For the millions of people who watched a leaderless House of Representatives convene for the first week of the new year, the true legend to many was a Black woman named Cheryl Johnson. As factions of Republicans, newly in the majority, fought savagely to appoint a new speaker, the House seemed to buckle. Enter The Honorable Johnson, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives,
Johnson, a Capitol Hill veteran and a mother, was tasked with the seemingly impossible – keeping the House in order so a Speaker could be elected and the new Congress could finally begin. Johnson’s calm demeanor and poise during the multiple rounds of voting was impressive, especially in light of the bleak outlook to a successful outcome.
Johnson, 62, became the second Black woman to serve as House Clerk in February of 2019. Her steady hand this week has won praise from both parties. Through 15 votes, she rapped the gavel as the essential leader of the nation’s larger representative body. She led the speakerless House through four days of chaos and where there could not be nonpartisan common ground, there would be order. She constantly reminded the members of the rules that still bound them. To most who saw her on C-SPAN or Twitter, she was a new face. To those who knew her best, she was the most important thing they saw.
Johnson attended the University of Iowa, where she majored in journalism and communications. She earned a law degree from Howard University, and completed the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government senior management program. She worked for the Smithsonian Institution, playing a key role in the 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and also serving as a leader in government relations, said Linda St. Thomas, chief Smithsonian spokesperson who worked with her.
That often meant working closely with members of Congress.
“She’s unflappable,” St. Thomas said. “And she’s got a great sense of humor. But I don’t think she can show that up on that podium.”
When she’s not on the House floor, she’s honoring John Lewis, the late civil rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman.
Through the Washington, D.C.-based Faith & Politics Institude, she works to achieve the goal of building a nationwide network of emerging, civic-minded individuals – undergraduate and graduate students and young corporate leaders – who will create change through Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Lewis’s principles of nonviolence and community-oriented activism.
Another Black woman who took center stage was House Reading Clerk Tylease Alli.
Ali gained notoriety during the House roll call process. Former Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi appointed Alli in March 2021 to replace a retiring clerk.
“She is known and respected by Members and staff on both sides of the aisle for her great experience, dedication and integrity,” Pelosi said in a prior statement.
She has been in the role for almost two years, previously serving as chief clerk of the House Education and Labor Committee. Prior to that time, Alli served as a clerk with the House Committee on Education and Workforce.
Alli is a 2002 graduate of Michigan State University where she received her Bachelor of Arts in psychology and political science.
What may appear to be a generally mundane task has been thrust into the spotlight as a necessary part of democracy with Republican shenanigans dragging out the speaker process into a fourth day.
Newsone contributed to this report.