On the trail

Jim Clyburn heads to Cleveland

The House majority whip spoke with JI as he prepares for a weekend of campaigning in Ohio’s heated special election

Lance Cheung

U.S. Congressman Jim Clyburn (SC) introduces Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Strike Force for Rural Growth and Opportunity event held at Voorhees College in Denmark, SC, on Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

With just over one week remaining until the closely watched special election in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, prominent Democratic lawmakers are descending on the Cleveland area as the race that has come to represent a high-stakes showdown between moderates and progressives enters the final stretch.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) visited the district on Saturday, drumming up support for Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator and staunch progressive who had been leading the Democratic primary field in recent months. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for whom Turner worked as a 2020 presidential campaign surrogate, is expected to make an appearance next weekend.

So, too, is Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the powerful House majority whip who will be campaigning for Shontel Brown, a Democratic Party establishment favorite and a Cuyahoga County party chair, before voters head to the polls on August 3. The South Carolina congressman, 81, endorsed Brown in late June, upping the ante of an election that is largely split along generational as well as ideological lines.

Brown had been trailing Turner before Clyburn backed her. “When I first got the frantic call, they told me she was polling at about 15, 20%,” the South Carolina congressman said in an interview with Jewish Insider on Friday. “If it means anything,” he recalled concluding, “it means I need to up my involvement, and so I think that’s why I did.”

Since then, Brown has been gaining momentum, with additional support from outside independent expenditures as well new endorsements from pro-Israel Democrats in Congress. Earlier this month, the influential political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus threw its support behind Brown, who, like Turner, is Black. 

“I was pleased that they did,” Clyburn, who is a member of the CBC, remarked, while adding that he had no involvement in the endorsement process because he does not sit on the PAC’s board. “I didn’t play a role in it.”

Either way, Clyburn’s high-profile endorsement seems to have opened up a plausible path to victory for his preferred candidate in the final weeks of the race. A mid-July survey commissioned by Democratic Majority for Israel, which is backing Brown, put the Democratic congressional hopeful at 36% among likely voters, just five points behind Turner. An independent poll from early July, conducted by TargetPoint Consulting, had both candidates tied at 33%.

Clyburn, who is credited with clinching the nomination for President Joe Biden in last year’s presidential primaries, expressed optimism that his endorsement of Brown would have a similar impact. “I hope so,” he told JI. “I also hope that people know that she is a good person who would make a great congressperson.”

“I’ve always found her very pleasant to work with,” said Clyburn, adding that he had campaigned with Brown in previous races. “I’ve been involved with her for some time now,” he noted. “This is not my first involvement.”

The 15-term representative, who has locked horns with the far left over issues like defunding the police and Medicare for All, rejected calls that he stay out of the open-seat race to succeed former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), now secretary of housing and urban development in the Biden administration.

“I saw something the other day from one of Ms. Turner’s supporters saying I need to stay out of their district,” Clyburn told JI, referring to comments made by Juanita Brent, an Ohio state representative who is supporting Turner. “But the same person welcomed Bernie Sanders into the district. I want her to explain to me why — what’s the difference — why I cannot be — this Black guy who’s been coming in and out of that district for 25 or 30 years — since Arnold Pinkney ran Carl Stokes’s campaign?”

“She says to me I should stay out of the district and then she welcomes Bernie Sanders into the district,” Clyburn repeated. “Somebody’s got to explain that to me.”

Brent and the Turner campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

While Clyburn has emphasized that he simply favors Brown over Turner, other dynamics also appear to be at play as the race has taken something of a nasty turn in recent weeks. Last month, Turner appeared at a town hall at which the rapper Killer Mike described Clyburn as “stupid” for endorsing Biden last cycle.

“I think it’s incredibly stupid to not cut a deal before you get someone elected president and the only thing you get is a federal holiday and nothing tangible out of it,” the rapper said, referring to the newly adopted Juneteenth holiday.“You can talk about it,” Turner said, nodding in agreement.

Clyburn stepped into the race shortly after the event. “They called me dumb,” he said, taking the insult in stride. “I smiled and said, well, I was called dumb or stupid.”

Still, he couldn’t help offering his own sharply worded retort in the interview with JI. “I understand that Nina said, when I endorsed Joe Biden, she said I was going to be made to pay for that,” Clyburn said. “I’d like to know how I’m going to get paid.”

“I don’t know why it’s necessary for all this acrimony to exist,” Clyburn said. “Just be who you are and let other people do what they want to do. I just think it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to make these kinds of inflammatory statements. I don’t do it.”

Clyburn demurred, however, when asked whether he envisioned collaborating with Turner if she wins the election. “That would be up to her,” he said. “I work very well with Bernie Sanders. I endorsed Joe Biden, and it didn’t stop me from working with Bernie Sanders. I do.”

The majority-Black 11th district is home to a sizable Jewish community, support from which has been building for Brown. The first-time congressional candidate is actively engaged in Jewish outreach, and has earned support from groups like the Jewish Democratic Council of America, Pro-Israel America and DMFI. 

Brown’s views on Israel align with the mainstream Democratic wing of the party, while Turner argues in favor of conditioning aid to the Jewish state. 

Clyburn said the candidates’ contrasting foreign policy approaches also factored into his endorsement. “I think Shontel would be a moderating voice,” the congressman said, in House disputes over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have become increasingly contentious following May’s violent conflict in Gaza. 

“My view when it comes to foreign aid is that no two requests are the same,” he said, “and I think that all requests ought to be based upon existing relationships as well as future consideration for whatever the relationship might be.”

“I think that this country and its allies have got to really be very, very careful in its national and international relationships,” Clyburn said. “This so-called rightward movement that seemed to be taking hold in this country is not limited to this country. We see this stuff popping up all around the world, and so the interest that we have in maintaining the forward movement in this country toward a more perfect union and in Israel to a peaceful and secure existence in the Middle East — these are interests that ought to be complementing each other and ought not to be competing against each other.”

“It’s important for us to make sure that we maintain those relationships politically and personally,” he added.

Clyburn characterized himself as a Truman Democrat. “It was Truman that recognized Israel, and he did so against some pretty forceful advice, just like he integrated the armed services against some pretty forceful advice,” he said.

“I grew up in a Christian parsonage, and my father was a fundamentalist minister,” Clyburn said. “I tell people all the time, my dad preached as much, let’s say as often, from the Old Testament as he did from the New Testament, and I grew up with a healthy respect for the Jewish faith.”

The congressman had yet to see a finalized campaign schedule when he spoke with JI. But he said his plans for the upcoming weekend in Cleveland include meeting with faith leaders as well as Black fraternities and sororities in the district. He was also tailoring his schedule, he said, to accommodate Jewish community members and Seventh-day Adventists who observe the Sabbath on Saturdays.

“I’m very sensitive about that,” he noted.

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