WASHINGTON – The Congressional Black Caucus is working to ensure that one of its members wins a top leadership position if Democrats take control of the House.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina is campaigning to become majority whip — the third-ranking post in the House — should Democrats pick up the 15 seats they need to win the majority. No black lawmaker has held a higher position in Congress.
"Until Nov. 8, there's no position to be advocating for. But if that comes to pass ... I think it's important for the party leadership to be reflective of the diversity in our caucus," said caucus Chairman Mel Watt, D-N.C. "We need to value that."
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Regardless of the whip position, black lawmakers would play a more prominent role with Democrats in power.
There are no black Republicans in Congress. And while black lawmakers are in line to win as many as five House committee chairmanships under Democratic leadership, all of the GOP's committee chairmen are white men, as are its top leaders.
Clyburn, who is currently chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, so far is the only Democrat openly lobbying for the whip position.
But black leaders, who feel they've been passed over for top appointments in the past, are waging a pre-emptive campaign to fend off potential challenges to Clyburn, particularly from Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette also is mentioned as a possible candidate.
Emanuel and DeGette will not say whether they are angling for the job.
"He's laser-focused on Nov. 7," Emanuel spokeswoman Kathleen Connery said. "He feels like he owes it to his contributors, candidates and his caucus to deliver on Nov. 7."
Emanuel, a former top Clinton administration adviser, is stepping down as DCCC chairman after the election, and Democrats could seek to reward him if he engineers a Democratic takeover of the House.
At the same time, however, black voters are a cornerstone of the Democratic base: Nearly nine out of 10 black voters are Democrats, and black lawmakers argue that the party has an obligation to recognize the power of that constituency.
"There are people who believe that the party has taken minority voters for granted, and I'm sure the absence of diversity in leadership ranks would be another factor that people would take into account," Watt said.
It wouldn't be "a retaliatory kind of thing" if Clyburn didn't win the post, Watt said. Instead, "I think we would expect it to be a natural thing that the party would reflect the diversity of its membership," he said.
Democrats are scheduled to hold leadership elections Nov. 16.
The black caucus, which has 43 members, has appointed freshman North Carolina Democrat G.K. Butterfield to lobby Democrats on behalf of Clyburn.
Clyburn, meanwhile, has campaigned in more than two dozen congressional districts, helping expand his network. The seven-term lawmaker said he has talked with roughly 150 Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, about becoming whip. He said he has "every reason in the world to believe that she'd be very supportive of my being whip."
"I don't make a big deal out of the fact that I'm African-American," he said of his bid. "What I try to do is conduct myself in a way that when I ask somebody to do something, they say, 'Well he has a right to ask.' ... I wouldn't ask anybody to make sacrifices without making my own sacrifices."
The whip, charged with helping set legislative strategy and keeping members in line with leadership on key votes, has often been a springboard to higher posts.
Former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, for example, earned his nickname as "The Hammer" while twisting arms as Republican whip in the 1990s.
Clyburn, 66, said he would take a gentler tack.
"My approach would be more of an olive branch approach than a sledgehammer," he said. "You catch many more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."
If he were to win the post, Clyburn would join Pennsylvania Democrat William Gray as the highest-ranking black member of Congress in history. Gray served as majority whip from 1989 to 1991.