SUMTER — Nearly every hand along Sumter’s Manning Avenue reached out to U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn when, after 20 years in Congress, the third-ranking U.S. House Democrat returned to his birthplace earlier this month.
After dozens of pictures, embraces and laughs, the 72-year-old Clyburn climbed a festival stage to thank the crowd, filled with people who had helped him win his first election to Congress in 1992.
“Every day,” Clyburn said, his voice growing shaky, “I spend a few moments before I leave in the morning or before I close my eyes at night trying to figure out how I can do something to make every one of you proud.”
Now in his 11th term in Congress, Clyburn has left a historic mark on the Palmetto State – one that S.C. Democrats will honor at their annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner Friday. It’s also a record that S.C. Republicans say exemplifies what is wrong with “big government.”
Clyburn’s rise through the ranks of Congress and his steadfast connection to his roots were sources of pride and praise among the supporters who came to see him at the Sumter festival.
The impact of Clyburn, the first African-American to serve in Congress from South Carolina in 100 years, “can’t even be measured,” said Carrie Sinkler Parker, who recalled driving Clyburn around the 6th District during his 1992 race for Congress. Her godson received a scholarship from a program that Clyburn made possible and now is an attorney, she said.
Republicans are unimpressed.
Saying little progress has been made economically in S.C’s only majority-black district – which stretches from Columbia, south to Jasper and Beaufort counties, and north to Florence County – they have tried to no avail to topple Clyburn from his $174,000-a-year job.
“He’s a big-government politician,” said Jim Pratt, a Calhoun County Republican who ran against Clyburn in 2010 and lost. “There’s a lot of folks out here who feel that way.”
‘Dispel every single myth’
Clyburn says he always has had the same goal.
“What drives me is to dispel every single myth that exists about black people,” he said. “That’s all I live for, really.”
Clyburn got his start in politics working as an aide to then-S.C. Gov. John West.
Since his election to Congress in 1992, Clyburn has faced several Republican opponents but never a serious threat, holding the one S.C. congressional seat that the GOP-controlled state legislature has drawn to be won by a Democrat.
Clyburn has charted a “meteoric rise” through the U.S. House, said Jaime Harrison, an Orangeburg native, former Clyburn aide and current vice chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party. That rise began, according to Clyburn, when he gave up a powerful position.
When the Democratic leadership of the House Appropriations Committee wanted to make room for another member, Clyburn gave up his coveted committee seat in exchange, he says, for guaranteed funding for projects in his district.
When the position of vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus later opened up, Democrats remembered Clyburn’s willingness to work with others and elected him to the position over candidates from California and New York – states with far larger Democratic delegations than South Carolina, which then only had two Democrats, Clyburn and John Spratt of York, in the House.
In 2005, Clyburn unanimously won the caucus chairmanship and, in 2007, he was elected House majority whip. There, he enlisted the entire Congressional Black Caucus to serve as his whip operation, helping count votes on key issues and ensuring caucus members’ support for majority legislation.
In 2012, Clyburn’s Democrats lost control of the House. But Clyburn has remained among the House’s top Democratic leaders, serving as assistant Democratic leader and a liaison to the White House.
“I don’t bother the president,” he said, when asked about his relationship with Democratic President Barack Obama. “I’ve got a number.”
Earmarking local projects
From the accounts of some residents, it was almost impossible to travel out of Sumter before Clyburn secured federal money to renovate an old warehouse into a gleaming transportation center that now provides office space and a place for travelers to wait for buses.
Daryl McGhaney, a Sumter County school district trustee, said the center helps elderly people who no longer can drive. Helping find money for infrastructure projects to bring clean water to the area is something else Clyburn is known for, McGhaney said.
“He’s been a great help,” he said. “Year by year, we see where the grants come from.”
The nearly $1 million earmark that Clyburn helped secure for the Sumter bus station is part of about $24 million that he has funneled to transportation providers in the 6th District since 1998.
Clyburn’s office says the Democrat has secured at least $427 million in earmarks for 6th District projects since 1998. That money was vital to the communities affected, paying for projects that state and local communities could not afford or lacked the political will to make, Clyburn said.
Included have been scholarship programs for low-income students, tourism initiatives for impoverished counties, road and water projects, and money to support rural hospitals, historic preservation, and college and university research.
The money has gone for things “many of the members of the (congressional) delegation wouldn’t even think about, and that’s why Jim Clyburn is so important,” Harrison said.
‘Pork’ or progress?
When it comes to federal spending, the debate comes down to the question: “Is it pork they’re getting or is it good, useful projects that lead to good things happening?” said Jack Bass, a retired College of Charleston professor and author who writes about Southern politics.
In 2010, Clyburn ranked 36th in Congress for earmarking projects, Bass wrote in a newspaper column at the time. But, in terms of how much he received in campaign contributions from earmark recipients, Clyburn ranked near the bottom, Bass said. Instead, Clyburn was issuing earmarks because he believed they would produce benefits for his district, not line his coffers.
However, the earmarks that Clyburn and others in the S.C. congressional delegation, Democrats and Republicans alike, once championed have fallen out of favor because of abuse and the shift in the national budget debate toward less federal spending.
It is a loss that Clyburn mourns.
“I believe that lawmakers – who were elected by the people they live among, and who see firsthand the day-to-day challenges their neighbors face – should play a role in directing federal investments.”
‘I’m going to win’
Some of the projects that Clyburn helped fund have become popular targets for his critics.
For example, Clyburn helped secure money for S.C. State University, his alma mater, to build a multi-million-dollar transportation research center that was named in his honor. More than a decade later, the transportation center remains incomplete. (A 2011 state audit of the financially troubled school found no evidence that transportation center money was missing but cited accounting and planning problems.)
Another target has been a bridge that Clyburn proposed between Rimini and Lone Star, two tiny towns that flank the northeastern side of Lake Marion, near the border of Calhoun and Clarendon counties.
Slamming it as another “Bridge to Nowhere,” critics, including Clarendon County GOP chairman Moye Graham, said the bridge would have connected fading communities and cost taxpayers millions.
To Clyburn, the role of the federal government includes having a vision for what a community could become and making investments – spending money – to get to that end. Hilton Head and other affluent areas along the coast are examples of where federal money has been spent and produced results, Clyburn says, adding his less affluent district should be treated no differently.
With the loss of his congressional ability to direct federal money via earmarks, Clyburn has changed his strategy for bringing resources to communities that he sees as being in need around the country, including in his district.
He is backing a 10-20-30 plan that would direct 10 percent of federal rural development money to counties where 20 percent of the population has lived in poverty for 30 years. He helped shepherd a similar plan into the 2009 federal stimulus bill.
Clyburn said he is working with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to include the same plan in the federal budget.
“I don’t care what the rules are,” Clyburn said. “I’m going to play by the rules, and I’m going to win.”