AMAC Exclusive – Shane Harris
One of the major storylines heading into the 2022 midterms is the growing number of House Democrats (at least 26 so far) who have announced they will not seek reelection this fall – no doubt reading the political tea leaves and sensing a looming Red Wave next November. But the most important retirement announcement that appears imminent has yet to drop. After 19 years as the top Democrat in the House, the widespread belief on Capitol Hill is that this year will be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s last, leading to even more swirling speculation about who will replace her. While it’s still undoubtedly an open race, Hakeem Jeffries of the Eighth Congressional District of New York, an area that encompasses large parts of Brooklyn and a section of Queens who is serving his fifth term in the United States Congress of New York, has emerged as the early odds-on favorite – potentially signaling the beginning of a new, even more, radical era for the Democratic Party.
Although he styles himself as an outsider, Hakeem Jeffries’s career prior to politics and entrance onto the political scene suggests otherwise. A graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School, Jeffries worked for several years at a top New York law firm before running unsuccessfully for a State Assembly seat in 2000. He’d win that seat two years later, then go on to win election to the U.S. House in 2012.
While Jeffries ran to the left of several challengers during his time as a state representative, by and large, he remained focused on local issues like housing availability and drug abuse before heading to Washington. But it was during his time in state government that signs first appeared that Jeffries had certain left-wing impulses that he was eager to embrace when it became politically expedient.
Once in Congress, Jeffries began a meteoric rise, which currently has him in the post of Democratic Caucus Chair, the 5th-highest ranking position among House Democrats. With Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, the caucus’s number two and three members respectively, also in their eighties, and younger Democrats clamoring for a new generation of leaders to take over, many observers expect Jeffries to leapfrog Hoyer, Clyburn, and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark to secure the top post.
It was also in the House that Jeffries began his transition from a pragmatic liberal to a full-blown progressive. As the ideological center of the caucus moved left, so too did Jeffries, embracing each new item on the radical agenda. He joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus and became one of the strongest supporters of their agenda. In 2019, Jeffries was selected as one of the House Impeachment Managers for Democrats’ first effort to remove former President Trump, aligning himself with other far-left Democrats like Adam Schiff. In his closing argument before the Senate trial, Jeffries said that acquitting Trump would be a “death blow” to the Constitution.
In the years since, Hakeem Jeffries seems to have doubled down on this newfound identity as a fire-breathing, anti-Trump radical dedicated to the tenets of progressivism. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, he said that he approaches every issue “first and foremost with an understanding that systemic racism has been in the soil of America for over 400 years.” Amid the Democratic attempt to force a federal takeover of elections and outlaw certain election integrity provisions like Voter ID, Jeffries called for the Senate to “detonate the filibuster” and repeated the false and inflammatory claim that the rule is a “Jim Crow-era relic.” He has also said that Republicans are “part of a cult” and is on record as supporting the use of stem cells from aborted babies in scientific research.
Since entering Congress, Jeffries has turned his blustery rhetoric into action and voted in lockstep with Pelosi and House Democrats on virtually all of their radical agenda items. This term, he was a strong supporter of everything from the attempted federal takeover of elections to Biden’s $3.5 trillion expansion of government welfare – earning him the goodwill of both progressive backers of the legislation and Democratic leadership.
Jeffries has remained largely mum on his potential rise to the top even as talk of it continues to grow, clearly an effort to avoid irking Pelosi and her lieutenants on their way out the door.
His ascension, however, is not assured just yet. Ironically, the one roadblock remaining might be some fellow progressives. Although Jeffries has made clear that he himself shares their views on nearly every issue, his ambition has at times placed him in competition with other Members who themselves have eyes on taking power someday. In becoming Democratic Caucus Chair, for example, Jeffries defeated Barbara Lee, the favorite candidate of many high-profile progressives. That put him at odds with then-newly elected Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who reportedly considered backing a primary challenge to Jeffries in 2020 over the tiff.
Other progressives have at times also voiced concerns that Jeffries takes too much money from Wall Street or is too close with charter school groups back in his home district. However, these concerns appear to be largely driven by a competing desire for power rather than a true disagreement over ideology. As Jeffries’s voting record and public statements show, he is no squish when it comes to supporting progressive priorities, and it is often other powerful progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal who are the ones levying the attacks.
While the opposition of some top progressives to Jeffries as leader may not be enough to sink his candidacy, it does nonetheless underscore just how far left the party has gone in recent years. The debate now is not over if Jeffries – again, a self-identified progressive – is too far left, but rather if he is far-left enough to lead the caucus. The fact that someone with as radical a record as his is even palatable to so-called “moderate” Democrats further confirms that moderation in the traditional sense of the word may no longer be a term that describes any Democrat in the House.
For a party whose lurch to the left has already endangered its majority in the House and set it on what looks like a path to defeat this November, the prospect of a Hakeem Jeffries speakership does not bode well.