Suddenly a Folk Hero

“Johnson for speaker!” How the woman who serves as a kind of secretary in the House of Representatives unexpectedly became famous.

It’s probably not a particularly good sign for Congress when a supervisor must take control for days at a time. But that is exactly what happened in the House of Representatives when Cheryl L. Johnson had to oversee the 435 representatives significantly longer than planned because they managed to elect Kevin McCarthy as speaker only after four days and a fair amount of turbulence in the 15th round. This was a big moment for Johnson whose serves as clerk of the United States House of Representatives. At least she completed the task brilliantly.

Johnson is a kind of secretary in this chamber, or stated better, the House’s chief official and chief organizer, and during the speaker election, she became its leader. She is charged with representing the speaker before he or she is officially sworn in, among other responsibilities. Democrat Nancy Pelosi served as speaker until the position was the Republicans’ to name given their slim majority in the House. Republican infighting caused matters to drag on to such an extent that Johnson became the key player in this reality show.

Millions of TV viewers around the world could also see and hear how she stood at the podium where McCarthy captured the gavel after a historic delay. Johnson was an authority with distinctive glasses, a mostly colorful outfit and a face that remained an oasis of calm even during chaotic moments. Her firm voice conveyed to the [House] members and the audience that she at least had matters in hand. This was reassuring, otherwise the start of the 118th Congress would surely have gone off the rails.

She asked the representatives each time to name the candidate for whom they were voting. When the votes had been counted, she announced the same result each time Friday evening. “A speaker has not been elected,” she announced 14 times McCarthy collected the necessary votes Friday night in round 15 to become speaker. In the interim, Johnson repeatedly called the assembly to order when the chamber got boisterous.

’The Only Defense against Total Dysfunction’

Johnson did her job with a regal tranquility that sometimes stripped the theatrics from the drama. It was a beautiful contrast to the periodic anarchy in the assembly. The BBC thought correctly that Johnson sometimes seemed to be “the only defense against total dysfunction.” “An unlikely folk hero,” said Bloomberg News. “She’s been extraordinary,” tweeted Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna from California, “without any rules passed and in having some sense of fairness and order.”

Johnson, born in 1960 in New Orleans, studied journalism, law and management, among other things, at Harvard University.** She lives with her family on the outskirts of Washington and worked in various functions for 20 years on Capitol Hill before moving to the Smithsonian Institution for 10 years. In February 2019, she became House clerk; only the second Black person and fourth woman to hold this traditional position.

She had already experienced difficult moments before this prolonged endurance test including two impeachment hearings against Donald Trump and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Two years later, she didn’t flinch and led the agitated representatives through this odyssey until Republican Rep. McCarthy actually received the gavel. “First let me express my deep appreciation, and appreciation of everybody in this room, for the work you’re doing, Madame Clerk,” said Republican Rep. French Hill when he nominated McCarthy again in vain. In response, someone shouted what many were thinking: “Johnson for speaker!”

*Editor’s Note: Kevin McCarthy was elected speaker on the 15th vote in the early morning hours of Saturday, Jan. 7.

**Editor’s Note: Cheryl L. Johnson studied journalism and communications at the University of Iowa, holds a law degree from Howard University and completed the senior management program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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About Michael Stehle 102 Articles
I am a graduate of the University of Maryland with a BA in Linguistics and Germanic Studies. I have a love for language and I find translation to be both an engaging activity as well as an important process for connecting the world.

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