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As Nancy Pelosi bows out, get ready for the era of Hakeem Jeffries

The pugnacious Democrat from Brooklyn is unafraid to pick a fight – either with Republicans or progressives

Eric Garcia
Wednesday 23 November 2022 01:17 GMT
Hakeem Jeffries is favourite to lead Democrats in the House from January
Hakeem Jeffries is favourite to lead Democrats in the House from January (Getty Images)

The Pelosi era is coming to a close, and it appears that the era of Hakeem Jeffries is nigh.

In many ways, the New York Democrat signifies a change in posturing within the Democratic Party. While Ms Pelosi often seemed reluctant to confront the Republican Party – though did so when she felt no other options were available – Mr Jeffries seems to have no such scruples. During the last administration, he called Donald Trump the “Grand Wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” a reference to the Ku Klux Klan rank. In addition, he was part of a coterie of younger House Democrats that Representative Ruben Gallego said tried to form a defensive position on the House floor during the insurrection.

And earlier this year, we at Inside Washington hosted Mr Jeffries for a one-year retrospective on President Joe Biden’s first term in office, with the expectation he might take Ms Pelosi’s place. In addition, in November, after Democrats stripped Representative Paul Gosar of his committees after he posted a cartoon of himself killing a character with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s head, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy threatened to strip him of committees.

In response, your dispatcher asked him what he thought about the likely future speaker’s threat to remove him from committees. His answer: “Kevin Who?”

That could turn out to be a telling preview if Mr McCarthy gets the gavel and Mr Jeffries becomes Minority Leader in January. And that approach to messaging could help him – since unlike the Senate, the minority party doesn’t have many tools besides rhetoric with which to slow the majority down.

Mr Jeffries frequently wears sneakers with his suits. He is just as comfortable quoting the Notorious BIG, with whom he shares a homeland in Brooklyn, as he is quoting the Bible  – both of which he cited during his time as an impeachment manager for Donald Trump’s first trial.

The current chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Mr Jeffries has long been seen as the heir to Democratic leadership. When Ms Pelosi announced her decision to step aside as Democratic leader and her teammates including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn stepped aside as well, Mr Jeffries’s ascent seemed to be a foregone conclusion. The House Democratic caucus is expected to vote on Ms Pelosi’s successor next month.

“I’m a supporter of Hakeem,” Representative Elissa Slotkin, a relatively moderate Democrat from Michigan who won a tough re-election in this most recent cycle. “And if he’s running, which I assume he is, then he has my vote.” Unsurprisingly, he also won the backing of fellow New Yorker Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hakeem Jeffries quotes Notorious B.I.G. during impeachment trial

But a more surprising backer is Representative Jamaal Bowman of New York, a member of the Squad. In 2020, Mr Bowman memorably primaried and unseated veteran Democrat Eliot Engel, Mr Meeks’s predecessor as Foreign Affairs chairman, despite the fact that Mr Jeffries and much of the New York Democratic establishment had endorsed the incumbent.

In truth, despite being a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Mr Jeffries seems to enjoy punching left as much as he enjoys picking fights with Republicans. That might come back to hurt him when it comes to whipping votes, whether as minority leader or eventually as speaker. Ms Pelosi, for her part, was a member of the progressive caucus, but resigned her role when she joined leadership. While members of the caucus and the Squad clashed with her, they also had a healthy respect for her.

Your dispatcher first encountered Mr Jeffries in 2016, when he joined other members of the Congressional Black Caucus’s political action committee at an event to endorse Hillary Clinton. During the proceedings, his criticism of Bernie Sanders was fairly harsh, saying that when it came to gun safety, the Democratic Socialist “has not just been missing in action, he’s been on the wrong side”. (In a sign of how Mr Sanders failed early to connect with Black voters despite his participation in the legendary March on Washington, the late John Lewis had only this to say: “I never saw him, I never met him.”)

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries outlines the three elements of Trump's obstruction of justice

Since then, Mr Jeffries has seemed to relish taking on progressives, vocally supporting William Lacy Clay in Missouri before Cori Bush beat him in their primary fight. For their part, progressives accuse him of being too close to the financial industry; indeed, the Securities and Investment was the top industry to donate to him this election cycle. He also angered some progressives when he scuttled Representative Barbara Lee’s bid to lead the caucus in 2018 by noting how Ms Lee had donated to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. It was the progressive phenom’s defeat of Joe Crowley that opened the chairmanship up in the first place, and left-wing Democrats hoped to knock Mr Jeffries off with a more progressive challenger.

Nancy Pelosi: The best moments as speaker of the House

That, of course, didn’t happen. But Ms Ocasio-Cortez did hint what she expected to see out of a future Democratic leader on Thursday when your dispatcher asked her.

“I think overall, core principles are the same,” she said. “I of course want to see our party move to greater independence from large corporate donors. I would like to see a greater shift toward everyday, small-dollar, diverse sources of funding.”

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