February 5, 2023

Brooklyn’s Rep. Hakeem Jeffries expected to make history leading House Democrats

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a son of Brooklyn, is expected to be elected Wednesday as the leader of the House Democrats, less than a decade after the former state lawmaker first arrived on Capitol Hill.

The meteoric rise of the hip-hop-loving Jeffries has put him on the cusp of becoming the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in either chamber of Congress. And if the Democratic caucus chooses Jeffries as expected, it would concentrate immense political power in Brooklyn.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries

Jeffries, a 52-year-old product of city public schools, was raised in Crown Heights and now lives in Prospect Heights, less than a mile from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Park Slope Democrat.

“Brooklyn has been in the Senate,” Schumer told the Daily News two weeks ago. “And now Brooklyn is in the House.”

From left, Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, pose for a picture after a news conference on infrastructure at Pier One at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Monday, March 14, 2022, in New York.

A member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jeffries is still seen more as a disciplined bridge builder than a disrupter, and is viewed suspiciously by some activists. But his broad popularity within the caucus has been on the display during the run-up to the Wednesday vote.

No other Democrat challenged him in his bid to succeed Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the 82-year-old California Democrat who has led the party’s House caucus for two decades but plans to withdraw from her perch and become a backbencher.

Pelosi promptly endorsed Jeffries’ leadership bid after he announced it 12 days ago. It is not clear if Jeffries will be able to match Pelosi’s formidable fund-raising chops. But he appears to share her intense focus on party unity.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a moderate New Jersey Democrat, described Jeffries as pragmatic and patient, saying he takes a “big-tent approach to the party.”

“He really has good relationships with everyone in the caucus,” Gottheimer said in an interview. “He’s deep in the weeds on policy, but he also gets the politics. And I think that’s really what has helped him be so successful.”

Jeffries is not necessarily the sort of headline hunter or camera chaser that Washington can breed.

Rep. Grace Meng, a Queens Democrat who spent four years in the state Assembly with Jeffries before both were elected to the House in 2012, described one of her defining memories of him in Albany: watching him hanging back at a news conference.

“Later on that day, I asked him ‘Why didn’t you come up? You worked so hard on this issue,’” Meng recalled. “He told me that there were members who deserved to be in the spotlight more than him. In the world of politics, that’s not something you hear often.”

She attributed much of his swift rise to the prodding of other Democrats, saying that support swelled behind him within the caucus as members warmed to his style.

“There’s no drama when it comes to Hakeem,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the Democratic whip and highest-ranking Black lawmaker in the House. “Hakeem is just a straight-forward, solid thinker.”

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