Hakeem Jeffries pulled off a quiet revolution on Wednesday, becoming the first leader of the House Democrats to be born after the end of World War II and the first black leader in either chamber of Congress, in what will likely be the first of many major changes coming for his rapidly evolving party.
The New York congressman succeeds Nancy Pelosi, the outgoing speaker who’s 30 years older than him and has been leading House Democrats since George W. Bush’s first term. Jeffries plans on spending just two years in the minority before trying to become speaker himself after the 2024 elections.
That’s how he sees his mission: continuing a yearslong effort to portray Republicans as extremists – on the differences between the two parties, he said on Tuesday evening, “I’d much rather be a coalition than a cult” – and position his party to take back the House majority in the 2024 elections.
Republicans’ threats to demand legislative concessions for raising the debt ceiling, Jeffries said, represent exactly the kind of fight he dares them to have.
“Particularly given their historic underperformance in the midterm elections, what lesson would a reasonable person draw from that to double and triple down on their extremism,” Jeffries asked. “It’s an incredible thing that they’re even contemplating going down this road. But if that’s a fight they want to have with respect to holding the American economy hostage to the debt ceiling, that is a fight that we are prepared to lean into aggressively – and we will win.”
As California Rep. Kevin McCarthy scrambles to secure enough votes to make him speaker of the House with the incoming Republican majority, Jeffries has spent the past two years quietly cultivating relationships with colleagues, checking in – by phone, or on the sidelines of congressional baseball practices, or during mostly under-the-radar campaign stops back in their districts.
“People know he’s someone who’s able to bridge whatever ideological gaps there are within the Democratic caucus and work with people in a very respectful, genuine way,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, who counts himself as a Jeffries friend and avid supporter of his leadership ambitions.
Boyle also pointed to Jeffries being unanimously elected in conjunction with two deputies, Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Rep. Pete Aguilar of California. The three have connections across the caucus but have also been working for years as a closely coordinated unit, unlike the rivalries, full of simmering tensions, which helped define Pelosi’s core team or other situations in which leadership positions are filled by runners-up.
“It is Democrats in total array, total unity,” Boyle said. “It makes life so much easier for those of us in the caucus.”
Few of the people electing Jeffries are able to pin down an easy sense of exactly where he stands amid Democrats’ evolving ideological divides. Asked on Tuesday night to name a specific legislative priority for the caucus he’d like to put his stamp on, Jeffries talked broadly about “how to keep the American Dream alive for people all across the land,” adding that the combination of globalization, outsourcing, bad trade deals, declines in union membership and automation have created a “tsunami” that’s hit the middle class.
As for his own ideology, Jeffries said the answer is simple: He’s a “Black progressive Democrat” but also one who’ll stand up to the activist left, especially when he sees them as demanding deference.
When some threatened to run a primary against him from the left after he beat California Rep. Barbra Lee for a leadership spot in 2018, he responded mostly by gooding them to try. When they’ve called him too moderate, he’s pointed to his support of legislation that achieves big goals without what he feels is checking boxes – backing major climate change legislation, for example, while refusing to sign on to the Green New Deal.
But as Jeffries’ ascension actually arrived, the criticism mutated. Asked after Pelosi’s announcement, fellow New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it as a “sea change for American politics that will have profound ramifications.” Asked by reporters to name what she and allies on the left would be demanding of the new leader, she said the “core principles are the same” and cited only pushing for “greater independence from large and corporate donors” to increase faith in politics and Congress.
“His heart is progressive, but his style is moderate,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, who’s known and worked with Jeffries for over 20 years in New York, “which means he can talk to both sides.”
Jeffries’ rise to the top spot comes after a relatively short time in Washington. First elected to the House in 2012, he very quickly began working himself into party leadership, as more senior members gave up waiting Pelosi out and left their seats for other jobs. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland ran for and won a seat in the US Senate. Xavier Becerra was appointed California attorney general and is now secretary of Health and Human Services.
Jeffries’ move to Washington had surprised many in New York politics. The young state assemblyman had preliminary conversations about running for New York City mayor in 2013 but pulled the plug before those went far, instead waiting out for a House seat that had been held by a fixture of local politics for 30 years. To get there, he easily won a primary against a pugilistic former Black Panther then serving as a city councilman.
Observers quickly started seeing big things for him. The late former New York City Mayor Ed Koch told The Washington Post during the first House campaign in 2012 that Jeffries was like Barack Obama because “they’re both African-American, they’re both strikingly handsome, and they’re both highly intelligent,” adding, “Both of them have wonderful smiles.”
Rather than going into community organizing, Jeffries headed to one of New York’s premier white shoe law firms – and close observers say the measured approach he learned there, even while doing some work on the side toward criminal justice reform, still defines him as much as growing up in the Black Baptist church and amid the crack epidemic ravaging Brooklyn when he was a teenager in the ’80s.
Even talking about being a kid in Brooklyn gets refracted through the training of a corporate lawyer with degrees from Georgetown and New York University law school.
“A substantial part of my upbringing related to my coming of age in the midst of the golden era of hip-hop music,” he said in a 2021 interview, explaining how he decided to hold his annual Hip Hop on the Hill event, which has a decidedly different stamp on it than Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson’s annual event featuring catfish from the Delta or fellow New York members’ deli platter receptions.
Jeffries’ approach, he has said, is to “try not to make news when you are not trying to make news.” Jeffries recalled in that 2021 interview a chastening lesson from 2019, just weeks into his first role in Democratic leadership, when he referred to then-President Donald Trump as “the grand wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event at the headquarters of Sharpton’s National Action Network in Harlem.
Jeffries didn’t apologize. He’s said since that the remark “happens to be true” and “was subsequently clear based on a whole series of events.” But the moment still stuck with him: He’d been using the line at events in his own district without getting noticed, but this time he caused a national story that many of his colleagues had to answer for.
The result is a public presence that can come off as carefully thought out in advance – because it often is – with often alliterated zingers prepared for news conferences, and long deliberate pauses in interviews.
Getting his members to agree with what he says, Jeffries said on Tuesday, will be the easy part, at least for now.
“There’s nothing more unifying than being in the minority,” he said, “and having a clear-eyed objective and goal of getting back into the majority.”