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Hakeem Jeffries’s Test of a Lifetime: Filling Nancy Pelosi’s Shoes

I climbed out of the C train station on my way home and there, to my surprise, was Hakeem Jeffries, standing by a small folding card table. “Congress on your corner” read a banner. The image has stuck with me since that evening in 2014—not simply because it was canny retail politics, but because Jeffries was basically alone at the Brooklyn intersection, smiling and fielding any and all comments from constituents who included residents of desperately poor housing projects and of fabulously expensive brownstones. That moment is a pretty good metaphor for his rapid rise from New York state assemblyman to, as of Wednesday, the House Democratic minority leader and the successor to the legendary Nancy Pelosi.

Jeffries has long been a fascinating, somewhat contradictory mix of down-to-earth, crafty, independent, and unifying. But he’ll have immense shoes to fill. Pelosi, who served 20 years at the helm of the House Democratic caucus, was extraordinarily effective in bending House Democrats to her will by knowing when to reward and when to punish members. Does Jeffries have the ability to push similar buttons? 

There are plenty of talented, ambitious Democratic House members. But Jeffries is the one who has emerged to succeed Pelosi because he checks so many boxes at once. He’s an expert in the arcane congressional rules needed to pass or kill legislation. He’s able to translate complex concepts into language digestible by the general public—and an equally adept listener. He is 52 years old and Black at a time when his party’s leadership needs to become younger and less white. And Jeffries, during his 10 years in the House, has handled a series of increasingly high-profile assignments deftly, including serving as one of managers of the (first) impeachment case against President Donald Trump. There’s also the grubby reality that Jeffries, a charismatic presence particularly in small groups, should be a potent campaign fundraiser as Democrats seek to regain the majority in 2024. “He’ll do very well with the Democratic donor crowd—and for that matter, the Republican crowd too, at least personally,” says Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a powerful business group. “I can’t speak to those characters from California, but I actually think he’ll do better than Nancy Pelosi, by a long shot, with New York donors.”

“I’ve spent my entire adult life around the donor class,” a Washington Democratic operative says, “and they’re going to love him.”

Colleagues point to his role in crafting and passing a federal criminal justice reform bill in 2018, where Jeffries helped bridge gaps between the left and right when explaining why he’ll make an effective leader. “In the end, what separates him is the thing that all legislative leaders need, which is a combination of people who love you and people who fear you,” a top aide to one of the more liberal Democratic House members says. “In any snapshot of the 435, there are only a handful who can hold both of those things. And Hakeem will go to the mattresses for somebody when they really need it, even if he doesn’t have a tremendous amount of warmth in his heart for that person.” All of which is why, in a famously fractious body, Jeffries was elected minority leader by unanimous acclamation.

Which isn’t the same as universal love, however. The Democrats’ left wing has had its problems with Jeffries. Four years ago he elbowed past Barbara Lee, who was both more progressive and more senior, to win the chairmanship of the House Democratic Caucus. Last year Jeffries and Alabama congresswoman Terri Sewell formed the Team Blue PAC to help moderate incumbents beat back leftist primary challengers. “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,” Jeffries told The New York Times. In case anyone missed the point, Jeffries told The Atlantic, “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.” 

Republicans will certainly attack him, substituting racism for the sexism deployed against Pelosi. But they will have a hard time caricaturing Jeffries as a far-left radical lib. He was raised in Crown Heights, and knows well the history of racial tension in the neighborhood—an uncle, Leonard Jeffries, is a controversial former Afrocentrist professor. But Hakeem Jeffries, the son of a middle-class social worker and a substance abuse counselor, grew up to become a progressive institutionalist, someone who would try to change the system from the inside. He attended city public schools and the state university at Binghamton, then graduate school at Georgetown and law school at NYU, before being hired by one of the city’s most prominent white-shoe firms, with clients including Viacom/CBS. He ran for office for the first time (and lost) in 2000.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about Jeffries is that he came up through Brooklyn politics and survived six years in Albany as a state assemblyman without even the hint of a corruption scandal. “Hakeem is a throwback,” says Steve Cohen, an attorney and a New York Democratic insider who has worked with Jeffries for many years in a variety of roles, including as senior adviser to Andrew Cuomo during the former governor’s first term. “He’s interested in consensus and the public good, not in what’s best for his career, and he understands that success in the public arena depends on work in the backroom.” Cohen points to the subtle part Assemblyman Jeffries played in wrangling reluctant Democratic state legislators to vote for the 2011 legalization of same-sex marriage in New York. Jeffries has sharpened those inside-game skills in Washington: When New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand was pushing to reform military sexual assault protections, her office turned to Jeffries and his staff for crucial insight on how to best assemble support in the House. 

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