As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn all step down from leading the Democratic caucus, a new trio of Democrats prepares to step up: Representatives Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, and Pete Aguilar of California.
And Jeffries is aiming for the top.
Chairman of the House Democratic caucus, Jeffries is seen by many as Pelosi’s successor. If elected by House Democrats, he would be the first Black party leader in either the House or Senate.
Jeffries, 52, was born and raised in Brooklyn, near the district he now serves. After earning graduate public policy and law degrees, he went on to work in corporate law for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a firm known for defending fossil fuel companies in at least 30 cases over the last five years.
Jeffries then worked for Viacom and CBS before getting elected to the New York State Assembly, serving from 2007 to 2012. Elected to Congress in 2013, Jeffries has, on one hand, been a prominent voice for liberal reform. As an assemblyman, Jeffries teamed up with then–state Senator Eric Adams to help pass a bill that banned police databases from storing the names of people detained but not arrested during stop-and-frisk procedures.
After an NYPD officer killed Eric Garner, Jeffries was one of the loudest voices on the Hill calling for an investigation. In 2015, Jeffries introduced a bill to make the use of a chokehold illegal under federal law. In 2018, Jeffries’s co-authored First Step Act passed, prompting the development of education, vocational, and mental health counseling programing for formerly incarcerated individuals.
On the other hand, Jeffries may give some progressives pause. In 2016, he criticized a unanimous U.N. resolution denouncing Israel’s settlement activity as a “flagrant violation” of international law. Jeffries argued that President Obama should have gone against the 14 nations who voted in favor of it and vetoed the resolution instead of abstaining.
Jeffries has also collected hundreds of thousands from industry donors embedded in investment, real estate, and lobbying. He has received the support of pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC, which has deliberately worked to tank Democratic candidates and support election denialists.
While insisting he is “progressive,” Jeffries finds a need to distinguish himself from the left. “I’m a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now,” Jeffries told The Atlantic last year. “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.”
Why he felt the need to distinguish himself from the left, and not also from other groups like corporate interests, is unclear.
Though Jeffries appears to be the party favorite, there are others vying for leadership positions—and some who may yet still announce their intentions. His win is not guaranteed, and it would be remiss to treat it as such.