Quiet Persistence, Cooperation Have Paid Off for Clyburn

By Steve Piacente, Washington Correspondent
The Charleston Post and Courier, Sunday, February 14, 1999, page A15

WASHINGTON - If it were possible, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn would have muzzled former colleague Bob Inglis last year during debate on a multi-billion dollar roads bill.

Republican Inglis had grown adept at tossing around acid phrases to show his displeasure with the legislation, referring to key lawmakers as "big hogs feeding at the trough," and arguing that the bill "oozed with pork."

Democrat Clyburn was on the key transportation panel handling the measure, and felt such talk was not only unproductive, but bound to hurt South Carolina, one of several states that paid far more in federal gasoline taxes than it received back in highway funds.

Clyburn's philosophy, one that has remained consistent since he became the state's first black congressman since Reconstruction, told him to work quietly with the panel chairman, to "make headway, not headlines."

It paid off. Clyburn wound up on the all-important conference committee that banged out differences between House and Senate versions of the bill, helped win a better gas tax return for the state, and won much of what he was seeking for various projects in the 6th Congressional District.

This year, Clyburn was awarded a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee, where it is presumed he will be able to do even more to steer federal funds back home. The assignment was announced shortly after the four-term lawmaker won an unopposed race for chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Clyburn succeeded Rep. Maxine Waters, a California liberal known as one of the toughest-talking Democrats on Capitol Hill. Waters' South Central Los Angeles district is poor, heavily minority, and was the site of violent riots in 1992.

Clyburn's stewardship of the caucus has already peeled away some of his more conciliatory leanings and revealed more of what people saw when he took on the Christian Coalition a few years back.
Last week, for instance, the caucus held a summit on its priorities, one of which will be to get a black judge seated on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals for the first time in history.

Clyburn said one of the major obstacles has been conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, and vowed to fight the North Carolina Republican's ongoing effort to keep the court "lily white."

A few weeks ago, Clyburn's target was the "racism and bigotry espoused" by the Council of Conservative Citizens, a controversial group based in St. Louis. Though his resolution of condemnation was aimed at the council, Clyburn said his real battle was with Republican leaders who have created an atmosphere in Washington that has allowed the re-emergence of white supremacist groups.

It's happened before, he noted pointedly, observing, "The Klan never could have flourished without the tacit support of the powers that be."

All of this is interesting because Clyburn is considered to have appeal that extends beyond the black-majority 6th District. He does not discourage speculation that he might run for statewide office, perhaps the U.S. Senate, sometime down the road.

A sharp turn toward the Maxine Waters style of lawmaking would not help his chances in South Carolina, where Clyburn still is known as someone who works hard to disagree without being disagreeable.

The philosophy was probably learned at home, but the reputation was forged during his long tenure (1974-1992) as S.C. Human Affairs Commissioner, and as a teacher in Charleston, and as an employment counselor and director of two youth and community development projects.

The final defining issue of this period in Clyburn's career has been his steadfast defense of President Clinton during the long impeachment process. If his support eventually hurts him in a state where the S.C. GOP says Clinton has the approval rating of a convicted felon, Clyburn says so be it.

"It might come into play," he said. "I don't care if anybody wants to vote against me because of my support for the president. I think what I've been able to do for my district and my state has been made possible in large part because of my close relationship with this president and vice president."