WASHINGTON – Wrapping up leadership elections, House Democrats unanimously chose Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina for a new role Thursday, as the party whip relinquishes his current job and a younger generation of Democratic leaders takes charge in the new year.
The vote for Clyburn, who is the highest-ranking Black American in Congress and close to President Joe Biden, averted a potentially divisive internal party struggle after what had been a largely drama-free transition in the aftermath of the midterm elections. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her team are stepping aside after decades at the helm.
Ahead of voting, Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, who is openly gay, withdrew his challenge to Clyburn. Cicilline won assurances from the Democratic leaders that LGBTQ voices would be represented at the leadership table.
Clyburn, a civil rights leader, said he plans to continue his work advocating “for the South, and for communities that have been left out of economic progress of previous generations.”
The two days of closed-door voting among Democrats to chose party leaders after the midterm elections were surprising for its brevity, especially compared to the dragged out process underway on the Republican side as GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy works to shore up support to become the House speaker in January.
Pelosi, D-Calif., and her team are stepping aside after Republicans won control of the House in the midterm elections. The parties have between now and the new year to sort out the new roles before the new Congress convenes in January.
On Wednesday, House Democrats elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York to become the new party leader, the first Black person to lead a major political party in the U.S. Congress.
Jeffries has said it will be a “blessing” to have Pelosi and the other leaders remain in Congress to offer counsel and guidance even as they are making way for the new generation.
Pelosi, Clyburn and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., are all in their 80s, and the new generation is decades younger.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., who was elected to become the caucus chairman, called Clyburn “the conscience of our caucus. All of us can benefit from his experience and his perspective as we work together.”
The challenge to Clyburn was a surprise, but Cicilline said he felt the need to act to ensure the Democratic leadership “fully reflect the diversity" of the caucus and of the country.
Antjuan Seawright, a political adviser to Clyburn, on Wednesday argued that Clyburn’s presence at the leadership table was crucial not only for representation from the South but also as a measure of continuity during a transition period.
“With a transition in leadership, you have to have stability, you have to have continuity, and you have to have a sense of trust,” Seawright said. “His being there provides all those things, and also, as this next generation of leaders prepares to be able to fly the political plane, it’s so important that they have a very experienced pilot to help them fly the plane, just in case there’s a storm they may not have faced.”