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Cheryl Johnson, who made history as House clerk, gets another round of applause

‘I told her I owe her another 14 awards,’ says McCarthy

Former House Clerk Cheryl Johnson, center, receives the Freedom Award on Tuesday. She is joined on stage by, from left, Rep. Troy Carter, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, former House Clerk Lorraine Miller, and Capitol Historical Society President Jane Campbell.
Former House Clerk Cheryl Johnson, center, receives the Freedom Award on Tuesday. She is joined on stage by, from left, Rep. Troy Carter, former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, former House Clerk Lorraine Miller, and Capitol Historical Society President Jane Campbell. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Former House Clerk Cheryl Johnson returned to the Capitol on Tuesday to accept an award that acknowledged the role she played during two of the most historic and chaotic moments in congressional history: the attack on Jan. 6, 2021, and Kevin McCarthy’s drawn-out election as speaker, when she calmly guided the chamber through its most ballots since 1860

“There was a time where not everyone on television knew who Cheryl Johnson was,” said Jane Campbell, president of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. “Now that’s changed.”

Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who tapped Johnson for clerk in 2018, praised her pick’s professionalism, including “her poise, her judgment, and her management prowess.” 

The historical society bestows the Freedom Award on those “who exhibit extraordinary dedication to freedom, democracy, and representative government.” The award is named after the statue personifying freedom that stands atop the Capitol Dome. 

During the ceremony in Statuary Hall, Johnson said the award made her think of Philip Reid, the enslaved African American who supervised the casting of the statue, and the hope that America “would live up to its ideals of equality and freedom.” 

Even though she was honored in part for her actions on Jan. 6, only Johnson herself did more than hint at that day’s events. 

“I also think about Jan. 6, when brave clerk staff stopped to protect iconic artifacts that had been on the House floor for centuries, even as U.S. Capitol Police were asking them to move as quickly as they could to save their lives,” she said. “Democracy is fragile, but it is also stubbornly resilient. And each of us has a role to play in ensuring its longevity.”

This is the third year in a row that the society has recognized individuals who served on Jan. 6: Last year, the Capitol Police split the award with the Metropolitan Police Department, and in 2021, lawmakers who led the counting of Electoral College votes  — Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Roy Blunt of Missouri, as well as California Rep. Zoe Lofgren — shared the honor.

Johnson’s poise was also on full display at the start of the 118th Congress, when it took McCarthy 15 votes over four days to win the speaker’s gavel. Before one of those rounds, Republican Rep. French Hill of Arkansas acknowledged Johnson, leading the entire chamber to rise in a standing ovation. “Let me express my deep appreciation, and appreciation of everybody in this room, for the work you’re doing, Madam Clerk,” Hill said

Speaking at Tuesday’s ceremony, McCarthy recalled that moment. “When I was elected speaker last year, I’d like to think I got a loud applause,” he said. “But the loudest applause was for Cheryl and the job that she did. It was from every single member on both sides of the aisle. Honestly, you deserved it.

“When it was all over, Cheryl deserved a long vacation,” McCarthy added. “But I knew the House still needed her, which is why I asked her to stay on as clerk. Fortunately, she agreed, serving through June 2023. That makes her the first clerk to serve under speakers from both parties.”

The clerk’s duties mostly include nonpartisan administrative and procedural tasks related to the smooth operation of the House floor. But during those days when the chamber was without a speaker, Johnson was in charge of preserving order.

Johnson left her role a few months before the next round of chaos that enveloped the House in October, when the House voted to oust McCarthy from the speakership. Kevin McCumber, named acting clerk after Johnson left, is still serving in an interim capacity.  

Despite resigning from the House last December, McCarthy flew in for Johnson’s ceremony. “She thanked me for coming … from California,” McCarthy said. “I told her I owe her another 14 awards. I will come to all 15, as she stood for me.”

In addition to the two former speakers, Johnson was feted by Rep. Troy Carter, who went to high school with her in New Orleans. The Louisiana Democrat pointed to her decadeslong career in public service, “breaking barriers and shattering glass ceilings.”

Johnson was only the second Black person to hold the clerk’s post. The first, Lorraine Miller, attended the ceremony and stood onstage to help present the award. 

During the ceremony, Johnson sat between the two former speakers, who did not seem to have much to say to one another. The current speaker, Mike Johnson, did not attend. 

Before the award ceremony kicked off  in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, waiters passed hors d’oeuvres among the guests while the bartenders mostly poured them soft drinks despite the availability of harder options. While a small crowd of current and former staffers mingled toward the back of the room, elected officials and other luminaries sat in rows up front. Former Rep. William Lacy Clay, who lost a primary battle against Missouri Democrat Cori Bush in 2020, jokingly asked a historical society staffer if he could join the party even though “my name isn’t on the list.”

Freedom Award honorees have ranged from former lawmakers to journalists to singer-songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. 

Founded in 1962 and then chartered by Congress in 1978, the Capitol Historical Society runs tours of the Capitol building and provides educational programming for teachers.

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