Memorials help keep Clyburn in public eye

James RosenMay 27, 2008 

Bridges, buildings across Midlands bear congressman's name

WASHINGTON -- If you live in Columbia, Orangeburg or Sumter and you can't remember who represents you in Congress, have no fear: Reminders are all around you.

In the state capital, you can work on your golf swing at the James E. Clyburn Golf Center or admire the life-size bronze statue of Clyburn as you cross the James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass over S.C. 277.

With the price of gas so high, consider catching a bus at the James E. Clyburn Intermodal Transportation Center in Sumter.

Or you can sign up at the James E. Clyburn Community Empowerment Center in Orangeburg to learn some high-tech skills or freshen up your resume.

When it comes to compiling "living memorials" places, events and philanthropic funds that carry his name House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, has few peers in Congress, past or present.

Clyburn likely will never catch U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, the loquacious West Virginian who boasts of his prowess in bringing federal largesse to his poor state. West Virginia is home to 36 things named after Byrd, plus a towering bronze statute of him in the Capitol Rotunda.

But in less than 16 years in Washington, Clyburn has been honored by 14 such memorials along the breadth and length of his 6th Congressional District.

That figure exceeds the 13 namesakes for retired U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, who served 39 years in the Senate.

Clyburn is closing in on legendary U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond: Seventeen memorials mark his 47-year Senate career and earlier service as governor, legislator and judge before his 2003 death at 100.

Clyburn memorials go beyond mere vanity or ambition.

In a Deep South state where residents have fought bitterly over where to fly the Confederate flag, political symbolism runs deep.

"All those buildings around Columbia have got somebody's name on them," Clyburn said. "With one exception, they're all white people."

The exception is the Matthew J. Perry Jr. Courthouse on Richland Street in downtown Columbia.

Soon after his 1992 election, when he became the first black congressman from South Carolina since Reconstruction, Clyburn introduced a bill to name the future courthouse after Perry, a prominent civil rights lawyer and the state's first black federal judge.

Thurmond, who had run for president in 1948 as a segregationist, blocked Clyburn's legislation. He wanted the new courthouse to carry his own name, though the Strom Thurmond Federal Building already honored him, two blocks away on Assembly Street in Columbia. It took Clyburn years to prevail.

Perpetual ads

Critics outside Congress say the Clyburn memorials are permanent political ads that keep his name in front of his constituents.

"Every one of those facilities is a taxpayer-funded advertisement for the congressman's re-election," said Tom Schatz, head of Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington group that tracks federal spending.

Schatz and other critics say the memorials often are re-election tools free of campaign-finance laws.

In Clyburn's case, for instance, Pres Rahe, a senior executive with Washington Group International, a giant engineering and construction firm based in Boise, Idaho, traveled to S.C. State University in August 2004.

In a campus ceremony, Rahe presented a $10,000 check from his company to the James E. Clyburn Endowment Fund, which the congressman established to provide scholarships for S.C. State students.

Reward for pork?

The 2003 General Assembly resolution putting Clyburn's name on the S.C. 277 overpass said the honor was "for his enormous efforts in obtaining the funds from the United States Congress necessary to build this overpass."

Many other lawmakers have steered federal money back home to projects bearing their names or boosting their legacies.

For example, in 2005, Hollings divided a nearly $14 million earmark among separate appropriations bills for three different agencies.

The money went for expansion of Thomas Cooper Library at the University of South Carolina, including a new wing for modern political collections. The featured collection is Hollings' voluminous papers.

Clyburn bristles at the notion that he gets money for projects back home in exchange for them being named after him.

"There's absolutely no quid pro quo in any of this," Clyburn said. "If I got $10.5 million for the Hollings Oncology Center (in Charleston) as I did last year, what's the quid pro quo there? I've had something to do with getting money for the Thurmond Wellness Center (in Columbia). I've never heard any objections to that."

Clyburn said he was unaware that so many things back home bear his name. He said he's had only one conversation with folks who wanted to name something after him.

Local leaders in Parkers Ferry, a hamlet west of Charleston, wanted to name a community center for Clyburn.

"When I demurred, they felt a bit insulted by it and thought that I didn't want my name identified with their community," Clyburn said. "I assured them that was not the case."

The Wiltown Community Center was renamed the Clyburn Community Center in 2002. Clyburn and his aides hold constituent meetings there.

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