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Hakeem Jeffries, big tent Democrat tasked with bringing back the House

When Hakeem Jeffries was growing up in Crown Heights, a working-class neighbourhood in Brooklyn, his congresswoman was Shirley Chisholm, a New York politician who in 1968 became the first black woman elected to the US Congress. In 2012, Jeffries was elected to represent the same area.

This week — on what would have been Chisholm’s birthday — Jeffries made history of his own when he was unanimously elected as House Democratic leader. He becomes the first black person to lead a political party in Congress and the successor to Nancy Pelosi.

Speaking on Capitol Hill, Jeffries invoked the memory of his predecessor. “I stand on the shoulders of people like Shirley Chisholm and so many others as we work to advance the ball for everyday Americans,” he said. “Because that is what Democrats do.”

Pelosi, 82, enthusiastically endorsed him, saying “a new day [was] dawning” and it was time “for a new generation to lead the Democratic caucus”.

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On Capitol Hill, Jeffries, 52, has long been seen as a rising star and skilled communicator. But after Democrats narrowly lost control of the House last month, he faces a tough uphill battle to regain the chamber in 2024, and to keep his party united in the face of Republican opposition.

His colleagues nevertheless say the former litigator is up for the job. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate majority leader who is also from Brooklyn, praised Jeffries this week, noting their shared trajectory from modest New York upbringings to the halls of power.

“When you’re from Brooklyn, you learn quickly traits like persistence and serious mettle,” Schumer said. “It’s a crowded place and a diverse place. You learn how to work with all kinds of different people. You learn how to stand your ground. You learn to not take things personally.”

Jeffries was born in 1970, the child of a social worker and a substance abuse counsellor. He attended state schools before studying political science at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In his final year, the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King and the ensuing riots in Los Angeles inspired him to pursue politics.

Adrian Fenty, the former mayor of Washington DC who was roommates with Jeffries in graduate school, described him as having a “quiet intensity”, adding: “There wasn’t much that he wasn’t the best at.”

After law school, Jeffries joined one of New York’s top law firms before becoming an in-house litigator for Viacom and CBS. While there, he worked on a lawsuit stemming from Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. He married Kennisandra Arciniegas-Jeffries, who works for a major labour union, and they have two sons.

Following two unsuccessful attempts, he was elected to the New York state legislature in 2006. “He was just a very studious, intelligent, and nimble legislator, and he really stood out to be a natural leader,” said Grace Meng, the New York congresswoman who met Jeffries in Albany. In 2012, he made it to Congress, and six years after that, he was chosen to chair the House Democratic caucus, putting him on the fast track to leadership.

Jeffries was thrust into the national spotlight in 2020 when Pelosi named him as one of seven impeachment managers who acted as prosecutors in Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. During this, he notably invoked another Brooklynite — rapper Notorious B.I.G. “If you don’t know, now you know,” Jeffries responded to a Trump defence attorney asking, “why are we here?”

Colleagues commend Jeffries for his “big tent” approach to uniting an often fractious party, and point out he was unchallenged in his bid for leader as evidence of his collegiality. But he is not without his critics. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York congresswoman, reportedly considered supporting a progressive primary challenge against him. Other left-leaning Democrats paint him as part of the establishment, flagging that many of his campaign contributions came from Wall Street.

But Terri Sewell, the Democratic congresswoman from Alabama, called Jeffries a “pragmatic progressive” and said he had a “unique” ability to engage across the ideological spectrum.

“That is, I think, his genius,” Sewell said. “His ability to not only listen but really invite and provide a safe space for all of us to air our concerns or grievances, but at the same time coming out of it with a policy that we can all get behind.” 

With the Democrats in the minority, however, Jeffries will also need to contend with more obstructionist Republican lawmakers who have already vowed to block their priorities and launch a spate of investigations into the Biden administration.

Allies say Jeffries has a record of reaching across the political aisle, pointing to the friendship he forged with former Republican Georgia congressman Doug Collins in order to push through prison sentencing reform legislation. But he has been icier in his approach to Kevin McCarthy, the Republican who is likely to become Speaker of the House.

However, top of Jeffries’ new to do list will not be bipartisanship, but defeating Republicans at the ballot box in 2024. “His challenge is getting to 218,” said Gregory Meeks, the Democratic congressman from New York, referring to the number of House seats required to clinch the majority. “His strengths are what will help lead us that way.”

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