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Clyburn Does Heavy Political Lifting for Dems

Beyond just counting votes, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has set out to become a political force inside the House Democratic caucus as the majority whip.

Clyburn is the top donor to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee so far this year, turning over $600,000 from his own re-election campaign to the DCCC. That's $200,000 more than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has given and double what House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has transferred from his campaign account to the DCCC, according to internal numbers from the committee.

The $600,000 offering put Clyburn three-fourths of the way toward the so-called "dues" he's expected to pony up to the DCCC. And in an interview with Capitol Briefing before this week's July 4th recess, Clyburn had a simple explanation for why he hasn't already hit $800,000 in dues: He spent the last week of June writing between $150,000 and $200,000 in checks directly to the campaigns of 29 vulnerable House Democrats who are part of the special "Frontline" fund-raising program.

Clyburn didn't come to his leadership post with the fund-raising pedigree of leaders such as Pelosi, Hoyer or Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who as chairman of the caucus ranks No. 4 in leadership just behind Clyburn. But the highest ranking black member of Congress said that he's always been an effective political money man, just not one to receive credit for it the way other Democratic leaders have.

"I've always had a strong culture of raising money," he said in a wide-ranging, hour-long interview in his 3rd floor office suite in the Capitol.

In addition to talking campaign politics, Clyburn also addressed a pair of sensitive topics among black politicians:

• He said that Democrats may have to settle in for a long legal fight by Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) as he battles a 16-count indictment on bribery and other corruption charges. Clyburn recalled the 4 ½-year battle put up by his golfing buddy, Joe McDade (R-Pa.), the former congressman who beat a 1992 indictment in a court case that concluded in 1996: "Every person has the presumption of innocence in our society. And I don't think you short-circuit your constitution because of what might be politically expedient."
• While not making an endorsement, Clyburn attacked critics of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) who contend the 45-year-old lawmaker hasn't endured the Civil Rights-era struggles the way other black politicians have: "Has he paid his dues? Is he black enough? ... John Lewis and I were out there marching and organizing sit-ins back in the '60s so that his children and my children would not have to do it. ...We would have been failures if [Obama] had to do the same things we did."

Clyburn bristles at the notion that he does not have as much experience as other leaders, complaining about a recent profile that referred to him as a "rank-and-file" member. Elected in 1992, Clyburn was co-president of his freshmen class, served a two-year stint as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, served three years as vice-chairman of the caucus, a year as caucus chairman in 2006, then won an uncontested race for whip last fall after the victorious 2006 midterms.

"There's nobody that's come to this majority whip job, you can go back and check, that has held as many leadership positions in this caucus as I have," he said.

Make no mistake, Clyburn is no Tom DeLay, the former GOP lawmaker who became majority whip in 1995 after the Republican revolution and instituted a tough-nosed policy of linking contributions with access to lawmakers. But Clyburn is now a sought after commodity for donors, having raised more than $704,000 for his own re-election committee in the first three months of 2007. Clyburn took in more than $500,000 from corporate and labor political action committees -- including $5,000 from the Altria Group and $4,500 from Honeywell -- which is more money than Clyburn raised for his entire campaign committee for all of 2005, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Clyburn's day job as majority whip requires him and a team of deputies to constantly monitor the more than 230-member caucus for signs of support or dissention regarding pending legislation. The political grunt work for the DCCC and other candidates promotes a team atmosphere that makes the job easier. For example, Clyburn organized listening sessions among Democrats on the sensitive topic of immigration. [For more on Clyburn's role on immigration, read last week's story in the Washington Post.]

Clyburn wants his fellow Democrats to feel a part of the process, attempting to preemptively smooth over tensions before the boiling point. "It's my job not just to count votes but to create a climate within which people will feel they have got a stake in the outcome," he said.

He noted that the biggest failure by Democrats was in their preparation for the Iraq supplemental spending bill, which first passed with a Democratic-drawn timeline for withdrawal but ultimately passed without any withdrawal language because of President Bush's veto. Clyburn said the leadership team did a poor job of managing expectations of their supporters.

"Everybody was still trying to find their levels of comfort," Clyburn said, adding, "So we were all dancing around trying to figure out who I can best dance with, who I can keep rhythm with."

At a recent fund-raising dinner, Clyburn sought the advice of a mentor, former Rep. William H. Gray (D-Pa.), the last black lawmaker to serve as House majority whip. Gray, a lobbyist and member of many corporate boards, such as Pfizer Inc, which has given $5,000 to Clyburn, told the new whip that in his days in the late 1980s he had 50-seat majorities that made vote counting an easy task.

"I don't know if I could do this job with only a 15-vote cushion," Gray told Clyburn, lamenting the current majority.

"Thanks for nothing," Clyburn recalled telling Gray, breaking into laughter.

By Paul Kane  |  July 6, 2007; 6:33 AM ET
Categories:  Dem. Leaders  
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