WASHINGTON (WPRI) — Congressman David Cicilline announced Wednesday he plans to challenge Congressman Jim Clyburn for the No. 4 spot in House Democratic leadership, setting up a clash between the Rhode Islander and the legendary South Carolinian.

Cicilline sent a letter to colleagues Wednesday saying he plans to run for assistant leader. Clyburn has been the only candidate for that position, after agreeing to step down from his party’s No. 3 job at the same time as Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer so the longtime trio could let non-octogenarian Democrats take charge.

“I believe my background, coupled with my messaging skills from [the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee] and policy experience, would be a great addition to our new leadership team as we work to win back the House in 2024,” Cicilline wrote in the three-page letter.

Referencing House Democrats’ new top three, he wrote, “I would be honored and humbled to have your support and to be able to join Hakeem Jeffries, Katherine Clark, and Pete Aguilar as part of the new generation of House leadership.”

House Democrats are expected to vote on the assistant leader position Thursday.

It’s unclear whether Cicilline, 61, has a real chance of defeating Clyburn, 82, or if he is looking to lay down a marker for when the latter man someday steps aside. Capitol Hill reporters have generally viewed Clyburn’s candidacy as a foregone conclusion, after he made clear he wanted to remain in leadership despite vacating his old position alongside Pelosi and Hoyer.

Heather Caygle, managing editor of the Beltway news outlet Punchbowl News, called Cicilline’s candidacy “very unexpected” in a tweet, but added: “That being said, there has been grumbling in caucus about Clyburn not stepping aside when Pelosi/Hoyer did.”

Earlier this month a Cicilline aide had declined to comment when asked by 12 News whether he would seek a leadership position in the wake of this month’s election. He was previously a junior member of leadership as chairman of the policy and communications committee, but then lost to Clark two years ago when he ran for assistant speaker.

On Wednesday, Cicilline suggested his candidacy should be no surprise, saying he had told colleagues after losing to Clark that he would run for the same job again once she was promoted to a higher position.

Cicilline’s profile has risen despite his exit from leadership after he drafted the impeachment articles against then-President Donald Trump over the Jan. 6 riot. He went on to serve as an impeachment manager in Trump’s Senate trial. He spent the last two years focused on his work in the Judiciary Committee, including a high-profile effort to pass new antitrust legislation targeting Big Tech and the current push to enact a federal law codifying same-sex marriage.

Clyburn had been the most senior Black member of House Democratic leadership before Jeffries was tapped to succeed Pelosi, and he has the support of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus in a contest against Cicilline. Clyburn is also close to President Biden, having played an instrumental role in reviving Biden’s White House candidacy by endorsing him just before the South Carolina primary in 2020.

Mississippi Congressman Bernie Thompson, one of the Black Caucus’s senior members, suggested the Rhode Islander should rethink his plans, telling Politico: “I would think upon further deliberation, it’s still not too late for Congressman Cicillline to withdraw.”

However, NBC News reported some younger Democrats are backing Cicilline. One of his supporters told the news outlet, “I think it’s pretty ridiculous that Nancy had to leave. … She was the most effective leader in history, and I’m not sure why he [Clyburn] didn’t have to leave with her.”

In his letter to colleagues, Cicilline emphasized his status as one of the most prominent gay leaders in the House, recalling that he was initially spurred to run for leadership in 2016 after the Pulse nightclub shooting, and saying he felt the same pull after the recent mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Colorado Springs.

“I think it is critical that the House Democratic Leadership team fully reflect the diversity of our caucus and the American people by including an LGBTQ+ member at the leadership table,” Cicilline wrote.

Cicilline isn’t the only Rhode Islander currently tangling with a more senior Democrat as lawmakers jockey for position post-election.

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse has drawn the ire of his Illinois colleague Dick Durbin for once again trying to block Durbin from simultaneously serving in Senate Democrats’ No. 2 job and as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Whitehouse covets the latter position, and is among the more junior Democrats frustrated by senior senators’ hoarding of key positions.

Durbin chastised Whitehouse for the proposal in a remark to Politico, arguing the change would also diminish the influence of Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow.

“He did this two years ago to me. Now he’s put Amy and Debbie in the boat with me,” Durbin said of Whitehouse. “He does very well for himself. And yet he continues this campaign.”

Senate Democrats are slated to vote on Whitehouse’s proposal Thursday. Whitehouse has separately indicated he hopes to succeed Bernie Sanders as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee in the new Congress.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook