well after South Carolina’s contest. Eight years later, he endorsed Hillary Clinton a week before she won the state’s primary.

Bakari Sellers, a former state legislator and lieutenant-governor candidate whose father, Cleveland Sellers, was a leader during the civil rights movement, underscored the generational shift afoot in the state when he said that Clyburn should not be immune from criticism. He said Clyburn, by showering Biden with praise, violated his promise to remain neutral before the presidential primary.

“One of the things that my father did and the civil rights generation did was speak truth to power and hold folks in power accountable,” said Sellers, a supporter of the presidential bid of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.). “There’s nothing wrong with doing that with Jim Clyburn. I don’t believe that to be sacrilege, and I make no apologies for that.”

Clyburn disputes claims that he has gone out of his way to defend Biden from critics of the crime bill and its negative consequences.

“This whole notion of me giving Biden cover — I’m trying to explain to people why I supported it, voted for it,” Clyburn told The Washington Post. “And I wasn’t the only one that voted for it. You ought to look at the list. Other Congressional Black Caucus members voted for that bill. [Former New York congressman] Charlie Rangel was one of the biggest advocates for it.

“All I said was: I don’t know why anybody else voted for the bill. I can tell you why I voted for it.”

After Biden drew criticism for touting his work years ago with Sen. James O. Eastland, a Mississippi segregationist, Clyburn sought to contrast Biden favorably with President Trump.

“I have been talking with this president, who has said a lot of racist things, trying to get an infrastructure bill,” Clyburn said. “Am I going to say I’m not going to work with this man . . . because of his expressions of racism? He’s the president of the United States. His name has to go on any bill we pass.”

In the interview with The Post, which took place before the latest Biden controversy, Clyburn restated his intention to remain neutral in the Democratic presidential primary at this point. He left open the possibility of endorsing someone in the final two weeks before ballots are cast in South Carolina. The state’s Democratic primary will be held on Feb. 29.

Trav Robertson, the chair of the Democratic Party of South Carolina, said he has received Clyburn’s support in some races for Democratic leadership positions and lost after Clyburn gave his nod to opponents.

He told The Post he has heard the grumblings that Clyburn’s influence has waned in South Carolina, particularly with a younger generation of voters.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to this: He has been successful in striking the balance between having the influence and respect of his colleagues and having the respect of his constituents,” Robertson said. “Anyone who would underestimate the influence of Jim Clyburn does so at his own peril.”

Robertson said Clyburn is particularly popular with rural voters whom Democrats routinely struggle to reach.

“There’s a significant portion of his district that’s rural, and it’s extremely hard to communicate with rural voters — and sometime to even find them to engage them,” he said.

Clyburn buoyed the party’s efforts to increase voter registration, lending his name, funding and support, which Robertson said helped spark historic turnout in 2018.

The ballooning popularity of Friday’s fish fry illustrates the congressman’s continued pull in the state. Clyburn started it in 1992 to thank volunteers on his first campaign. He said his supporters could not afford the $250-a-plate Democratic dinners connected to official party events. So his campaign has sprung for fish and white bread, and invited everyone.

Nearly three decades later, Clyburn is expecting 1,600 guests — including almost the entire Democratic presidential field — and his campaign has ordered more than two tons of fish.

Even some detractors say they may attend.