Hakeem Jeffries makes history as House minority leader
First Black Democratic leader succeeds first woman speaker
When Hakeem Jeffries stepped to the rostrum of the U.S. Congress to nominate Nancy Pelosi as speaker in 2019, he shook the chamber with a rousing speech capped off by a startling reference to rap lyrics from Naughty by Nature.
“Let me be clear,” he shouted to laughter, cheers and applause, “House Democrats are down with NDP — Nancy D’Alesandro Pelosi, the once and future speaker of the United States House of Representatives!”
The generational shift implied in that citation was completed last month with the unanimous election of Jeffries as House minority leader, a potential speaker-in-waiting who would be second in line to succeed to the presidency.
The first Black leader of the in the House of Representatives will be joined by a set of equally young colleagues to take over leadership roles when they are sworn in next month to head up the opposition party in the 118th Congress.
Jeffries, 52, succeeds octogenarian House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the party leader after the long-time California legislator relinquished her role in the wake of Republicans narrowly winning the House majority in the November elections.
The Brooklyn born-and-bred native became part of a complete passing of the leadership torch to a younger generation as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, both in their 80s, stepped aside to make way for the election of Rep. Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts as whip and Rep. Peter Aguilar, 43, of California as chairman of the party caucus.
During the Nov. 30 election-by-acclamation in an ornate House hearing room, Jeffries supporter Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama led a call-and-response chant for the chamber’s new party leader, using a Biggie Smalls lyric famously quoted by Jeffries during former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, according to The Washington Post.
“If you don’t know,” Sewell shouted out, “Now you know,” the House chorus called back.
Emerging from the caucus meeting, an emotional Jeffries acknowledged those who paved the way for his landmark election as the first African American party leader on Capitol Hill from either chamber.
“I stand on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm and others,” he said, referencing the former Brooklyn representative, the first Black woman elected to Congress, whose seat he now holds.
Jeffries, known as a consensus-builder, takes over the Democratic caucus in the House amid continuing tension between the activist left and more moderate members. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a liberal firebrand who defeated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley, then the Democratic Caucus chair, in an insurgent 2018 primary campaign, said the uncontested election was a missed opportunity to discuss how the party should move forward, according to news reports.
“This is the most significant generational change that we have seen in House Democrats in several decades,” said the Queens congresswoman. “I personally believe that we would benefit from a debate on what that means.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who is close to Ocasio-Cortez, lauded the election of both Jeffries and Clark to leadership posts, citing their work together across a broad range of issues.
“Congressman Jeffries and I have partnered on many priorities as members of the Congressional Black Caucus and have pressed for much-needed clemency reform and parity investments in public transit that matter deeply,” she said. “To have a Black man serving in this role at this critical juncture in history is historic.”
Clark, who has risen from Melrose state representative to number two in the U.S. House caucus in little more than 10 years, said she was honored by the elevation to whip, in charge of counting votes and holding the party together. “It is deeply humbling and honoring,” she told The Boston Globe. “I am looking forward to working with the caucus and the incredible team.”
Pressley said, “Congresswoman Clark and I have worked together for over a decade on everything from education for our babies to the rights of survivors, and her service and sisterhood have been a blessing in Congress.”
The shift in the House came just a few weeks before another landmark election — the victory by U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock over former Georgia football star Herschel Walker in the Dec. 6 runoff that saw the incumbent retain a seat for the narrow Democratic majority in the upper chamber. The brutal clash of the Atlanta minister and the scandal-plagued gridiron standout marked the first time two Black candidates faced each other as major party nominees in a Senate final election.
On the House side, Jeffries will be up against a GOP caucus riven by extremist rhetoric and where current party leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California faces intense pressure from figures like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who just last weekend said the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol would have gone differently had she been in charge.
McCarthy faces a fight to win the speakership in his party and if successful, will be challenged by the fact that he can afford to lose only five members for Republicans to prevail on floor votes.
Jeffries, a lawyer who grew up in the working-class home of a social worker and a substance-abuse counselor, has arguably the easier job. Pelosi’s passing of the gavel — something she may not have done had Democrats kept the majority — gives Jeffries an opportunity to learn the leadership role without the pressure of running the entire House.
The former state assemblyman and high-powered litigator won election to the U.S. House in 2012 from New York’s 8th Congressional District, which runs from Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn to Howard Beach in Queens.
Dubbed the “Barack Obama of Brooklyn” for his calm demeanor and good looks, Jeffries rose to chair the House Democratic Caucus on the strength of his ability to work with various party factions as well as across the aisle.
Raised in Crown Heights and married with two children, he graduated from Binghamton University, Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and New York University School of Law.