By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
The new House Minority Leader, New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, has begun the battle of the 118th Congress full of fight—something the Democrats are going to need plenty of if they are to counter the Republicans’ extreme right-wing chaos merchants now holding the House hostage.
Jeffries made a strong start with the speech he gave in the wee hours of January 7, before handing the speaker’s gavel over to Kevin McCarthy. Jeffries’ brilliant and rousing speech stole any remnant of glory which McCarthy might have imagined he could salvage after it took him an entire week and a bruising 15 tries to muster the majority needed to win his post.
Jeffries held out an olive branch to any Republican members—if they were willing to work in an honestly bipartisan way. But he made it clear that Democrats “will never compromise [their] principles.” In compelling oratory, Jeffries then reeled off—from A to Z—a litany of what House Democrats stand for and what they will firmly stand against:
House Democrats will always put American values over autocracy, benevolence over bigotry, the Constitution over the cult, democracy over demagogues, economic opportunity over extremism, freedom over fascism, governing over gaslighting, hopefulness over hatred, inclusion over isolation, justice over judicial overreach, knowledge over kangaroo courts, liberty over limitation, maturity over Mar-a-Lago, normalcy over negativity, opportunity over obstruction, people over politics, quality of life issues over QAnon, reason over racism, substance over slander, triumph over tyranny, understanding over ugliness, voting rights over voter suppression, working families over the well-connected, xenial over xenophobia, ‘yes, we can’ over ‘you can do it,’ and zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation.
On January 10, the Republican-held House voted to establish a Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government and made Republican Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan its chairman. Jordan was deeply involved in former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Minority Leader Jeffries responded to that action by dubbing the committee “a Select Committee on Insurrection Protection,” and declaring in a tweet that Democrats “will fight it tooth and nail.”
The New York Times has called Hakeem Jeffries, the first Black politician to lead either party in Congress, “a disciplined tactician.” His early show of backbone is certainly very promising.
Who Is Hakeem Jeffries?
Though not quite as well known to the public as some of his colleagues, like Adam Schiff or Eric Swalwell, Speaker Jeffries has a very strong résumé.
The son of a social worker mother and a father who was a state substance abuse counselor, Jeffries was raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and attended public school.
Jeffries graduated with honors from the State University of New York at Binghamton, with a BA in political science. He went on to obtain an MA in public policy at Georgetown University, and then attended New York University School of Law, where he served on the school’s Law Review and graduated magna cum laude.
After law school, Jeffries clerked for Judge Harold Baer Jr. of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He then practiced law at a prominent international law firm, and served as counsel in the litigation department of Viacom Inc. and CBS.
Jeffries spent three terms in the New York State Assembly before running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
First elected to Congress in 2012, Jeffries has served six terms representing New York’s diverse 8th Congressional district, covering portions of southern and eastern Brooklyn.
During his tenure in the Congress, Jeffries has served as the Chair of the Democratic Caucus, and Whip of the Congressional Black Caucus, and has been a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus as well.
He was also one of the seven impeachment managers during the first Senate trial of then-president Donald Trump for corruptly pressuring Ukraine to interfere with the 2020 presidential election.
Backed by Nance Pelosi, Jeffries was elected, unopposed, to be her successor as the House Democratic leader in November 2022.
Jeffries Work in the Congress:
Jeffries was among those championing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, passed on March 2021, which banned chokeholds, knees to the neck, and other inherently deadly tactics for subduing suspects.
He backed the First Step Act, which shortens sentences by permitting convicts to earn 54 days of good time credit per year, provides funds to expand rehabilitation programs like education and vocational training, and requires the Bureau of Prisons to house incarcerated individuals within 500 driving miles of their relatives.
Jeffries supports banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
As regards his district, Jeffries introduced P.J.'s Act to increase federal funding for enhanced security in public housing developments.
He also established "Congress on Your Corner”—outdoor evening office hours held from June through August near subway stations, at which he listens to constituents' concerns directly.
In all these ways, Jeffries is a progressive. However, he has departed from some of the movement’s positions, which has resulted in commentators labeling him as more of a centrist. In particular, Jeffries did not support the New Green Deal. And his consistent support of the U.S.-Israel relationship has sometimes placed him at odds with a portion of the Progressive movement who are farther to the left.
According to The Forward, the American Jewish Congress has said that Jeffries is “one who has never hesitated to call out antisemitism and all those seeking to harm Jews.” At a rally outside the United Nations during the 2014 war in Gaza, Jeffries said: "Israel should not be made to apologize for its strength." Jeffries equated Israel’s situation with Crown Heights, where he was raised. He called Crown Heights “a tough neighborhood,” and declared that "the only thing that neighbors respect in a tough neighborhood is strength." He has also described the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as “inherently antisemetic.”
Fellow progressive New York Rep. Richie Torres told The Forward, “Pro-Israel advocacy is not for the faint hearted.” Torres added, “Hakeem is neither faint-hearted nor fair-weather.”
Despite Jeffries’ differences with some in his Progressive Caucus, he apparently has shown an ability to work with the various factions of the Democratic party. And according to Vox, as House Minority Leader, Jeffries has 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.”
In these times—with the larger question of Democracy’s survival at stake—the Democrats will especially need such solidarity. And like his eminent predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, Hakeem Jeffries appears to be the perfect person for that job.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.