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Hakeem Jeffries’s ascent to Democratic leader, explained

Jeffries is known for bringing different groups together, though he’s also clashed with some progressives along the way.

Democratic Caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries arrives to hold a news conference at the US Capitol on November 15.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

To get a sense of how Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) will approach the job of House minority leader, look no further than his work on the 2018 First Step Act, his supporters say.

Jeffries was a lead House sponsor of that bill, the most significant criminal justice reform to pass Congress in years. To get it done, he collaborated with a wide spectrum of Democrats, the Trump administration, and Republican co-sponsor Rep. Doug Collins. Jeffries’s willingness to work with all of these groups and weigh their input ensured the measure ultimately came to fruition, according to other House members.

“He was able to negotiate first within the party itself,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), a co-sponsor of the bill and a Jeffries ally, told Vox. “And then was able to work out a deal with the Republicans.”

Whether Jeffries, 52, is able to establish that same consensus within a divided Democratic caucus could well determine just how successful he is in his new role.

The New York representative, a member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) and the Congressional Black Caucus, made history this week, becoming the first Black party leader elected in the House. In the new term, Jeffries will serve as minority leader alongside Rep. Katherine Clark (MA), the new minority whip, and Rep. Pete Aguilar (CA), the new Democratic Caucus chair.

Collectively, the three represent a massive generational shift in House Democratic leadership, and each could play a major role in changing the caucus, particularly the processes for developing legislation and setting policy priorities.

Jeffries’s ascent has been marked by the ability to bring together disparate groups, according to his supporters, though that hasn’t always included his party’s left flank. In this new job, he’s said he’ll work to be inclusive of ideologically diverse members in his own caucus, and seek to unify Democrats as they navigate their role in the minority.

“Everybody matters,” Jeffries said in remarks after his election on Wednesday. “Progressives, New Dems, Blue Dogs … whether you’re from the North, the South, the East, the West, the heartland of America, whether you’re in the center, center left, more progressive parts of our caucus, everybody matters.”

Jeffries’s ascent to Democratic leader, briefly explained

In mid-November, Jeffries officially launched his bid for minority leader after serving in Democratic House leadership for the last six years.

Jeffries’s run follows his reelection to Congress for a sixth term in a safe Democratic seat, and comes after he was long rumored as the favorite for the role. As the representative from New York’s Eighth Congressional District (which includes parts of Brooklyn and Queens), Jeffries has established a broad base of support rooted in his even-handed approach to leadership, policy, and messaging.

“His approach to leadership is always the same: very even, patient, smart focus on the substance and discipline on message,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), a co-chair of the Problem Solvers Caucus and a Jeffries ally.

Since joining Congress, Jeffries has grown his ties in the House. In addition to being a member of several powerful caucuses, he sits on both the Judiciary and Budget committees, on which he’s worked on criminal justice reforms and music licensing.

Jeffries has also strengthened these connections as Democratic Caucus chair and as a past co-lead of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, a role that involved working with many members and developing the party’s “For the People” policy agenda, which Democrats ran on in 2018. In 2020, Jeffries further raised his national profile while acting as an impeachment manager during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

Across these roles, House Democrats describe Jeffries as a deeply analytical leader who is focused on fact-based arguments, adding a level approach to discussions that could otherwise be polarizing. “He was able to calm people down and make sure the temperature was lowered,” Meeks said of Jeffries’s work on the First Step Act.

Jeffries brings experience in state legislature and as a corporate attorney to the role as well. Before his election to Congress, Jeffries served in the New York Assembly beginning in 2007, where he focused on bills that combated gerrymandering and racially discriminatory policing practices, Business Insider reports. And before that, he worked for seven years as a corporate attorney at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison LLP, and spent two years as a litigation attorney for CBS and Viacom.

On several of the bills he’s worked on, his allies say Jeffries was known for soliciting input from a range of parties involved and managed to keep everyone on board.

“We had this comprehensive strategy to engage everyone that wanted to listen,” said former Jeffries communications director Michael Hardaway of the process for developing the First Step Act, which reduced sentences for certain federal inmates. “He made an effort to sit down with the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Problem Solvers, and the progressives, and he just had listening sessions with tons of members.”

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), who worked alongside Jeffries in leadership, said they took a similar approach in crafting the “For the People” agenda, which included policies like lowering prescription drug costs and childcare subsidies. “I think virtually every single member of the Democratic caucus participated in either a meeting or listening session with [Rep.] Cheri [Bustos], Hakeem, and me,” he told Vox.

Jeffries’s willingness to have these open discussions has been central to his work with Democrats and across the aisle, say his allies. “He’s someone who’s not overly defined by ideology. He is so effective because he can speak to anyone regardless of where they are and listen to them,” said retiring Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY), a longtime Jeffries supporter.

This approach has led many Democratic members to believe that Jeffries could help decentralize how the party develops legislation and make it less top-down than it currently is. “I expect that there’s going to be a lot more sharing of information, lots more in-caucus deliberation, lots more opportunities for members to participate in crafting the policy of our caucus and the strategy,” said Cicilline.

Jeffries will have to build trust on the left

While Jeffries identifies as a progressive and is a part of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, he has also made statements and taken steps that have harmed how some on the party’s left flank perceive him. To actually unite his entire caucus, Jeffries will need to do more to reach those — including some progressives — he’s been dismissive of before.

“I do think there has been a more strained relationship between Jeffries and the progressive wing of the party, which means he’s got some work to do,” said Ezra Levin, a co-founder of the progressive grassroots group Indivisible, citing “some of his investments in primaries, some of the statements he’s made about progressives in the past.”

Jeffries notably partnered with Reps. Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Gottheimer to start the Team Blue political action committee, which was dedicated to defending incumbents in blue districts and thwarting progressive challengers in primaries. Gottheimer has previously said that the group’s investments — several of which were successful — were intended to minimize intraparty fighting. The group worried divisive primaries could hurt candidates in the general election and ultimately harm Democratic efforts to protect their majority. Jeffries’s team has also said that protecting incumbents falls under the purview of someone who’s the head of the Democratic caucus.

Additionally, Jeffries has previously made statements that seemed disparaging of more left-leaning members.

“The extreme left is obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter, when the majority of the electorate constitute mainstream Democrats at the polls,” he told the New York Times in August 2021, when several establishment candidates had just defeated progressive challengers. “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism,” he told the Atlantic in a summer 2021 interview, arguing that there are important differences between his version of progressivism and that of some more left-leaning Democrats.

Some progressives — particularly those who support politicians relying on grassroots support in fundraising — have had a problem with the fact that Jeffries has been a top recipient of donations from the financial industry, taking in more than $1 million between 2019 and 2020. He’s not alone in doing so; according to OpenSecrets, multiple House and Senate Democrats received significant contributions from the financial sector this past cycle. As Alexander Sammon writes in the American Prospect, however, these donations, as well as policies that seem to go easier on Wall Street, have garnered scrutiny:

While Democrats were reconsidering their coziness with Wall Street, Jeffries broke ranks to vote with the financial services world, including on a high-profile measure literally written by Citigroup lobbyists in 2013 that killed the Dodd-Frank “swaps push-out” rule, allowing banks to engage in risky trades backed by a potential taxpayer-funded bailout.

Activists would also like to see Jeffries, who has supported Medicare-for-all but not the Green New Deal, be bolder on climate policy. “In theory, Democratic Party leadership wanting to pass the baton to a younger leader sounds great,” said John Paul Mejia, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a progressive group focused on climate action. “But Rep. Jeffries has not proven himself to be representative of our generation and has not proven himself to seriously address the crises that our generation faces.”

Levin said he was hopeful that Jeffries would approach leadership in a way that factored in the different ideological viewpoints in the caucus, as the lawmaker has promised to, and said he would be watching for the actions he took to do so. Examples Levin said would assuage his concerns included opening up lines of communication with progressives and organizers, as well as elevating progressives to key roles in the party.

“With Schumer, with Pelosi, with the Biden White House, the effective coalition holders have done all those things. There are regular lines of communication: progressive, centrists, all have a seat at the table,” he said.

Prominent progressive members, including Democratic Reps. Jamaal Bowman (NY) and Ilhan Omar (MN) have been public about their support for Jeffries, a signal of openness from the party’s left-leaning members. “What I would say about him is that he is open to engaging in a dialogue,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, a member of the CPC.

In a recent CNN interview, Jeffries appeared to emphasize a commitment to working with all Democrats as well.

“I have great respect for Rep. [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez and every single member of the House Democratic Caucus,” he told Jake Tapper. “The majesty of the House Democratic Caucus is that we are so incredibly diverse, in terms of race and gender and religion and sexual orientation, region, life experience, and even ideology from the left to progressives, New Dems, Blue Dogs, moderate and centrist Democrats, all points in between.”

Taking on Republicans is another big part of Jeffries’s job

In addition to keeping the caucus together, a big part of Jeffries’s role will be navigating a Republican majority and leading the Democratic response.

Jeffries indicated in his letter that he’d be open to working with Republicans when possible, while pushing back on them if that’s not tenable. “It is my hope that we can find common ground where possible with our Republican colleagues in order to deliver results for the American people,” Jeffries said in the letter, adding, “At the same time, the opposing party appears to have no plan to accomplish anything meaningful.”

Members believe Jeffries’s responses to Trump’s impeachment and the January 6, 2021, Capitol attack have been indicative of a willingness to confront Republicans and extremism within the party when that approach is called for. Ahead of the formation of a January 6 select committee, Jeffries gave a fiery floor speech decrying far-right conservatives’ adherence to the “big lie.”

“If the Republicans want to work together ... he’d be looking to do that,” said Meeks. “But when the Republicans are playing games and going on that MAGA agenda and just trying to do investigations after investigations, for no real reason other than their politics, he’ll be able to get on the floor of the House, he’ll be able to talk to the press.”

Some moderate Democrats have expressed optimism that there could still be places where the two parties could collaborate, with Gottheimer citing areas like immigration reform and energy policy. “We’re going to do all we can to move strong policy forward,” said Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA), the chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition.

Levin, however, was more circumspect. “Faced with that opposition, what you hope to have with a Democratic leader is someone who recognizes that threat, who is rallying the troops,” he said. “You’re looking for a fighter.”

Update, November 30, 1:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on November 23 and has been updated to include the results of the Democratic leadership election.

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