WASHINGTON — It took Hakeem Jeffries three tries to win his first election to the New York State Assembly, but it took him only three terms as a member of Congress to begin his climb up the ladder to become House Democratic leader.
In a unanimous vote Wednesday, House Democrats elected Jeffries, 52, to their top post, putting him at the head of a new leadership team that in January will replace House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 82, and the team she has led for the past two decades.
“I am a legislator.” That’s what Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf recalled Jeffries told him when he turned down his plea to run for New York City comptroller.
Jeffries also rebuffed calls to run for New York mayor and other public offices.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, of Brooklyn, the new House Democratic leader, will step into a brighter and harsher spotlight as one of the top four leaders in Congress.
- Jeffries will be watched closely as the first Black House Democratic leader, as he and his leadership team face a Republican majority promising to reverse the Biden administration's accomplishments.
- Jeffries said he hoped to “find common ground" with the GOP. Already, however, Republicans have begun launching attacks on Jeffries.
“Now he’s at the pinnacle of being a legislator,” Sheinkopf told Newsday. “So, what will that mean? We're going to find out fast.”
Next year, Jeffries will find himself in a similar political alignment as the one he encountered when he first came to Washington in 2013: a Democrat in the White House and a Congress split between a Democratic Senate and Republican House.
A harsher spotlight
This time, though, as House Democratic leader, Jeffries will step into a brighter and harsher spotlight as one of the top four leaders in Congress and as partner of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
He will be watched closely as the first Black Democratic leader of the House, with a top team that includes a white woman and a Latino but no white men, as they face a Republican majority promising to investigate the Biden administration and reverse its accomplishments.
In his first interview since becoming House Democratic leader, on Thursday on the Rev. Al Sharpton's radio show, Jeffries said he hoped for bipartisan progress with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), if McCarthy gets the votes to be House speaker.
Jeffries said he hoped “that we can find common ground to get things done and make a difference for everyday Americans. That's ultimately why we are sent to Washington, not to be Democrats or Republicans primarily.”
Already, however, Republicans have begun launching attacks on Jeffries, who also has a sharp tongue in his attacks on former President Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans.
On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in his Senate floor speech criticized Jeffries as an “election denier” who called the 2016 election “illegitimate” and who says U.S. Supreme Court justices he does not like have “zero legitimacy.”
Schumer said his fellow Brooklynite will be able to handle it.
“When you're from Brooklyn, you quickly learn traits like persistence, serious mettle,” Schumer told Newsday. “You've got to learn how to work with all different kinds of people. You learn how to stand your ground. You learn how not to take things too seriously.”
The oldest of two sons of a social worker and a state substance-abuse counselor, Jeffries was born in Brooklyn and went to public school in Crown Heights. He still lives in Brooklyn, in Prospect Heights, with his wife and two children.
Jeffries earned degrees from State University of New York at Binghamton, Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy and New York University Law School. He clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baer Jr. in Manhattan.
From 1998 to 2004 he worked at the well-known New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, and for the next two years as a litigator for Viacom and CBS.
But during that time, he set his eyes on a career in politics.
In 2000, he ran and lost his first race for state Assembly. He tried again unsuccessfully in 2002. In 2006, when the incumbent ran for Congress, Jeffries won and served three terms.
In 2012, after longtime Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns retired, Jeffries ran for his seat in the U.S. House and won.
Steve Israel, a former Long Island congressman who chaired the House Democrats’ campaign committee, recalled that he immediately saw Jeffries as a “future star” and tapped him as one of his committee’s fundraisers.
“Some new members come to Congress demanding help for their own reelections. Hakeem came asking if he could be helpful to his colleague’s reelection,” said Israel, director of Cornell University’s Institute of Politics and Global Affairs.
In the House, Jeffries quickly earned a reputation as someone to watch.
“He's one of those guys who is not flamboyant. He's not a headline seeker,” former Republican Rep. Peter King of Seaford told Newsday. “And yet, from his first term down there, people were saying, ‘This guy could be the next speaker.’”
Said Sheinkopf: “He is a legislator who believes in the process, and he has a strong sense of right and wrong. He also has a strong sense of wanting to get things done. He's a very serious guy.”
Jeffries won seats on two significant House committees — Judiciary and Budget — and has become a strong fundraiser, particularly among pro-Israel political action committees, according to the nonpartisan political money-tracker Open Secrets.
His biggest legislative achievement was the sweeping criminal justice reform bill called the First Step Act, which passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump.
Jeffries faces a tough job, say current and former lawmakers and political strategists, with Pelosi a hard act to follow.
But he’ll be working with the battle-tested Schumer.
“We’ve had a longtime friendship. We've worked on many different issues. I think we'll be able to work very closely together,” Schumer said of Jeffries.
Political strategist Jim Manley, who worked for the late Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said Jeffries and Schumer will “be working mostly together to try and defeat every bad idea that House Republicans can come up with. So, they're playing defense.”
Republicans say they plan to launch investigations into the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden, the president’s son and the Jan. 6 Committee.
Republicans threaten to remove Democrats they deem too radical from committees, and have indicated they plan to seek cuts to social programs in return for voting to raise the federal debt limit.
“Kevin McCarthy is engaging, it appears, in efforts to appease the far right extremists in his conference,” Jeffries told Sharpton.
Pushback from the left
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who said he is seriously considering making a run to lead the Republican National Committee, said the left could be Jeffries’ biggest problem.
“He's going to have to navigate some really rough waters,” Zeldin said.
Israel said any leader's biggest challenge is keeping diverse, disparate elements of the party unified.
Jeffries calls himself a progressive but is widely seen as a moderate Democrat. Activists on the left have attacked Jeffries and Schumer for being too moderate and campaigning against left-leaning candidates.
“The only good thing about Jeffries stepping up as House leader is that his office is about a mile from Schumer’s house in Brooklyn, and, at the very least, this is convenient for us protest-wise,” tweeted Ezra Levin and Leah Greenberg of Indivisible, a nonprofit progressive group.
In his interview with Sharpton, Jeffries set his own bar for success — the ability to win back control of the House in 2024 to continue the “march toward a more perfect union.”
“Part of the measuring stick will be: How hard did you work? How able did you perform? How much integrity did you bring to the job?” Jeffries said. “And hopefully at the end of the day, for as long as I'm privileged to serve in this position, those results will speak for themselves.”