From pivotal endorsement to Cabinet advice, Jim Clyburn is here for Joe Biden
Posted December 22, 2020 7:00 a.m. EST
CNN — Don't call Rep. Jim Clyburn a member of President-elect Joe Biden's inner circle.
Yes, with his pivotal endorsement of Biden in the South Carolina primary, he helped the President-elect secure the Democratic nomination. And yes, every two days or so, Clyburn's phone rings and it's Biden on the line. And, in fact, in one of those calls, Clyburn cautioned Biden against having an inner circle that wasn't diverse enough, an observation that maybe only someone who doesn't care about being in the inner circle could make.
"I've been a sounding board for him, he's made it very clear -- 'I need to bounce something off of you,' " Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, said in an interview with CNN last week. "And I've called him and said, 'I need to offer a bit of advice.' "
That advice has helped shape the Cabinet, which will be one of the most diverse in history, with Biden's announcement of his attorney general pick expected in the coming days.
Clyburn, along with other civil rights leaders, has urged Biden to pick an attorney general who understands how critical criminal justice reform is. For the South Carolina Democrat, race is less of an issue for the attorney general pick -- the lineup of finalists includes Judge Merrick Garland, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
He publicly criticized Biden after the rollout of his national security team, concerned that the first impression suggested that diversity wasn't a top concern. Clyburn said he was getting calls from all over the country, even as the incoming administration said that there were more picks to come.
Among the diverse Cabinet choices are Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, for Housing and Urban Development; Michael Regan, who runs the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, for the Environmental Protection Agency; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US ambassador to the United Nations.
"I'm pretty satisfied. In the top four we are at 25% with General (Lloyd) Austin," he said of Biden's pick for Secretary of Defense, whom he spoke with a few days before the nomination was rolled out.
Austin would require a congressional waiver to be confirmed for the civilian post because he only retired from active-duty service four years ago, less than the seven mandated by federal law. Ensuring that Austin's nomination isn't stymied by Democrats voting against a waiver for him to serve as the first Black Secretary of Defense is now part of Clyburn's portfolio.
"For anybody on my side of the aisle who said, 'I voted for you but I said at the time I was not going to do it again,' " he says, "'Well, maybe you ain't gonna do it again for a Republican, but do it the first time for a Democrat because you already done it for Republicans.'"
In the Senate, 16 Democrats voted against granting President Donald Trump's first Defense Department nominee, Ret. Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, a waiver for the position in 2017. In the House, 150 Democrats voted to deny Mattis a waiver and a handful have signaled they find Biden's choice problematic for the same reason.
Clyburn's sway with the vocal and growing caucus of young progressives in the House is questionable. In the back-and-forth between moderates and progressives over whether activists' "defund the police" slogan cost Democrats seats in the House this year, Clyburn -- first elected in 1992 -- is firmly in the moderate camp. Still, he takes offense if anyone questions his progressive bonafides.
"Remember, I met my wife in jail, challenging the status quo," Clyburn said of his 1960 arrest after a sit-in. "I've been in jail more than once challenging the status quo. I'm as progressive as anyone, but I am also realistic about the politics in this country."
Clyburn said it was his wife's realism and pragmatism about the country's politics that led her to pick Biden. Five months after his wife, Emily, died, Clyburn endorsed Biden.
"I know Joe. We know Joe. But most importantly, Joe knows us," he said three days before the South Carolina primary. Biden handily won the primary and racked up big wins in the days after, effectively clinching the nomination. Clyburn, who is the highest-ranking African American in Congress, said his relationship with Biden, who he has known for years, has grown closer over the last months.
"More than anything, I would say their relationship is genuine and frank," said Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who will join Biden's administration as a senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement. "They are very similar but a lot of times Clyburn can put a different perspective on issues. They are a good team."
While Clyburn, 80, typically referred to the President-elect, 78, using honorifics or his full name, he said "Joe" comes more easily to him now.
"That's a sign of our evolving relationship, I guess. Someone asked me the other day, 'What is y'all's relationship?' " Clyburn recalled. "I said, well, I guess he is like a younger brother."