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When Cheryl Johnson entered the US House chamber on Wednesday, she expected her role at the helm to be brief.
Her role was to stand in the gap between Nancy Pelosi officially ending the previous Congress at noon and stepping down as Speaker, and the vote to choose a new Speaker.
As the second person of color to serve as Clerk of the House, Johnson’s place in history is firmly cemented. Now, however, as the fight for House Speaker descended into chaos, Johnson’s role becomes far more consequential.
The Constitution requires the first act of any new Congress to be selecting a Speaker. For the past century, members of the majority party have chosen a leader on the first vote. On Tuesday, however, history wasn’t repeated – it was made.
After each of Wednesday’s three ballots, no individual received the 218 votes required to become Speaker. And, after each vote, Johnson took to the podium to declare “a Speaker has not been elected.”
Cheryl Johnson makes history with each passing vote
With no clear leader, the House cannot carry on with normal business. It cannot swear in new members, introduce legislation or take any vote other than choosing a Speaker.
Until that happens, Cheryl Johnson serves as the House chair, making her the first Black women to preside over one of the most powerful legislative bodies on earth.
A graduate of both Howard and Harvard University, Johnson has a track-record of making order out of chaos in Washington. Johnson worked for more than 20 years in the US House of Representatives, before helping direct the Office of Government Relations at the Smithsonian Institute for a decade.
Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed Johnson to serve as Clerk in 2019, after Democrats re-took control of the chamber.
Now, as she leads a government in disarray toward order and security, Johnson further solidifies her legacy as a quiet and formidable leader in Washington.
And as the House convenes again today with a Black woman at the helm, it also does so with a Black man leading the race for Speaker for the first time.
In midst of the chaos, America continues to make history. Each time Cheryl Johnson stands before the body to say “a Speaker has not been elected“, history is made again.
Correction: An earlier version of this article noted that Cheryl Johnson is the first person of color to serve as the House Clerk. She is the second, Lorraine Miller was the first Black woman to serve as clerk from 2007-2011.