Rep. James Clyburn has seen a lot change in his 71 years — in his native South Carolina and the country. The son of "an activist fundamentalist minister and an independent civic-minded beautician," as he describes them in his official bio, is the assistant Democratic leader in the 112th Congress and No. 3 Democrat in the House, where he has served since 1993.
The 2010 midterm elections saw his party lose the House majority it had gained in 2006, when he was majority whip. After the defeat of Rep. John Spratt, Clyburn is the lone Democrat among his state's two senators and six House members. And as legislating becomes increasingly partisan, Clyburn — as one of the 12 "super committee" members — must help shape $1.2 trillion in budget-balancing cuts by Thanksgiving.
Despite the challenges that he and his party face, Clyburn was in a positive mood after a recent tour of Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., where the Democratic National Convention will be held next September. "I believe that this convention is going prove to be one of the best ever," he said. "There seems to be sort of a hominess about it. Definitely you can feel it in this arena … I've been a delegate since 1972. You can kind of feel things."
He was in Charlotte for a meeting of the 21st Century Council, a program of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute that brings together business, political and other leaders to research policy issues and present solutions. The CBC will return to Charlotte during convention week to sponsor a town hall at the city's HBCU, Johnson C. Smith University.
In a suite overlooking the arena floor, he told The Root that his parents — Republicans who joined "the party of Lincoln" — would be Democrats today ("They never met Newt Gingrich"). He also spoke about Obama's 2012 chances in the South and what he thinks of Herman Cain.
The Root: Will President Obama win in 2012?
James Clyburn: Yes. One generic poll had Democrats in Congress up by eight over Republicans; another had us up by four. This was [two weeks ago,] when everybody was saying Democrats were dead in the water. [There are polls] with the president wiping [Rick] Perry out, had him against Herman Cain. Romney ran within two points, with the president ahead of Romney. We're 13 months out. I remember 13 months out when Bill Clinton was the incumbent. He was losing to Bob Dole or to anybody the Republicans put up.
When people sit down and all of a sudden there's a nominee on the other side, and one of these two guys is going to be president, the question is, do we want to stay on course with what we've got? The country is moving in the right direction.
This whole notion, saying that the president is to blame for this economy, then my question is, if you go 2.1 million jobs in the hole over the three months just before he became president and then you reverse that trend … nobody can say that this economy is worse than it was three years ago. Nobody can say that and tell the truth. All presidents have a learning curve. Obama is a good president; he has the potential to be a great president.
TR: Why the gridlock in Congress, and will there be movement on the American Jobs Act?
JC: I don't run the House of Representatives. If I were running the House, as I did for four years, we passed over 700 bills and sent them to the Senate. This is nothing new about Republicans filibustering progressive legislation, and I don't quite understand how people seem to forget all of that. So these guys are staying true to form: The president is putting forth a progressive agenda, and they're filibustering. Bill Clinton put forth an agenda, and Newt Gingrich tried to stop it.
TR: What is the solution?
JC: We've got to have a definitive election. The president has got to get re-elected in a very definitive way — all that goes away.
TR: What do you think of recent disagreements among activists and talk-show hosts about how much African Americans should criticize the policies of the Obama administration?
JC: I don't know why people think that the president ought not be criticized by black people. Why shouldn't he be? I have constituents who criticize me. Black constituents criticize me, and so what? That's how it should be. I don't have a problem that people criticize the president, and I hope he wouldn't have a problem with people criticizing him. My skin ain't that thin. Really, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
TR: South Carolina, like many states across the country, has approved legislation requiring voters to produce a government-issued ID before casting ballots. Do you think, as some, including Bill Clinton, have said, that such laws make voting more difficult for the elderly, poor, minorities and students?
JC: The Justice Department ought not pre-clear any of that stuff. If they do pre-clear the South Carolina stuff, I'm going to criticize them. [Editor's note: Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states with a history of discriminatory practices must have any changes in voting rules approved.] Under the South Carolina bill, if someone has a suspended driver's license, they will not be able to vote. What's that got to do with my right to vote, if I don't get my driver's license renewed? According to the law in South Carolina, that is not a valid ID because that is not a valid driver's license, and then I could not vote.
All this is a part of a national voter-suppression campaign being financed by the Koch brothers. Everybody knows that.
TR: What is your opinion of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations?
JC: I think they're good. I didn't have a problem with the Tea Party; I don't have a problem with this party. When we were participating in the sit-ins, we were called communists. Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat to a white guy. She needed a communist to tell her that was wrong?
TR: Black conservative Republicans making their voices and views heard include Rep. Allen West of Florida, the only GOP member of the CBC. How is it working out?
JC: You don't have to pay any money to be a member; all you have to do is show up.
TR: Does West show up?
JC: Not anymore. He hasn't been here for a long time. He's always welcome. He didn't quit before it was time to pay for lunch. I want him to come back when the time rolls around again for him to pay for lunch.
TR: How do you view Herman Cain and his statement that African Americans have been "brainwashed" into not being open-minded about voting for the GOP?
JC: I don't know why people feel that if you don't think the way they think, something's wrong with you. I don't know where people get that notion from. I don't think the way Cain thinks. Cain came to me asking my help to defeat — of all things — a minimum wage bill. Now, I just smiled. I couldn't bring myself to laugh at him.
I listened to him; I was very cordial, very civil, and went on and passed the bill. If this guy feels he was not brainwashed when he did not participate in the civil rights activities taking place on his college campus when he was at Morehouse College … I went to Morehouse College from South Carolina State to participate in sit-ins. I wish I had known that he was on that campus and not participating. I would have visited him in his room.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Nieman Watchdog and Creative Loafing, where she writes a weekly column on DNC 2012. She was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.