By MEG KINNARD and LAURIE KELLMAN – AP
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — At a funeral service last month, Jannie Jones locked eyes with Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn across the church sanctuary and crooked a finger, beckoning him to come over to the pew where she sat. She had a question, but she didn’t want to ask it out loud.
The House majority whip bent down so the 76-year-old Jones could whisper in his ear: “I need to know who you’re going to vote for,” she asked.
Clyburn whispered back, “Joe Biden.”
Giving Clyburn a thumbs up, Jones wondered if he’d endorse the former vice president publicly.
“I had no idea he was going to do it,” Jones recalled in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from her home in Hopkins, South Carolina, outside the capital city of Columbia.
Not only did Clyburn go public with his choice among the sprawling Democratic field, just days ahead of his native South Carolina’s pivotal primary, but he also anonymously credited Jones and their whispered conversation with his choice to do so.
“She said, ‘You don’t have to say it out loud, but just whisper into my ear, who are you going to vote for next Saturday? I have been waiting to hear from you. I need to hear from you,’” Clyburn recalled in his passionate endorsement speech, three days before South Carolina’s Feb. 29 vote. “I decided then and there that I would not stay silent.”
Biden handily won South Carolina, bested chief rival Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday and bumped rivals Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Mike Bloomberg and Elizabeth Warren out of the contest in one of the most muscular comebacks in presidential campaign history.
The kingmaker moment was a long time coming for Clyburn, a minister’s son whose congressional career began 27 years ago, after a false start in losing a state legislative race. He rose through the ranks and became the vote-counting House Democratic whip on Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team, the No. 3 Democrat in Congress as well as its highest-ranking black member. And as Republicans rose to prominence in his native South Carolina, Clyburn’s stature in the state increased among its Democratic contingent.
Political endorsements at times aren’t thought of as carrying significant heft, used by candidates and endorsers alike for a momentary media bounce that quickly fades to another name on a list.
But the backing of Clyburn seems to have been the endorsement that brought Biden’s candidacy back from the brink following lackluster performances in other early states. It was an awaited signal for many black voters in South Carolina that Biden would be the candidate to stand up for their interests. He scored a blowout margin of victory of nearly 30 points.