Competing for Credit: DemoCrat Clyburn Says, ‘watch how they vote’WASHINGTONRep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., has been a longtime friend to minorities and initiatives that strengthen their access and opportunities where higher education is concerned. His track record is long. A champion of historic building preservation on Black college campuses, Clyburn has worked to help Black institutions secure grants for various projects while also fighting to preserve minority access and equity at all levels of education.But Clyburn is facing a number of struggles. He faces competition for his 6th District seat in November from three challengers: Vince Ellison, a Republican; Lynwood Earl Hines, a Libertarian; and Dianne Nevins, a member of the Natural Law Party.And while Clyburn, who is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, continues to seek help for revitalizing HBCUs and to heed the concerns of people of color in higher education, here comes Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla.His colleague and in many ways his nemesis, Clyburn was none too happy earlier this summer when Watts convened a gathering of Black college officials to rub elbows with top-ranking Republicans on Capitol Hill.“It’s hard to imagine that the ‘summit’ was little more than a photo opportunity for members who have absolutely no history of involvement and support for HBCUs and who, in fact, have a track record of hostility toward these very institutions,” Clyburn, now in his fourth term, said shortly after the June summit.For his part, Watts says his goal is simply to increase federal support for HBCUs while giving them information and access to corporate leaders with a strong track record of employing professionals of color.Dr. David Swinton, president of South Carolina’s Benedict College, attended Watts’ HBCU summit, and says that while Clyburn’s initiatives to encourage federal support of HBCUs are extremely important, schools have to be bipartisan.“We think the world of the congressman,” Swinton says, while praising the Caucus’ support of HBCUs. However, he says, “we can’t be critical of anybody trying to reach out and better understand and support HBCUs and education in general. It was a bright idea on [Watts’] part, and if [Republicans] want to do things friendly to Black colleges, we think that’s all good.”Clyburn maintains that the proof is in the pudding. “I’ve always been taught that it was [politicians’] deeds [that count]. We seem to be carried away with words,” Clyburn told Black Issues. “It just seems strange to me . . . the [William] Clays, [D-Mo.,] of the world that never stop working with HBCUs . . . [Clay] has done incredible work, passing legislation, etc. And someone comes along with a cocktail party and that becomes the major policy issue of the day. “Watts is appearing to support HBCUs, but in private he’s voting against measures to help HBCUs. I always say that if you want to know what a congressman really thinks, watch how they vote.”Clyburn, a former educator who taught in Charleston County public schools, cites past Republican efforts to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education and block many education grant programs, calling the GOP’s new role as friend to HBCUs “suspect.”Clyburn also cites a number of initiatives important to HBCUs that Black Democrats in Congress were instrumental in creating such as:n “The Undergraduate and Graduate Black College Act” within Title III of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The provision provides the largest single annual appropriation directly to HBCUs (more than $1.6 billion since 1987);n The Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program; andn Federal support of historic preservation efforts on HBCU campuses.Watts’ staff acknowledges Clyburn and the Caucus’ efforts to help HBCUs, but retorted that Democrats could have their own summit.“Their view is, ‘you can’t do something for my friend — only I can do something for my friend,'” Watts said earlier this summer in response to Clyburn’s criticism of his summit.So the Black Caucus — in collaboration with House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., — jointly hosted a meeting of HBCU presidents on Capitol Hill last month. According to a Caucus staffer, the gathering had “a widened audience for its agenda” with key Democratic members of Congress and congressional committees present in addition to Caucus members.Despite some differences in approaches between Democrats and Republicans, Clyburn says the Caucus welcomes Republican support for HBCUs.“We in the Congressional Black Caucus welcome them to the cause of helping to strengthen the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, and call upon them to support concrete and tangible efforts which will provide real dollars and real opportunities to these colleges and the thousands of students they serve,” Clyburn says. “That can best be achieved, however, by returning to bipartisan cooperative efforts — not through clandestine political rendezvous.”
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