House Democrats tapped Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (DN.Y.) on Wednesday to lead them in the next Congress.
The historic selection of Jeffries as the incoming minority leader means he will replace Rep. James E. Clyburn (DS.C.) in January as the highest-ranking African American in the House and become the first Black lawmaker to lead either party in the chamber.
Jeffries will be joined in the top tier of Democratic leadership by Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts as minority whip and California’s Rep. Pete Aguilar of Redlands as House Democratic Caucus chair. Another Californian, Rep. Ted Lieu of Torrance, won a contested race for caucus vice chair.
Democrats say their new leadership team is reflective of America’s diversity.
Clark will become the second woman in congressional history to serve as whip, which will require her to have a grip on where members stand on legislative issues and, when needed, to pressure them to toe the party line.
Aguilar will follow former Reps. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and Robert Menendez of New Jersey to become the third Latino member to chair the Democratic Caucus. Becerra is now secretary of Health and Human Services, and Menendez is a senator.
In his new post, Aguilar will lead caucus meetings and hold weekly news conferences. The position is limited to two consecutive terms, but Aguilar would be poised to become majority whip if Democrats take back the House in 2024.
The incoming group of Democratic leaders will succeed the party’s longtime leadership trio of Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, and Clyburn, the majority whip.
That group of octogenarians will continue their service into the next Congress, though only Clyburn wants to remain in leadership. But he’s facing an eleventh-hour challenge for the post of assistant Democratic leader from Rhode Island’s Rep. David Cicilline, who announced a surprise bid on Wednesday. The caucus is expected to vote on that position Thursday.
Cicilline, a gay member who chairs the LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus, told reporters Wednesday that the recent shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado reminded him of the importance of representation, echoing what he wrote in his letter to colleagues asking for their support.
On Tuesday night, the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee voted unanimously to grant Pelosi the honorific title of speaker emeritus.
The Brooklyn-born Jeffries, 52, was a lawyer before serving six years in the New York State Assembly, which he left at the end of 2012 after winning a congressional seat.
He entered House Democratic leadership in 2017 as a co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which works on caucus messaging.
He ascended to caucus chairman in 2019, serving two terms in a higher tier of leadership, leading caucus meetings and hosting weekly news conferences alongside Aguilar, his deputy.
In a nominating speech Wednesday, Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro) said Jeffries, the son of two social workers, “was literally born into a life of public service,” and that he would pursue “progressive policies that will move us forward.”
While he is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jeffries separated himself from the “hard-left” faction of his party in an interview with the Atlantic last year.
Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told reporters Wednesday that she met with Jeffries and supports his leadership.
“I wanted to make sure that that relationship is clear from the very beginning: that progressives are here to help govern, to push for the best ideas — and I was really encouraged by what I heard,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a really good relationship.”
An advocate of social and economic justice, Jeffries notched a top legislative achievement with the bipartisan First Step Act, criminal justice reform legislation signed into law by then-President Trump. He also served as one of the House prosecutors in the first impeachment of Trump.
Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar will lead House Democrats with the outgoing leadership team’s blessing and no individual challengers. But members say they collectively face the challenge of having to succeed the historic leadership of Pelosi and her team.
“She made a razor-thin majority look easy, but it’s not easy,” said Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park), who called Pelosi “irreplaceable” — a descriptor seconded by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank).
“People will begin to see what a miracle worker she’s been, how difficult that job is, how it requires an encyclopedic knowledge of everyone’s wants, needs — what they really want and what they really need,” Schiff said.
An early test of Jeffries’ leadership could come in his appointment of a new chair of House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Res. Tony Cárdenas (D-Pacoima) and Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) were running for the post, but the caucus supported a rules change Wednesday to make the position appointed rather than elected.
The change risks tying the success — or failure — of the campaign committee’s chief to the Democratic leader, instead of holding the entire caucus accountable for the member it elected to help win congressional seats.
But supporters of the proposal contend that it makes the campaign arm stronger by ensuring that the Democratic leader can appoint someone who can focus solely on the next election without worrying about their own race. That was an issue for the last two chairs: outgoing Reps. Sean Patrick Maloney (DN.Y.), who lost his reelection, and Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who is retiring.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) acknowledged that Jeffries has big shoes to fill, noting Pelosi’s outsized role in candidate recruitment, fundraising and helping the party.
“People will be open to giving him a real chance to lead and unify the caucus,” Khanna said. “It’s going to be quickly apparent, though, how much Nancy Pelosi did for this caucus and how difficult that job is going to be.”
Jeffries’ supporters believe he’s up to the task. Retiring Rep. GK Butterfield (DN.C.), a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he has known Jeffries since the New Yorker’s first day in Congress.
Butterfield predicted Jeffries “will go down in history as one of the greatest Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives.”
“He is a man of impeccable character,” Butterfield said. “He is exemplary. He also adds to that a set of political skills that are unmatched. He has the ability to sit in boardrooms and to sit in high-level political discussions and to contribute immeasurably. And he also has the ability to relate to the average American, those who are back at home in our districts who work every day in hardworking positions in their communities. He has a broad array of talents.”
Jeffries’ launch as leader may prove a little easier with Democrats in the minority, no longer controlling the legislative agenda.
Joined by Clark and Aguilar in an introductory news conference, Jeffries told reporters Wednesday that the incoming Democratic minority was looking forward “to finding opportunities to partner with the other side of the aisle and work with them whenever possible. But we will also push back against extremism whenever necessary.”
“Our commitment is always to extend the hand of partnership whenever and wherever possible in order to get things done for everyday Americans,” he continued. “We hope that our colleagues on the other side of the aisle, as they temporarily inherit the majority in the next Congress, are willing to proceed with that same spirit of cooperation, fortitude and mission-centered focus to get things done for everyday Americans. ”
Asked how the new leadership team will handle any policy differences between moderates and progressives, Jeffries stressed that he, Clark and Aguilar share the joint belief that “everybody matters.”
“That’s what makes the House Democratic Caucus the most authentic representatives of the American people,” he said. “Sometimes we can have noisy conversations, but as we showed time and time again on issue after issue after issue, at the end of the day we always come together, find the highest common denominator and get big things done for everyday Americans.”