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Hakeem Jeffries Elected to Lead House Democrats Into the Future

November 30, 2022 by Dan McCue
Hakeem Jeffries Elected to Lead House Democrats Into the Future
House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., arrives for leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — Sixty-one years after President John F. Kennedy famously declared during his inaugural address that “the torch has been passed” to a new generation, that process was renewed again on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, as House Democrats unanimously elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., to lead the caucus in the next Congress.

Not only does the 52-year-old Jeffries’ elevation represent a generational shift in the leadership of the party, but his election makes him the first Black American to head a major political party in Congress.

Jeffries won’t take the reins of the party until January 2023 when the 118th Congress is sworn in and Republicans take control of the House. When it does, he will officially become the Democratic minority leader.

Until then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will continue to lead the caucus through lame-duck negotiations over government spending and other legislation the party hopes to pass before the current Congress ends.

Also elected to new leadership positions on Wednesday were 59-year-old Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., who will be the Democratic whip in the next Congress, and 43-year-old Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., who will serve as caucus chairman. 

All of the leaders they are succeeding are in their early 80s. Like Pelosi, the longtime No. 2 Democrat in the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced after the November election he was stepping down from leadership but would remain in the House. 

During a pen-and-pad session with reporters on Tuesday, he sounded ebullient as he anticipated returning to the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

“Those of you who have known me for any period of time know how strongly I feel about the appropriations process,” he said. “I’m going back to what I think is the most critical committee in the Congress of the United States.”

He added that once there, “I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to engage with our Republican colleagues in a positive, constructive, bipartisan way.”

Pelosi has been more circumspect about her future. Though she has said she will continue to represent her district, she’s also indicated that her other priority will be helping her husband Paul recover from injuries he sustained during an October attack by an intruder in their San Francisco, California, home.

In a statement released after Wednesday’s vote, Pelosi congratulated Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar, saying the trio “reflects the vibrancy and diversity of our great nation” and predicted they would “reinvigorate our caucus with their new energy, ideas and perspective.”

“I am grateful to have served in the leadership of the magnificent House Democrats,” Pelosi added. “I look forward to an orderly transition as we prepare for the 118th Congress.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing to some about the Democrats’ transition in leadership is how smoothly it went.

But speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Hoyer suggested the election of the Democrats’ new leaders by acclamation should be no surprise at all.

“People have a misconception about Democrats, that we’re a party of factions. The reality is we just have a lot of screaming and gnashing of teeth before we get to unity. But we get there,” he said.

He contrasted that to the long history of divisiveness among House Republicans, which forced out past GOP Speakers Newt Gingrich, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, and which has left current House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., scrambling for the votes he needs to be the next speaker of the House.

“The Republicans have had difficulty getting to unity,” Hoyer said.

Prior to Wednesday’s vote, Jeffries said he believed he and all the new leaders were inheriting a “solemn responsibility” from those they are now replacing.

“The best thing that we can do as a result … is lean in hard and do the best damn job that we can for the people,” he said.

As Jeffries spoke with reporters, his soon-to-be counterpart on the other side of the Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., was singing the praises of the next Democratic House leader and framing the moment at hand.

“Every time the caucus comes together to choose its leaders, it’s a big deal, but today’s gathering is unlike any we have seen before,” Schumer said from the Senate floor.

“For one, it signals the end of a magnificent era as my dear friend, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has chosen to step down from leadership. We’ll never see someone like Speaker Pelosi ever again in our lifetime,” he continued. “But her potential successor will be history-making in its own right.

“Hakeem Jeffries’ elevation as House Democratic leader is a turning point in the history of the United States Congress: Never before has an African American leader — or any leader of color — held the top position for either party in either chamber,” Schumer said.

“Now, I’ve known Hakeem Jeffries for a long time. … We’ve taken similar roads in our lifetimes. We both grew up in Brooklyn, where I was the son of an exterminator, [and] he was the son of a social worker. We both went to New York City public schools and both served in the New York State Assembly before coming to Congress.

“It’s not surprising that House Democrats are turning to someone from Brooklyn to lead the way next year, because when you’re from Brooklyn, you learn quickly traits like persistence and serious mettle,” the majority leader 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.

“Hakeem Jeffries exemplifies all these traits. He is someone who I know will both hold the line on our Democratic values, while being ready to listen and keep an open mind. I know he can work with the other side whenever it’s necessary,” Schumer said.

While the top three Democrats in the next Congress faced no opposition, the number four post, assistant Democratic leader, is now a contest.

Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., announced his candidacy for the post last week and was unopposed until Wednesday morning, when Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., suddenly threw his hat into the ring.

Cicilline, who became the first openly gay leader in Congress when he led the Democrats’ messaging arm after the 2016 election, said in a letter to his colleagues Wednesday that he believed the LGBTQ community deserves a leadership spot of its own. 

He also cited the recent fatal shooting at a gay bar in Colorado as a motivating factor behind his bid. 

“A few days before Thanksgiving, our country was torn apart by yet another mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs,” he wrote. “It reminded me immediately of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 and how we came together as a caucus to demand action on gun safety legislation by organizing the first ever sit-in on the House floor.

“Later that year, I decided to run for DPCC co-chair because I wanted to help serve our caucus and represent the LGBTQ community in leadership. After the shooting in Colorado Springs, I feel the same sense of duty and responsibility to serve in House leadership again,” he said.

The election for assistant Democratic leader will take place Thursday, as Clyburn is currently in North Charleston, South Carolina, where he is speaking at the funeral of University of Virginia football player Lavel “Tyler” Davis Jr., who along with two of his teammates was murdered earlier this month by a fellow student after a class trip.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and @DanMcCue

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