Although he is little known outside of South Carolina and national political circles, Rep. James Clyburn is considered a Democratic powerhouse in the Palmetto State, with huge sway over the state’s African-American voters.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have been clawing for endorsements from prominent black leaders in South Carolina in the run-up to next week’s Democratic primary contest there, and Clyburn was considered a major catch.
Black voters make up more than half of the Democratic electorate in South Carolina. So it was a huge relief to the Clinton forces when Clyburn formally announced his endorsement on Friday in Columbia, helping to lock in support from most of the state’s black political elite.
It was a crucial yet far from ringing endorsement for Clinton and suggested the dilemma that many minority Democrats are facing in choosing between a well-established Democrat and a self-described democratic socialist who has operated for decades on the fringes of the party.
“A few days ago, I admitted that my head and my heart were in different places relative to this year’s presidential primary,” the veteran House member said at a campaign event at Allen University. “Today, however, my head and my heart are in the same place.”
“My heart has always been with Hillary Clinton,” he added. “But my head had me in a neutral corner. But after extensive discussions with my wife, Emily, our children and grandchildren and other constituents . . . I have decided to terminate my neutrality and get engaged.”
Clyburn said he was convinced that Clinton is best able to lead their party to victory and that she would be more effective than Sanders in addressing problems including stagnant incomes for the middle class, soaring educational costs and poverty.
“I believe that Hillary Clinton is the best choice to help us conquer these challenges,” he said.
Clyburn, 75, the highest ranking African-American in Congress and the senior member of South Carolina’s otherwise all-GOP congressional delegation, is a thoughtful and soft-spoken moderate who lacks the hard edge of many younger members.
Even so, he is highly persistent, as was evident when he forced his way into a third-ranking slot in the House Democratic leadership in 2010 after his party lost control of the House.
During the 2008 presidential primary, Clyburn remained neutral in the battle between Clinton and Barack Obama. His decision angered Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and opened up a rift between Clyburn and the high-powered political couple. Relations grew tenser after Bill Clinton pooh-poohed Obama’s victory in South Carolina that year and sought to diminish its importance by comparing it with the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s victory there 20 years earlier.
Clyburn told reporters that he has he has spoken with the former president several times over the past eight years and holds “no ill will” against him for some of his over-the-top behavior on his wife’s behalf.
A Bloomberg Politics poll published Thursday showed Hillary Clinton leading Sanders in South Carolina by 22 percentage points over all and by 39 percentage points among black primary voters. Tad Devine, a senior campaign adviser to Sanders, said he was not overly concerned about Clyburn’s decision, while acknowledging that Sanders’s prospects are dimming in South Carolina.
“I think we recognize she has tremendous support there, the electorate is going to be very favorable to her cause,” Devine told MSNBC on Friday. However, he said the Sanders campaign is very optimistic heading into Saturday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada and then a dozen Southern, Midwestern and Western states on Super Tuesday, Mar. 1.