As Jan. 6 chair, Thompson builds on a lifetime of defending the vote
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) first landed in politics not to get votes, but to get people registered to vote.
It’s a mission that brought him from signing up voters across rural Mississippi, to serving as mayor of the 521-person town where he still lives and travels every weekend, to the halls of Congress.
It has also stayed central to him as he leads the House investigation into the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021 — an effort that fundamentally sought to reject the will of voters whose rights he’s fought to protect.
At the first meeting of the Jan. 6 committee in prime time, Thompson’s opener was surprisingly personal, talking about life in Bolton, Miss.
“I am from a part of the country where people justified the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching. I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6,” the 74-year-old lawmaker said.
He went on to describe former President Trump’s actions as “aimed at throwing out the votes of millions of Americans — your votes, your voice in our democracy — and replacing the will of the American people with his will to remain in power after his term ended.”
It’s a lived experience that those who know Thompson well say is the foundation for how he approaches his role leading the committee.
“Here is a person who was raised and still lives in what most people consider even today the cradle of the Confederacy, this man who is now trying to save a democracy from which he was excluded and his people were excluded for so very long,” Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge, a former House colleague of Thompson’s, told The Hill.
“It is significant, especially when you think about the fact that this is probably the biggest set of hearings that have happened in the history of this country. It’s bigger than Watergate; it’s bigger than the Mueller report. And here is a Black man trying to save the very democracy that tried for so long to exclude him.”
After years of attending segregated schools, Thompson went to Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Jackson, Miss. It was there that he became involved with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which led sit-ins at lunch counters across the South, as well as voter drives to mobilize Black citizens.
“His whole life has been in a little town of Mississippi, and he has worked very hard to open up this democracy not just for himself but his children and grandchildren. And he views so much of what’s going on, especially as it relates to Jan. 6, as an attempt on the part of people to turn the clock back,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) told The Hill.
Thompson first landed in Congress in 1993, eventually becoming the dean of the Mississippi delegation, where he is the only Democrat and the only African American among the four districts.
“I think that this moment has lifted him into the public spotlight in a way that lifts him personally, but it lifts his experience,” Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), a friend of Thomspon’s, told The Hill.
“He’s not one that craves the spotlight, but of course he will rise to the circumstances when it’s called for. I don’t think that he would have sought the notoriety and the publicity that has accompanied his leadership of the Jan. 6 committee.”
The committee’s hearings have been for many viewers a first look at Thompson on a panel where Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the vice chair, has held center stage, taking on her party in a mission of conviction that has cost her her standing in the GOP and very possibly her seat as well.
At the committee’s first hearing this year it was Cheney, not Thompson, who laid out the bulk of the evidence the panel has gathered against Trump in a move members hope will be meaningful to some independents and perhaps even some in the GOP.
But in a town where egos and ambitions run large, colleagues say Thompson’s willingness to step aside for the sake of strategy speaks to his commitment to the panel’s overall mission to show how the riot and Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud remain a grave threat to democracy.
“He understands how Liz Cheney is speaking to millions of people who might otherwise have turned a blind eye to our proceedings. So he’s been the soul of magnanimity and inclusion in terms of how our committee operates,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), one of the panel’s nine members, told The Hill.
“I think he’s about the most low-ego politician I’ve met around here,” Raskin added, pausing. “John Lewis was like that.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who played an elevated role in the panel’s second hearing, said Thompson has been part of setting that tone.
“It’s more important that we be successful in laying out the truth that then anybody’s name gets attached to X, Y or Z. And we all feel that way. And I think Bennie has done an excellent job chairing the committee and helping people move forward,” she said.
Thompson has long been a major player in Congress, but now he can’t move through the hallways without being swarmed by reporters. Through that experience he’s been largely patient and unusually candid — setting him apart from other members of the committee who have kept details of the investigation closer to the vest while he’s made a few headlines along the way.
“He’s true to who he is, and that’s a frank, honest, open person. And if you don’t want to know what he thinks, don’t ask him. If you don’t want the truth, don’t ask him. He’s not going to varnish it. He’s going to tell you just like it is,” Bishop said.
In its first few hearings, the committee has shown that Trump pushed ahead with plans to claim there was widespread voter fraud and to get his vice president to reject the will of the voters despite being told such plans were fraudulent and illegal. Future hearings — the next set for Tuesday — will look at how he sought to forward those claims at the Justice Department, and how they mobilized extremist groups.
Beyond his commitment to voting rights, Thompson has spent years examining threats on U.S. soil.
Most of his past leadership in Congress has been as either chair or ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. That was part of the reason Clyburn insisted he chair the Jan. 6 committee — Thompson spent weeks working with Republicans to craft bipartisan legislation to establish an independent commission to review Jan. 6, only to have the Senate reject the idea.
The chairmanship has left him concerned about domestic extremism, an alarm former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who led the department under President Obama, said Thompson has long been ringing.
“At a time when I was focused on foreign terrorist-inspired attacks on the homeland, Bennie urged us to not overlook the threat presented by domestic-based violent extremism,” Johnson told The Hill in a statement.
Thompson alluded to that as his opening speech tied together 100 years of history, stressing how the Civil War resulted in an update to the oath of office required for both politicians and civil servants, requiring “for the first time to swear an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies — foreign … and domestic.”
It’s why many see his leadership of the Jan. 6 committee as the culmination of his life’s work.
“It will be the defining moment, in my mind, of his great legacy of serving in the institution,” Fudge said.
“Because what he’s trying to do is stop people from dismantling the very foundations of this nation.”
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